Tuesday, July 8, 2008

African American Biographical Database

This week we are looking at a database rather than a reference book. African American Biographical Database is up for renewal at $1120 for a year. It's main purpose is to provide biographical information on lesser known African Americans from lesser known sources. There is little comparison or overlap with African American History Online section of Facts on File, which has far fewer entries from much more widely available sources (but which is much easier to use).
The database can be searched for profiles of specific persons (a nice feature here is to use the occupation limiter to generate a list of, say, all African American artists or athletes). The full text of each (or all) publications can be searched as well. It can be tricky, and it is best to do a broader search (for example, using only last name) when there are no results for a particular search.
So far in 2008 (Jan-June) it has been accessed 32 times or an average of 5.3 times per month. That means each search costs $35.
That is low for our databases. For example, in the same time period JSTOR was accessed an average of 177 times per month and Academic Search Premier 111. However, looking at it from another angle, if a reference book was used 32 times in six months, we would probably consider it heavily used. Hmmm... Check it out and let me know what you think.


PrincetonUSCT said...

I won't go to the wire on this one. I asked for it, and I use it fairly often. It runs the gamut from very famous to less known folks. It contains full text of some nifty works. On the other hand, as I look at the sources now I suspect many are available in Google Books. The database is also available at Firestone, so librarians can still access it.

You might do a search by city to see Princetonians in the database (most ARE less known, and some well-known Princetonians like Mahlon Van Horne aren't labelled as such), or take a look at the sources.


mlh said...

I vote to keep it. We need this kind of access to keep our collection and services balanced. mlh

Catherine Harper said...

I like the fact that this exhaustive database expands our access to African American biographies beyond well-known historical figures, and the access by profession is a useful feature. I’d vote to keep it. However, there’s another database that we probably want to take a look at, and possibly subscribe to, either instead of or in addition to AABD and/or African American History Online. As it happens, I just got an ad for the print version of Oxford University Press's African American National Biography ($845.). It's also available online as a part of Oxford African American Studies Center (http://www.oxfordaasc.com/public/). Just judging from the web site, the Oxford database looks like a definite contender.

Cynthia said...

Hmmm, this is a hard one. I like this database, but to be honest, I didn't realize we had it.

I think it is the kind of thing we 'should' have, but $35/search is a really big number. It surprises me, because you would think it would be a dream for students....

Perhaps we could delay the decision and try to do a little marketing of the database? Ok, I know, it is summer and there isn't a student who would be interested--I just hate to say get rid of it....

Jane said...

In response to CH's suggestion, I ordered a one month trial to the online African American Studies Center, which is competitively priced at $995. However, after a brief overview, I don’t think it’s a substitute for African American Biographical Database because it doesn’t seem to include all the lesser known publications which include the lesser known people. It seems more like the Facts on File African American History Online.

Jane said...

I spent some time this morning looking at all three databases, and I agree with you that AASC is more like Facts on File than AABD. Also that AASC doesn't give the broad coverage that we value in AABD. Based on my admittedly very cursory look, I think it does win out over Facts on File though. It has more biographies (4680 compared to 256), images (2349 to 513), and primary sources (302 to 112). The search and browse features in AASC are also better. It's easier to find the bio of a famous person because AASC has an alphabetical browse list of all names, whereas FonF forces you to select the category you think the person belongs in. The advanced search in AASC allows you to limit by historical period, as opposed to birth and death date, which I find less useful. It also allows you to search by country of origin. AASC also offers more topical timelines, and the timelines include events relevant to the African heritage of African-Americans as well as events in countries other than the U.S. that are nonetheless relevant to African-Americans FonF's timelines begin with 1492.

Jane said...

The previous comment was from CH. In answer to her question about the price of the Facts on File African American History Online--the cost is not a factor, since this is part of the whole Facts on File database which has other components, and cannot be separated out.

Janie L. Hermann said...

I have to agree with Cynthia word for word on this one. I am hesitant to get rid of it as I think its lack of use may be due to lack of PR. We should do a databytes on this topic, send a flyer to the middle and high school history teachers, offer to do in-service training for teachers, etc. and then evaluate the statistics. It is a unique source that gives us a balanced collection.

Kristin said...

I think that if we can, we should keep it. Even though there is a big price tag for it, it does execute its purpose well,"to provide biographical information on lesser known African Americans from lesser known sources." As noted, there does not seem to much, if any overlap with other resources we have...if it does come to the point where its price tag does impinge on another resource which we think would get more play, then I'd have to reconsider. But, for now, I vote to keep it.

Jane said...

BJS says: I don't think the Oxford is the answer, but am unsure whether the African American Biographical Database should be kept. Both this and the Oxford are available at the University, however we would have to go over there to use it.

Jane said...

TN says: I did my usual evaluation search: princeton.

The most unpleasant surprise was that I was not able to see past #135 of the 221 results returned by that search.
· I tried, using the default of 20 results per page and then by re-setting it to 40 and 60. Tried various ways of navigating (e.g., jumping to page n of results). Nothing worked. If this is the case on a summer Saturday, what happens during the academic year?

