CONTENT When completed, Colonial America will offer all 1,450 volumes of the CO5 series (records of the British Colonial Office, class 5) from the National Archives, UK, spanning 1606 to 1822. CO5 consists of the original correspondence between the British government and the American colonies. The resource is being released in five modules, the first being Frontier Life, Early Expansion and Rivalries, which chronicles the early history of the colonies. Subsequent scheduled modules will include Towards Revolution (2016), The American Revolution (2017), Legislation and Politics in the Colonies (2018), and Growth, Trade and Development (2019).
Frontier Life features charters, court records, diaries, financial documents, land grants, maps and building plans, military files, newspapers, petitions, pamphlets, speeches, and public notices. The number of documents per volume ranges from a few to hundreds; each volume has been divided into subsections consisting of an individual document or a cluster of related ones. These can be browsed by title, date, volume, theme, document type, and colony/region. Each document has been indexed by keywords, names, and places, making the manuscript records searchable. A small percentage of CO5 material was originally printed (mostly pamphlets, public notices and newspapers); these items are full-text searchable and indicated in lists with a “printed page” icon next to their titles.
USABILITY The main screen offers a simple search box along with options for an advanced search or popular searches; a toolbar linking to the introduction, documents, explore, map gallery, and help; a list of quick links (such as biographies and a government structure chart); and a window asking: “Not sure where to start? Let us guide you through the documents and features of Colonial America.”
I chose the last option, which led to a five-section introduction, “What Is Colonial America?” This summary explains what users can expect from the documents section, how to use the government structure chart, and how to save documents for later using My Archive and My Lightbox. After going through the tour, I backtracked to the introduction on the homepage, which directed me to other explanatory sections such as Thematic Areas. This area contains key groups of related materials such as Colonial Development, Community Organization, The Frontier and the Expansion of European Settlement, Tax and Finance, Legislation, Trade, and War.
The Explore option in the top toolbar leads to a page offering biographies, the aforementioned government structure chart, and the opportunity to explore volumes, essays, popular searches, and external links.
Biographies is an alphabetized list of brief (one- or two-paragraph) biographical sketches of prominent figures. The government structure chart “lists the holders of key offices in the governments of Great Britain and the colonies, with the dates between which each office was held.” It interacts with a time line (with date slider) and buttons for particular regions in the file. Clicking on an individual’s name lets you view their biography; selecting a date shows all of the office holders for the affected regions. This is a sophisticated feature that provides context to the overall file, giving a larger scope to the historical setting.
Users can further explore individual volumes such as The Acts of Assembly in the Colony of Virginia, 1662–1752. Selecting that volume referenced the 614 Acts. At that point, one is able to read the Act (a thumbnail image popped up that enlarges with one click; the text was clear and readable), search the document, download it as a PDF, export the citation to EndNote or RefWorks in one of three formats, search the volume further, or view the keywords assigned to the document (in this case: finance, government revenue, tax).
The essays are scholarly yet accessible to nonhistorians, while popular searches will assist nonexperts in finding relevant ways to search the database. Included in popular searches are lists of governors, places, keywords, and Indian tribes and nations. External links takes researchers to 19 points of potential interest, such as Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy and the Early Americas Digital Archive.
A final search for Cotton Mather retrieved three results: an April 29 1689 extract of a letter from Bristol in New England unto Mr. Mather; minutes of the Massachusetts Bay council, 26 March–9 September 1696; and a reference to Mather’s father, Increase, in the biography of Sir William Phips, First Royal Governor of Massachusetts Bay.
VERDICT This is not just a digitized record of files from the National Archives; Adam Matthew has considerably enhanced an already rich trove of documents in creating this remarkable, multilayered product. Large research libraries and sizable library consortia should trial this resource among potential users. There should be at least one copy of Colonial America in each state within the United States, accessible to all American history researchers.
Library Journal, November 2015