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The Digital Alcohol Studies Archives: From Researcher to Editor

[The following text is an edited version of a presentation “A Treasure Trove of Alcohol Science: The Digital Alcohol Studies Archives at Rutgers” hosted by the Scholarly and Professional Activity Committee of Rutgers University Libraries on December 1, 2021. See more.]

I am a PhD candidate in the English department here at Rutgers. That means that in addition to working on making this collection accessible and discoverable for researchers, I’m also a researcher who has used this collection myself. So today I want to start by talking about my own story, because I think it illustrates two things: both the opportunities that lie in this collection, and how vital it is that those collections are digitized so that others like me can find and use them.

Briefly, my main research topic is about drinking and fictional character in eighteenth-century Britain. My dissertation argues that in the absence of a medical theory of addiction (like we have today), eighteenth-century British writers understood problem drinking as a matter of character––that’s not to say a moral matter of right and wrong, though that framework was certainly present, but rather as a characteristic behavior, a trait that defined a certain kind of person. So they focused less on whether drinking was a voluntary choice or compelled by the drinker’s brain chemistry, as we might today, and more on whether a drunk person was out of character because they were intoxicated or in keeping with their character because they were the kind of person who frequently gets drunk. To take the most extreme example, you get the personification of Gin as Mother Gin or Madame Geneva.

This understanding of binge drinking as the kind of thing you do because that’s the kind of person (or character) you are––Mother Gin isn’t really drinking either freely or compulsively, she’s drinking because it’s in her nature––allowed them to avoid the issue of the substance user’s agency, which is so central and so problematic for the way that we think about addiction today. If you want to know more about eighteenth-century representations of habitual drinking and drunkenness, I’m happy to talk your ear off, but this is just to give you some background for the kinds of projects that this collection can enable, including in disciplines as unlikely as literary studies.

ALC comes just before ALE. So the first time I ordered an EZBorrow book in my first year of graduate school at Rutgers, in fall 2014, as I chose my pickup location I noticed an Alcohol Library, just above Alexander Library in the drop-down menu. At this point I was just starting coursework and years away from writing my dissertation, but I knew about as much as an incoming PhD student in the humanities can be expected to know: I knew my period specialty would be eighteenth-century Britain, and I was pretty sure that my dissertation topic would have something to do with addictive substances. I showed up at the Alcohol Studies Library, met Judit there (and our former coworker Bill Bejarano), and started coming back regularly once a week to read in the collection. I was mostly interested in the oldest archival materials in the collection, which stretch back to the beginnings of the temperance movement in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century America and Britain. I soon found that the founders of the Center had been, too; in its first decade in print the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs ran a series called “Classics of the Alcohol Literature.”

Because my project is about the way people thought about problem drinking before the medical model, or what’s called the “disease concept of alcoholism,” I had to know more about the researchers who named and popularized the disease concept in the first place––and those were the same people who founded the Center, including E.M. Jellinek.

In addition to working at the library, I soon started working part-time for the library. I helped Judit and Bill prepare a comprehensive bibliography of Jellinek and an essay on his career, drawing on resources in the Archive from the Center’s earliest days. I then became the principal investigator for a similar project on the Center’s first director, Howard Haggard.

As I prepared a bibliography of his long and varied career, I noticed how rare some materials were: often we had one of the few copies of a published work, let alone the internal Center records which were unique and available nowhere else. Both of these studies were published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs––the one on Haggard was my first peer-reviewed publication as primary author, a really important milestone for a young researcher that was all made possible by the unique and field-defining resources in this collection as well as the mentorship I found there. I’m now an assistant field editor for the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs specializing in history, which I couldn’t have imagined when I first walked into that library in 2014.

All that because ALC was right next to ALE in the drop-down menu! But of course, the next junior scholar is not going to stumble on the alcohol archives in the same way––the physical location simply no longer exists to be found. Those archival materials are now in the Annex. Nobody can wander the stacks at the Annex and see what they find; the inconvenience and lack of fanfare makes them functionally invisible to all but the most determined and savvy researchers, the ones who already know exactly what they’re looking for and how to find it. If I were a first-year graduate student interested in the history of alcohol and addiction science today, I wouldn’t even know Rutgers had these collections. Unique collections, related to a field of urgent importance, that highlight Rutgers’ own role in shaping that field––sitting out of sight and effectively out of mind!

That is why we’re digitizing these archives: to make them discoverable and easily navigable for future researchers, especially those who aren’t already intimately familiar with the field of addiction history (as even most addiction researchers today aren’t). First, OCRing the print records will make them text-searchable for future researchers; I can tell you what a difference it makes to have a good OCR, having spent lots of time toiling in databases with poor OCR (especially of eighteenth-century print, with features like the long S) or none at all. Good OCR helps you find what you need faster, and also more thoroughly––you’re less dependent on guessing from the title whether a document is relevant to your research or not. Second, gathering documents into featured collections will help orient researchers who aren’t already familiar with the history of the field or of the Center. For instance, I wouldn’t have known that I would be interested in E. M. Jellinek or Howard Haggard before finding out that they helped to create and popularize the medical model of alcoholism in the academy, alongside AA in the general public. Writing those collection descriptions is my main job on the project, and it’s one I’m really passionate about: in order to make your archives visible to researchers, you need to tell them not only what they’re looking at but why it matters. It’s been a pleasure today talking to you all about these collections and why they matter, and I’m looking forward to this project ensuring that they find their way to the next researcher who needs them.