Reviewed August 2019
Colleen Farry, Assistant Professor, Digital Services Librarian
The University of Scranton
Digital Paxton is a digital collection, critical edition, and teaching platform that presents resources related to the Paxton Pamphlet War of 1764 from twenty different research libraries, archives, and cultural institutions. The project was developed through a partnership between the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Through the Digital Paxton platform, all surviving pamphlets, broadsides, political cartoons, and correspondence related to Pennsylvania’s first major pamphlet war appear for the first time in one open-source repository.
Digital Paxton documents an episode in colonial Pennsylvania that reveals contemporary attitudes towards colonization and print culture on the eve of the American Revolution. The project is composed of a digital collection with over 1,600 resources, historical overviews and conceptual keyword essays by historians and literary scholars, and secondary and post-secondary teaching materials. Digital Paxton also includes a crowdsourced transcription platform using the open-source tool FromThePage. Users can sign up for a free account with FromThePage or contribute up to three transcriptions as a guest user.
Digital Paxton is built on the free, open-source publishing platform Scalar, a project of the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture. Conceived as a scholarly publishing platform to combine the elements of an e-Book with the media of a website, Scalar provides Digital Paxton with a structured, easily-navigable user interface that views seamlessly in responsive versions on tablets and mobile devices. Users can navigate the platform linearly or select from a variety of paths to discover resources dynamically.
The volume of archival content and the richness of the critical layer of the platform make this a valuable resource for students and scholars of colonial Pennsylvania. For educators, the platform’s teaching materials are freely downloadable and high-resolution images are available for non-commercial use under Creative Commons, Attribution-Non-Commercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).
Though not eclipsing the project’s overall richness, there are aspects of the platform’s functionality that may frustrate some users. Transcriptions, for example, appear within an overlay box that hovers above the original resource. However, lengthier transcriptions extend beyond the frame of the box, thereby making them unreadable. Users may also notice that, when viewing manuscripts and books with small text, they’re initially unable to zoom. This can be resolved by selecting the media file and clicking on the “source file” view, which allows zooming, though this multi-step process for numerous pages of a book might become tedious.
An important distinction is that Digital Paxton presents a robust digital collection, but it does not have the search and discovery functionality of a digital library. Users are not able to refine keyword searches or facet search results. A local keyword search can be performed on the digital collection’s index page, or a keyword search across all resources can be executed through a global search box. Though better discovery functionality would be useful, the search limitations do not hinder users from enjoying the greater benefits of the platform.
The previous online availability of Paxton pamphlets was scattered and, in some cases, behind costly paywalls. Moreover, viewed as discrete records from various institutions, the heated debate between pamphleteers was largely lost. One of Digital Paxton’s strengths is providing greater accessibility to primary source materials related to the pamphlet war on one platform, along with an interpretive, critical layer. This brings new focus to the circumstances of the Paxton massacre and the character of colonial Pennsylvania. As an ongoing, open-ended project, the Digital Paxton team is also active on social media, announcing completed transcriptions and new critical writings via the project’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.