Dana’s Still Open for Business: Reflections on the Digital Afterlives of Dana’s Geographical Sketches of the Western Country

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Geographical Sketches of the Western Country by Edmund P. Dana is a book that has no business being on the internet.  It’s the two hundred year old product of a land proprietor and whig advocate (for more on this: Origins)一someone selling land that’s been settled for two hundred years, commenting on politics that have had their day.  There’s an irony in the fact that one could order a copy of Dana’s work off Amazon and ship it in two days to any of the places which he describes in his work. The mission of sketching the western countries been done.  It’s sketched, scored, settled, and tamed. But yet, Dana’s work persists and exists online. It’s digital facsimiles have their origins in Pennsylvania, Canada, and Australia, and can be found anywhere in the world through the internet. Geographical Sketches has gone far beyond the Western Country, showing that it still has something to tell the modern reader about the American West and its place in the national psyche, long after it’s been settled.  In new forms, the reader finds new meanings about what the world looked like to those who sought to head West, and what the consequences of those thoughts were in the formation of modernity and modern thought.

The basis of this claim is in the form of Dana’s work.  In answering the question, how is my experience handling and holding the copy of Dana’s work in the confines special collections room at Colby College in Waterville, ME different than flipping through it with a mouse and keypad on the Internet Archive?  There is two facsimiles of Dana’s work that have been digitized and are available to any user of the internet without a paywall through the Internet Archive at www.archive.org.  They’ve been viewed a collective 1,039 times, of which I am accountable for a handful of at this point in my research into Dana’s work.  This 1,039 views are not shared equally, which indicates that other readers discovered what I did comparing the copies一not all digitizations are made equally.  One facsimile, a digitized copy from the University of Pittsburgh bears striking resemblance to the book which I’ve studied at Colby College, the other, digitized by the University of Alberta in Canada, is discolored, chopped, and hard to read.  

It’s this copy that I first encountered in my search for facsimiles of Dana’s work, and it’s this copy that is most insightful into understanding how facsimiles differ from their original physical forms.  Sitting in special collections with Colby’s copy carefully laid on the table in front of me, hand sanitizer at hand as to not disturb the paper, I was struck my the discord of care that was taken with the two different copies.  This digitized copy had eschewed the brown, stained cover of my Colby copy, and in its place was three pages of digitization test pattern. This paratextual evidence gives insights into the Alberta copy for the user, identifying the digitizing technique as microfiche/microfilm, and even expresses some bibliographic interest in the work itself, such as the fact that the copy contains “damaged/discolored pages.”


The “test pattern” page

The copyright date printed in big type, 1981, when cross-referenced with some of the other works in the archive that are in the Alberta collection, reveals that this copy of Dana’s work was put on microfilm before being digitized on the date given in the metadata, 2009. Dana’s work has at least managed to stay on the frontier of media technology over its two hundred existence then, showing that there has been enough sustained interest in its commenting on the American West of the early 19th century to warrant its preservation and subsequent digitization on microfiche/microfilm.

The Added Page

The digitized microfilm copy is a very different form than the physical codex I’m familiar with at Colby though.  First, there is the inclusion of a page before the publisher’s page not found in the codex I’ve worked with. It bears the seal of the Ohio Historical Society and bears the date December 27th, 1875.  This could be a bookplate or signs of provenance for the copy of the book, but the form of the microfiche makes it difficult to distinguish. Also on this page is a label which misidentifies Geographical Sketches with another book published by Dana 1821, A Description of the Bounty Lands of Illinois.  The most interesting feature is the price tag to this book, $25.00.  This nominal value is interesting in that it is by no means a small price for a book, but like any nominal value it is less impactful in understanding the work of Dana, its audience and use, without context for its real value in terms of present-day dollars.  My search to try and determine this real value, by determining when that value of $25.00 was set, reveals one of the downfalls of this digitized copy. Without being able to tell the color of the various printing on the page, the way in which things are composed on the page was this taped on, it is difficult to say for sure when and by who or what the printed price was set. (see footnote 1)

The most drastic difference in the Alberta copy however, is that as a result of this page, the digitized format shifts each page, so that if you opened the book so that two pages are showing, the page on the left side of the binding is shifted to the right side of the binding, and the page on the right side of the binding is shifted to the verso side of its original leaf. (see images below).   As a result, the bibliographic conclusions about the construction of the book that are reached by examining it in it’s physical form. For instance, while it is still possible to discern the format of the book being an octavo (8vo) by page marks, it is impossible to tell the implications that this has on the size and structure of the book, and conclusions on why a book printed for land propriety in Cincinnati would take this structure一the economy provided by this format and the portable nature of a smaller bookーare lost.  The digitized version of Geographical Sketches lessens the users understanding of the sociology of the text of which D.F. McKenzie conceived and defended.

However, the Alberta copy also adds to the social life of Geographical Sketches.  The forgone bibliographic details, which reveal the books life and position in the early 19th century America are, yes, important, but to the modern user of the digitized work, the emphasis is not on the physical practicality of the text.  It is not read like the young men who bought the Colby copy for their literary society in the 19th century read it, as a piece of valuable information about a world unseeable from Waterville, ME. That escapes the meanings I, and modern readers, derive from it.  We have the benefit of seeing the whole world, the whole picture, rather than a sketch. The digitized format, even in it’s shifted bibliographic frame, provides access to an understanding of the forces that undergirded the American expansion into the West, and for someone like me, from what Dana sketched as “The Northwest Territory”, it provides explanation for how it became me, and my great x 7-grandfather’s home.

Edmund P. Dana is no longer helping emigrants and settlers to the Western Country.  Instead, he’s found a new venture in helping us understand that Western Country. Perhaps then, Geographical Sketches is no different than any other modern-day business, going online for its boom.  

In the Alberta copy, the same page is depicted as right of the binding
This page in the Colby copy is seen on the left side of the binding


  1. Out of my own interest, I attempted to circumnavigate this inconvenience by looking at what a physical copy of Dana’s work sold for online.  The only lot at a book auction I could find of Geographical Sketches was sold for $420 by PBA Galleries in 2008.  Assuming no difference in the digitized copy in the Alberta library and the PBA copy (which is a big assumption given that the title is misidentified in the Alberta library, but hey, this is an economic analysis and economists love assumptions) the price quoted $25 would roughly equal $420 in the year 1917.  This is unfortunately, an inconclusive result when considering other evidence of provenance and that there is no consumer price index available before 1913, making it impossible to track down any years between 1819 when the book was published and then.


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