John Peabody Harrington was an extremely prolific field linguist who worked with speakers of dozens of Native American languages in the first half of the 20th century under the auspices of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Over the course of his career, he collected over a million pages of field notes, especially for languages of California and elsewhere in the western United States. For many Indigenous languages of California, Harrington's field notes are some of the best available sources of documentation. Some aspects of his scholarly legacy are discussed in a special issue of the journal "Anthropological Linguistics" published in 1991.
Many of Harrington's collected field notes and other papers were archived at the Smithsonian Institution. Starting in the 1970s they were exhaustively catalogued, and microfilm copies were made available to the public. However, although good finding aids to the collection were created, due the sheer number of pages it was extremely difficult to locate specific information in them - particular words or phrases, for example.
In the mid-1990s, Martha Macri (UC Davis) and Victor Golla (Humboldt State University) developed a project to create a searchable database of Harrington's California field notes. The goal was to create a verbatim transcription of each page of his notes, including representations of Harrington's idiosyncratic note-taking methods, to make it easier for users to locate information of interest to them. The project was ambitious in its scope on a number of fronts, both in terms of the quantity of material that it sought to incorporate, and in its commitment to engaging members of contemporary Native American communities in the transcription effort. With generous support from the National Science Foundation, the project was especially active from the early 2000s until Professor Macri's retirement in 2013.
Although the J.P. Harrington Database Project did not achieve its aim of exhaustively transcribing all of the notes from California, a searchable database of dozens of reels was created. Transcriptions were keyed to the microfilm copies of Harrington's notes. Because the microfilm copies of Harrington's notes were difficult to access, the project attempted to represent all of the information written on a given page, including things that had been crossed out, Harrington's copious commentary on transcribed words, and so on. The coverage in the database is somewhat uneven, with some languages well-represented, others less so. Conceived in a period before the widespread availability of tools to facilitate data entry for special characters and data standards such as Unicode, the project developed its own transcription and coding procedures, which are described in the documents at the bottom of this page.
Since the mid-2010s, digital copies of the Harrington microfilm reels have been accessible online through the Smithsonian Institution's website, with pages dedicated to the Northern and Central California ("Volume 2") and Southern California ("Volume 3") field notes. Since it is now possible for anyone with an internet connection to view the notes, the Harrington Database is now probably most useful as a fine-grained index into each reel that has been transcribed. That is, users can now use the database to locate pages of interest to them, and then view the information on each page directly.
For more information about the project, including which languages and reels were transcribed and how to access the database, please contact Justin Spence, Director of the Native American Language Center.