Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Noah Webster's American Magazine

Which is the better story – finding an answer or the story of the search?  I have been researching the history of American copyright law.  Noah Webster, editor of the dictionary and writer of textbooks for American students to learn American English rather than British English, was a prime mover in the creation of the article in the Constitution for the obligation of the federal government to create the laws for national copyright protection.  Before the Constitution, Webster traveled to every state to convince them to write laws for copyright protection.  Every state except Delaware had a copyright law before the national laws were enacted.

 In my search for the story, I learned that Noah Webster was a prolific writer. In addition to his textbooks and dictionary[1] he wrote many short letters to the editor and replies to articles.  In 1787 he founded in New York City, the periodical, American Magazine.  The articles dealt with government, education, literary criticism, agriculture, and copyright.  In 1793 he also edited The American Minerva and The Herald[2].  Since I wanted to read what he wrote on copyright, I attempted to find copies online.  One of the biographers said that American Magazine and many other articles by Webster  are in the database, Archive of Americana, America’s Historical Newspapers, published by Readex. This database is not subscribed to by my college or the Chicago Public Library. I asked my fellow librarians if there is inter-library loan for databases.  

One librarian told me that the database is in the collection of Northwestern University, but they are not allowing visitors in to their libraries because of the COVID-19 virus.  I contacted them via their online chat to ask about guest access.  I also contacted the vendor, Readex,  about access.  Because of the licensing agreements, Northwestern was unable to help.  Readex was not much help either.  I went to their website and called the phone that said call for more information.  I was sent to customer support; they could not help.  They sent me to the automated operator, and I did not know my party’s extension. I gave up trying to access that database.

Of course, I tried my usual sources of digitized materials --- Google Scholar, Google Books, and the Internet Archive.  None had the publications online.  Outside of the reference in two books about Webster, I could not even find a library bibliographic reference to the existence of the American Magazine.  It is not in WorldCat and I do not have online access to the Union List of Periodicals.  

I found another database for early American periodicals, AAS Historical Periodicals Collection, which has access to “ the most comprehensive collection of American periodicals published between 1684 and 1912.”  This database is not subscribed to by my college or the Chicago Public Library.  However, my mother, who lives in another city, was able to get access through her public library.  I searched, but American Magazine is not in that collection.  My usual online sources, Ebsco and Pro-Quest, do not offer access to this publication. [3][4]
The illustration above from American Magazine is from an advertisement for a bound copy of issues 1-8 for sale online for $5500.  The listing claims it is in good condition.  Since it was on rag paper, not newsprint, the paper is in good condition.  I am not buying this. Thanks to the librarians who tried to help.  Online resources are great when you can use them.   Since I am not writing a comprehensive academic article and no one is paying for the research, I am giving up search. 

[1] American Dictionary of the English Language (1928)

[2]  American Minerva (later known as the Commercial Advertiser) was started in December 1793. He was the editor for four years. He also published the semi-weekly publication The Herald, later known as The New York Spectator.

[3] Here are some sample web pages that are about Noah Webster:

“Other articles in Americans prominently involved with First Amendment issues” by John R. Vile. https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1229/noah-webster

“Father of American Copyright Law”  by Elizabeth J. Normen. https://www.ctexplored.org/noah-webster-father-of-american-copyright-law/

“Early American Made Living from Copyright” by Wendi A. Maloney. https://www.copyright.gov/history/201206_Lore_Noah%20Webster.pdf

“Noah Webster House”  https://noahwebsterhouse.org

[4]  Here are sample articles: 

Donner, Irah. "The Copyright Clause of the U. S. Constitution: Why Did the Framers Include It with Unanimous Approval?" The American Journal of Legal History 36, no. 3 (1992): 361-78. 

“Copyright” Meredith L. McGill.  Chapter 3 from A History of the Book in America: Volume 2: An Extensive Republic: Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation, 1790-1840. University of North Carolina Press, 2010.