The Digital Paxton site serves a dual purpose. Not only is it an archival repository for a series of related materials from the Paxton Pamphlet Wars located across various archives, it also provides contextual commentary on these documents. As described in the site’s introduction, it is in some sense a more comprehensive and widely accessible “update” to a 1957 critical edition of the Paxton Pamphlets by historian John Raine Dunbar. The website consolidates a vast array of scattered documents with current scholarship about them, a measure which better highlights the lively exchange these pamphleteers produced. The project’s creator, Will Fenton, attests that the impetus for the project stemmed from his own difficulty accessing the diffuse materials and piecing together their contents for his dissertation. Fenton, a graduate student in English at Fordham University, has worked with the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to produce this site, which incorporates contributions from several other archives, as well as the scholarship of English and history specialists. Fenton even invites interested users to submit scholarship and transcriptions, with their work credited on the site. Through these partnerships Fenton has been able to provide free access to otherwise expensive or difficult-to-obtain resources.
Although the Digital Paxton site is currently live and in use, it is set to officially launch in April with an exhibition at the Library Company of Philadelphia and a seminar. This launch date, however, does not mark the end of the project. As an evolving digital repository, it has no designated end point; it will continue to update as new resources and materials become available. At some point, Fenton has acknowledged that he will need to hand over leadership of the project. It will be interesting to see what sustainability plans are in store for when the project passes into new hands.
Scholars have already begun to turn to Digital Paxton as a resource. They have shared Digital Paxton on social media, used it in their classrooms, and have contributed research and funds to the project. Additionally, the entry for Michael Goode in The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia links to the project.
The design of this compendium currently best serves researchers who wish to delve more deeply into the primary sources of the Paxton conflict. However, it also aims to act as an educational resource, primarily for high school and college-level instructors to use to teach about the Paxton wars and the onset of the American Revolution in their classrooms. Education specialists at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania have created a multi-part high school lesson plan on Native American-European Contact in the Colonial Period. The “pedagogy” portion of the site is still undergoing development and will better meet its educational goals as more lesson plans, selected readings, and guides to teachers and students on how to use and understand the material become available. At this point, a new user might not know where to start or which pamphlets or manuscripts may be the most key or representative to use with their students. However, Fenton envisions “dozens” more lesson plans and educational resources on the site in the future. The site uses Scalar as a platform, which is valuable for both of these purposes. Developed by the University of Southern California’s Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, Scalar invites users to create a free account that allows them to highlight or annotate portions of the text, thus enabling researchers and students to store their observations with the source material.
For those entering the Paxton site without much context for the pamphlets and their history, the site features not only historical overviews, but also contextual tags, such as “Christian Indians” and “Edward Shippen,” as well as conceptual keyword essays, including the words “Anonymity” and “Condolence.” Leading scholars of the Paxton incident and the era are continuing to contribute contextual material. Moreover, beneath each document image are several tabs labeled “descriptions,” “annotations,” “details,” “citations,” and “source,” each of which provide additional information about the text, including transcriptions and metadata. The “citation’s” tab is particularly innovative in that it marks where in the site a particular document is cited, such as when a scholarly article references it. By clicking the citation, a user may read the article that references it.
No project of this scale comes without its challenges, and transparency about these obstacles among digital humanities practitioners enables peer developers to anticipate such hurdles for projects on which they are about to embark. Fenton shared with me that one of the project’s greatest undertakings was a process of standardization. Because the documents hosted on the site came from several different archives, each institution had a different method of recording metadata, all of which had to be made uniform. Similarly, the project had to establish requirements for the digitization of each document. The archives and project team signed on to a memorandum of understanding to ensure that images were scanned at an appropriate quality, such as having images with a dpi high enough for researchers to zoom in and be able to analyze a document clearly. Fenton has further expressed that he has been satisfied with using the Scalar platform, as its developers have been quick to respond to technical issues.
