The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

State Papers Online: tips and tricks, part 2

In my first post on the State Papers Online, I discussed how to search the database for a document that you already had some sort of reference to, whether that was the document/entry number, or a page number.

In this post, I will look at ways to search State Papers Online more broadly. In general, searching State Papers Online is much like searching any other database, but there are a few things to keep particularly in mind.

Please note that all of the provisos from the first post still apply. Namely:

  • This post (like the previous one) assumes a basic familiarity with the State Papers, both in terms of what they are and how they’re organized, and in terms of the online interface.
  • State Papers Online is a subscription database. That means it is only accessible through institutions that have paid for it. The Folger’s subscription only allows on-site access, at the Folger. Other institutions may allow off-site access; if you are unsure, please contact the librarians at your institution.
  • My way is not the only way! These are tips and tricks that I’ve picked up from working with the database, and in consultation with the people who create the database. They may not work in every situation, and you may find methods that works better for you. Feel free to share in the comments!

And now, on with the searches.

Metadata—why your words matter

Metadata is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, particularly in the context of digital humanities projects. The OED defines it as “data that describes and gives information about other data.” So what’s the big deal? In a database context (particularly in a database like State Papers Online), metadata is how you find what you’re looking for.

Because most of the documents in State Papers Online are images, the only computer-searchable text is the metadata—that is, the information that is added to each document image concerning the who, what, and when. Unfortunately, that means if “Star Chamber” gets typoed in the metadata of one record, that document will not come up in any of your correctly-spelled searches. This issue isn’t limited to the occasional typo either: with early modern spelling being somewhat flexible (is it Burleigh or Burley?), and some people being known by more than one name (is it Hugh O’Neill or the Earl of Tyrone?), researchers are likely to encounter this problem more often than not. So what to do?

The first, and most straight forward solution, is to perform multiple searches. While this can be time consuming, it is really the only sure-fire way to get the most out of your research. I often suggest to people that before they even go into a database, they should make a list of terms that they want to search for—brainstorming (and writing down!) all of the possible variants of a name or title, and all associated names and terms will give you a nice checklist to work through when you’re searching.

You can also use a number of operators in searches in State Papers Online to aid you in looking for variations on a word or name. These operators—special characters that tell the database engine to do specific things—are common across all Gale databases, so you might already be familiar with them in another context.

Gale has three wildcard operators: 1

  • An asterisk (*) stands for any number of characters, including none, at the end of a word. So a search for pigment* matches pigment, pigments, pigmentation, etc. Do note that you must enter at least three (3) non-wildcard characters. So a search on r* is not allowed; rather you need to enter, for example, rem*.
  • A question mark (?) stands for exactly one character and is especially useful when there might be variant spellings. For example, defen?e finds both defense and defence. Multiple question marks in a row stand for the same number of characters as there are question marks. For example, psych????y matches psychology and psychiatry but not psychotherapy.
  • An exclamation point (!) stands for one or no characters and is especially useful when you want to match the singular and plural of a word but not other forms. For example, product! matches product and products but not productive or productivity. The exclamation point can also be used inside a word to match certain variant spellings. For example, colo!r matches both color and colour.

A strategic use of these wildcard operators can help sort out otherwise frustrating variations in your search.

Searching within a volume—when you know when but not necessarily where

One of the more common things that happens when someone goes to search in the State Papers Online is that they discover that they have an incomplete citation. They may know that a document they want is within the domestic papers of James I, and perhaps even have a volume number, but have neither a document number nor a folio number to aid in jumping directly to the manuscript.

Fortunately, this is one of the places where State Papers Online works quite well.

On the Advanced Search page, below the section where you can type in search terms, you will see a number of options, including narrow by date, select Calendar volume, and select Manuscript volume.

Additional options on the Advanced Search page.
Additional options on the Advanced Search page.

Click on “select Manuscript volume,” and scroll through the list of volumes in the window that pops up. Choose one (or more) volume that you want, check it off, and click the submit button at the bottom of that window. This will close that window, and you will see that it now says “1 volume selected” (or more, if you chose more than one volume).

Selecting a specific Manuscript Volume.
Selecting a specific Manuscript Volume.

At this point (and here is the benefit of this method) you can do what’s called an “empty search” and simply click the search button without needing to enter any search terms. If you do so, your search will return the entries for each document in that volume, giving you a very easy way to scroll through a particular volume and select the document(s) you are interested in. 2

Results from the "empty search" - much more helpful than the name might imply!
Results from the “empty search” – much more helpful than the name might imply!

Of course, this method isn’t perfect: the documents appear roughly in order in the results list, but not exactly, so you need to make sure to look through everything before you decide a document isn’t there.

Entry number 30, nestled comfortably between entry 20 and entry 28.
Entry number 30, nestled comfortably between entry 20 and entry 28.

Printing and Saving—you mean you want to keep this for later?

Of course, once you have found the document you want to work with (by whatever method worked), you have to figure out what to do with it.

Downloading or printing document images from State Papers Online can be done from the built-in menu that is located either in the left-hand column of the page, or above the document image (depending on which view you have on the screen).

Print/Download menu to the left of the document
Print/Download menu to the left of the document
Print/Download menu above the document.
Print/Download menu above the document.

Downloading, printing, and emailing documents from State Papers Online are all done using the PDF format, which means you sometimes have to make choices about whether to display the image quite small all on one page, or to split it up between multiple pages, but larger. You will probably want to try a few different ways to figure out what works best in a given situation.

The State Papers Online can be an incredibly valuable resource, but unfortunately, technological frustrations can hamper research attempts. It is my hope that these two posts will give researchers new avenues to explore and new access points to use for engaging the resources within.

  1. Explanations and examples have been liberally cribbed from the help pages on the State Papers Online.
  2. While you can also achieve this using the browsing method described in my last post, scrolling through the documents image by image can be very time consuming, and lacks any metadata to orient you.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)