One of the small pleasures in my life is reading the book reviews in a new issue of an academic journal. It gives me the opportunity to see how other historians view major works in my own field of research, as well as exposing me to new books that I might have overlooked.
The August 2010 issue of the Journal of Southern History is a good example of this experience. Richard John’s review of Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson, by David S. Reynolds, reinforced my own assessment of the book, although in more eloquent language. I also discovered Marie Tyler-McGraw’s book, An African Republic: Black and White Virginians in the Making of Liberia, part of the John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture from the University of North Carolina Press. T. van Riemsdijk’s review piqued my curiosity, but what sold me on taking a closer look at the book was the mention of a companion website. The website contains searchable databases of Virginia emigrants (African American Virginians who moved to the Liberian colony) and emancipators (white Virginians who freed slaves to settle in Liberia). For books of this nature, with significant amounts of quantitative data or large databases of individuals, companion websites are superb resources that not only support the book’s argument but can also be used independently for classroom instruction.
Tyler-McGraw’s book serves as an example of how the traditional academic book culture can work in conjunction with the new media. Companion websites would not work for every book, but they offer great opportunities for exploration if publishers and non-profit entities, such as the Virginia Center for Digital History, are willing, and can find the funding, to support these types of collaborative projects.