At the beginning of 2023, the Library of Virginia (LVA) celebrated its 200th birthday. Founded in 1823, what was then known as the Virginia State Library was only a decade old when Virginia politician John Randolph of Roanoke (1773-1833) died. Materials housed in LVA archives by or about Randolph are even older, while the first published biography of him in the stacks is from 1844. John Randolph of Roanoke has been a topic of research for over two centuries.
When Alan Pell Crawford published Unwise Passions: A True Story of a Remarkable Woman—and the First Great Scandal of Eighteenth-Century America in 2005, he followed in a long line of scholars whose works have touched on different aspects of John Randolph’s life – in this case, his treatment of Ann Cary Randolph Morris, nicknamed Nancy.
Archival research has changed dramatically in those 200-odd years, however. Letters written by Nancy Randolph Morris can now be viewed instantaneously via William and Mary’s digital collections and elsewhere. This was not as prevalent when Crawford was doing his research almost 20 years ago, but in the long view of historical research, Crawford was luckier than most.
He had access to previous scholarship, modern transportation to reach different repositories, telephone, and email to check ahead to see if materials were accessible, and perhaps one of the most underrated research tools: he most probably had access to a photocopier (perhaps even a scanner or digital camera!).
All historical research is built on the shoulders of those who have come before, but Crawford’s predecessors, like fellow Randolph biographer and former U.S. Senator William Cabell Bruce, had special challenges when conducting archival research with one-of-a-kind documents in the early 20th century. We are in the unique position to explore these challenges since LVA holds the Bruce-Randolph Collection (formally titled “Collection of papers relating to John Randolph of Roanoke, Nathaniel Macon, Creed Taylor, Richard N. Venable, and James M. Garnett, 1713-1924”) which consists of 500 items and 14 bound volumes Bruce collected as research for his two-volume biography.
So how did one duplicate documents without scanners, digital cameras, small portable film cameras, photocopiers, or mimeographs? Most often they were either completely re-written in longhand (or really good notes were taken), or typewritten. Bruce chose to do (or had someone else do) both.
The Bruce-Randolph Collection consists of many typewritten replicas of primary source materials that Bruce collected during his research. These were later bound by LVA, including a fully typed replication of John Randolph’s diary and a nearly 500-page volume consisting purely of the correspondence between Randolph and one other individual.
Perhaps Bruce typed some of this himself, but often he relied on someone else. At least some portion of the materials in the collection was typed by librarians and archivists. Instead of traveling all over to locate one letter of possible research value, Bruce wrote letters to institutions (including the Virginia State Library) asking if they had any relevant materials. Sometimes the archivist or librarian would respond with a list of relevant titles and citations or with information regarding possible sources.
But without modern technology, if even a small section of the collection was relevant it either had to be seen in person or the archivist would have to type up a transcription of the original to send back. There was no cut-and-paste in the digital sense and of course no cut-and-paste in the physical sense for important historical documents! However, with typed facsimiles we are relying on someone else to not make egregious mistakes. We know from almost a decade of Making History: Transcribe that even the most dedicated transcribers can make mistakes!
Outside of typed copies, if one wanted a more visually exact copy of the original, a lithograph was a possibility, though not an economically feasible one, and was still not a direct copy. The Bruce-Randolph Collection contains a few lithographs of more widely distributed documents such as Randolph’s reported last written note, which allows for a representation of his handwriting.
The truest visual copy method available to Bruce at the time was only just coming into use – the photostat. A photostat is made by laying the document onto a piece of photographic paper which is light-sensitive, creating a negative image of the document. This revolutionized the way in which people could do historical research, being able to see visual representations (in negative) of physical documents that were far away. Having such photostat replicas was the easiest way for researchers to scrutinize archival holdings in their own offices or homes.
The Bruce-Randolph Collection has a few photostats, including the lengthy letters between John Randolph and Nancy Randolph regarding her “scandalous past.”
The photostat version of Nancy’s letter is annotated with comments comparing the differences to another version of the letter. Whether those differences were intentional or not, Bruce needed definitive proof of the original text in order to compare. It is easy to see how typewritten copies could be manipulated easily, which adds an extra onus on the researcher to authenticate the reproductions if possible, or have absolute trust in the institution or person who produced the copy.
The level of work involved in accessing these records is still an issue today. In the past, providing access to a research collection like this was one way to work around such issues. Crawford’s 2005 book makes use of this very collection and cites some of the copies provided – perhaps because the originals are no longer available. So the next time you have to take a picture of a document with your phone or pay a small fee for a photocopy – remember the trials of your forefathers!
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Ely, Melvin Patrick. Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from 1790s through the Civil War. New York: A. Knopf, 2004.
Evans, Emory G. A “Topping People”: The Rise and Decline of Virginia’s Old Political Elite, 1680–1790. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.
Kierner, Cynthia A. Scandal at Bizarre: Rumor and Reputation in Jefferson’s America. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Johnson, David E. John Randolph of Roanoke. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012.
May, Gregory. A Madman’s Will: John Randolph, 400 Slaves, and the Mirage of Freedom. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2023.
Ann Cary Randolph Morris Letters, Tucker-Coleman Papers (William & Mary Libraries)
Nancy Randolph Papers (William & Mary Libraries)
Notice published by Richard Randolph, April 17, 1793, page 4 (Virginia Gazette and General Advertiser, Center for Research Libraries)
John Randolph obituary, May 30, 1833 (Phenix Gazette, Virginia Chronicle)
Randolph Will Case, July 31, 1835 (Richmond Enquirer, Virginia Chronicle)
Randolph Will Case, continued, August 5, 1836 (Richmond Enquirer, Virginia Chronicle)