The site has a sleek design, but user interaction with the navigation and resources can be challenging. The site navigation appears to aim to direct users to maneuver through the site as if it were a book. Thus, brief menus and buttons at the bottom of each page take the user linearly to the next content area, while a dropdown menu accessible on the top right-hand corner of the screen allows for a user to jump back and forth, as a reader would, for instance, between index and chapter. On the welcome screen, a button labeled “Begin with ‘Introduction,’” draws the user’s attention. This choice was likely strategic; in this way, the user browses the introduction and gains a sense of the site’s purpose and how to use it before he or she delves into the resources it contains. This layout works well for the site’s purpose as a critical edition, but not for its function as an archive. For a scholar already familiar with the history of the Paxton conflict or the project’s scope and goals, who is eager to delve straight into the sources, this layout is not conducive to his or her goals. Rather, the user must locate the contents of the site by clicking a hamburger button in the top right corner of the screen that opens a vertical dropdown navigation bar, from which the user may choose how she or he would like to proceed. Arrows next to each navigation item open sub-navigation bars, which display links to content within a section. For instance, the “archive” content area, when expanded, lists nine groupings of material, including pamphlets, political cartoons, and German language materials. The number of layers users need to click through to reach this information inhibits its visibility. It would be advantageous to better foreground the site’s most important materials, especially the archival content.
In addition to the dropdown navigation, a search function makes it easier to browse for specific documents. At this point, however, the search option is limited in scope, as developers continue to incorporate relevant keywords and transcribe images of texts currently not searchable. The index, which filters the site by paths, pages, media, tags, annotations, and comments, may be a better place to start.
The site does explain the choice of navigation style and a rationale for its use, but this information is located near the end of the site’s introduction. Fenton explains that through the Scalar platform, Digital Paxton “supports multiple narratives (Paths) using archival contents”:
You may navigate the Paxton archive by several avenues. First, I recommend you follow this path (the sequence of items listed below Contents), which will direct you to the aforementioned essays by Kevin Kenny and Jack Brubaker. After that, this path will direct you to the Archive of pamphlets, which itself includes numerous ways to explore the Paxton corpus. If you continue on this path, you will also discover contextual keyword essays (Keywords), supplementary teaching materials (Pedagogy), and additional information about the project (Creators).
Alternatively, you can navigate Digital Paxton using the Table of Contents, accessible when you hover over the menu icon in the upper left corner of any screen. Below the Table of Contents, you can access the Index, which allows you to filter items by type. Filtering for Paths will allow you to browse all sequences of content, such as pamphlets or collections of pamphlets. Filtering for Media will enable you to browse all individual pages of archival items.
Fenton explains that while he currently uses the paths to “create sequences of content,” he plans to create paths that follow chronology, ideology, and intertextuality. These choices will be an excellent improvement to the site, allowing users to shape the way they navigate through the documents and critical essays according to the nature of their interest in the sources.
In sum, while the linear book-like navigation has its merits, it can be an obstacle to users. Additionally, a few other navigation concerns inhibit movement within the site. For instance, when one clicks on the “Citations” tab beneath a document, but then wishes to page back to the previous page, one is instead taken two pages back, having to click through the links again to find where one left off. This makes navigating through materials pertaining to a specific resource more difficult. Additionally, some of the links within the body of the introduction have interesting potential, but need work. Some open within the same window, and others open in a new window. Some consistency would be valuable here. Other links, when clicked, highlight an image featured next to the text, but offer little context. Fenton has expressed that updating the user interface is one of his future goals.
As the Digital Paxton project is still under development, it promises several valuable features in the future. Its members aim to continue uploading relevant material from more archives. Students at Shepherd University and Loyola University Chicago are currently transcribing the handwritten pages of the “Friendly Association” papers, to make them more searchable and readable to researchers. Other new transcriptions are uploaded on a weekly basis. Several more essays are ready for publication on the site, and more scholarship and pedagogical material are in the works. Digital Paxton uses Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to publicize these new transcriptions, as well as contributor essays and other new features to the site as they are added. Fenton has a social media plan in which he posts thematically each weekday, posting new material on Mondays, new full-text annotations on #TranscriptionTuesday, and #FridayFindings quotes from the site’s documents or critical essays. Additionally, Fenton has promoted the project through a series of regional talks, including with the Pennsylvania Teacher Advisory Board and at NYC DH Week, through which Digital Paxton won an award. Promotion efforts will grow as the April official launch approaches. Recently, philly.com featured Digital Paxton in an article that related political pamphlets to the media current politicians utilize. Common-place, a journal on early American life, will also feature Digital Paxton in an essay by Fenton this summer.
Relatively minor design flaws aside, the Digital Paxton project is a valuable resource. The compendium will, pun intended, be revolutionary in the ways in which it will open new frontiers of research among Paxton scholars, and bring more attention to this history for teachers and students. Its works-in-progress are especially invigorating, as a complete set of transcriptions will open new avenues of textual analysis and better enable scholars to trace the paths of these exchanges.
Special thanks to project manager Will Fenton for sharing more details about Digital Paxton’s efforts.