· Another not-great find is that changing the default only works for a single search. It returns to 20 on subsequent searches.

· On Sunday I was able to view the last page of a search with 303 results, but one with 50 results would display only the first 22. Go figure!

· On Sunday I re-tried the princeton search and its 221 results. Still unable to get past #135. Yet another anomaly: when I tried to look at the single result on the Images and Multimedia tab, I got a message (No results matching your search request were found) and the note that there were 220 results.

Because of the inability to see the last 80-some results, I did some subsidiary searching; but I’m not really able to make a true judgment in the context of the entire list of 221 results. I had expected to get lots of academics, which turned out to be the case; but there were significant additional results for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the time period I'm capable of evaluating:

· Two of the three African Americans I’ve identified as being combatants in the Battle of Princeton have biographies.

· There are biographies of several of the nineteenth-century local ministers, both Presbyterian and AME.

· Two women physicians with Princeton associations – Dr. Halle Tanner Johnson, wife of the Rev. J.Q. Johnson of Mt. Pisgah; and Dr. C.V. Anderson, the wife of Matthew Anderson, PTS graduate – have biographies.

· The Betsey Stockton biography is not the run-of-the-mill piece that you usually get. Nicely done!

· I grimaced a bit when Theodore Sedgwick Wright, the first black graduate of PTS, was said to have been "well-treated there." The article, however, later told of the incident in which he was kicked and called "nigger" when he attended an alumni event.

· The article on Matthew Anderson also correctly noted that he was the first African American to live on the PTS campus – in 1874, a half century after Wright’s admission. It did not note that he could not eat at the Seminary refectory and had to take his meals at Mrs. Anthony Simmons’s boarding house (where the food was much better).

· African American Seminary students are generally well covered except for D.W. Culp, an odd omission. He’s in AABD.

· Needham Roberts, the WWI hero, is usually associated with Trenton. He did, though, have a Princeton connection and his biography came up in the results.

· News to me: the Cotton Pickers, with Prince Robinson, played at the clubs for house-party weekend, 1929. But no biography of Donald Lambert (nor in AABD)!

I was surprised at some of the omissions:

· The article "Burr, Aaron, and African Americans" fails to mention his natural son, John P. (sometimes Jean-Pierre) Burr, a black activist and abolitionist in nineteenth-century Philadelphia. Some scholars say he "claimed to be" Aaron Burr’s son, but few neglect to mention him. It’s hard, though, to argue with a scholar like Graham Hodges, who wrote the piece.

· The article "Madison, James, and African Americans" does not mention the likelihood that his only descendants are African American. Last summer’s reunion at Montpelier, with keynote speaker John Hope Franklin, was well publicized:

· I thought the statement in Gertrude Mossell’s biography that she and her husband married "probably sometime around 1880" was sloppy, so I checked Dr. Nathan Mossell’s biography. There the author said they married the year before Dr. Mossell graduated from medical school in 1882. In fact, they were married by the Rev. William D. Robeson here in Princeton, 12 Jul 1880.

· It seems odd to me that Fremont’s Emancipation Order would be included in Primary Sources, but not Major-General David Hunter’s 9 May 1862 General Order freeing the slaves in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina (overturned by presidental proclamation).

· Not all Congressional Medal of Honor recipients have biographies, nor do I find a list (although I might well have missed it; lots of results).

· There are 1-2 biographies for several of Cyrus Bustill’s better-known descendants, but none of the man himself (nor in AABD). He deserves one.

· There are 2 biographies of Robert Voorhis, purportedly born in Princeton. Only 1 of them shows an acquaintance with Joe Felcone’s work on Life and Adventures of Robert the Hermit.... Two very different sets of "facts" in a single database.

The University includes the database in the Core Resources section of African American Studies. The first sentence of the annotation: "Provides online access to the finest reference resources in African American studies."

Jane said...

Decision time. I am going to keep it. I agree that it does balance our database collection with informtion that is not available anywhere else. I also don't think the Oxford product is an alternative, but I was glad I got the trial (Terri-thanks heaps for all the testing you did!).

The suggestion to promote it more is a good one. I am doing a databytes in November on historical info available in our databases, and will definitely promote it then. I will also email Arlene Sindig, librarian at the high school to promote, however the fact that it is not available off site is limiting.

Thanks for all of your input.

Jane said...

DK says about African American Studies Center Trial:

I can't provide the sort of authoritative content review that Terri can, but I can state that I like the structure and functionality of this database very much.

I like, for instance, how the search results are placed into discrete tabbed categories (All / Biographies / Subject Entries / Primary Sources / Images & Multimedia / Maps / Charts & Tables).

The statistics provided in the Charts & Tables section, the multimedia content (especially the videos), the "Look It Up" feature, and the customizable timetables are also nifty.

More generally, navigation of the database is a breeze, and all of the search forms are beautifully organized - - they present a lot of options without becoming overwhelming.

For what it's worth, I also found the written content to be quite good, too.