Joshua Ortiz Baco is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Texas at Austin. His work combines cultural studies and digital methodologies in the study of 19th-century abolitionist and racial discourses in U.S. newspapers of Cuban, Puerto Rican and Brazilian immigrants. His research is funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation grant-in-aid program of the University of Houston US Latino Digital Humanities (USLDH) program. During the summer of 2020, he was the Pathways Program intern for the Division of Preservation and Access of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
Amber Paranick (AP): Describe your internship working with the Chronicling America* collection of digitized American newspapers.
Joshua Ortiz Baco (JOB): During my summer internship, I worked in collaboration with the Serial & Government Publications Division of the Library of Congress to identify editors and publishers of ethnic newspapers in the Chronicling America collection. Many of the newspapers have a 500-word essay that serves as an introduction to the scope and content of the publication. These are prepared by the contributing institution and the NEH program coordinator for the National Digital Newspaper Program. These essays also contain information about the people involved in publishing and editing the newspaper in question. The first part of my job was to find these names and provide bibliographic references like the Library of Congress Name Authority File or newspaper images that confirmed people’s roles in their publications. Once I was able to identify the editors, I looked for references to their ethnicity in the title essays or in other source materials. The newspapers’ ethnic categories are added to the records by the contributing institutions and they include more than 30 ethnicities. Some people were harder to identify than others and the information about ethnicity is subjective, but the information I was able to identify will eventually be part of the bibliographic record of the newspaper and the name authority files of the editors with the hope that contributions from minority groups will be easier to find in the collection.
AP: Is there a particular item you found within the collection that sparked your creativity?
JOB: There are many items that surprised me in the collection and I was only looking at one small corner of it. In my academic work, I look at immigrant periodicals as well and in working with Chronicling America I was hoping to find even more examples of the intellectual and social contributions of minorities in the U.S. To give an example, Edmund Norrie was a Danish immigrant living in Hawaii before it became a state of the U.S. Beyond the fact that it is amazing to think about what it took to travel from northern Europe to the Pacific in the 19th century, his newspaper, the Hawaii Holomua (Honolulu, HI), was deeply involved in debates about the Hawaiian monarchy and annexation. These were not small, closed off communities but rather they were invested in their society. Another fascinating example is David Young, a freed slave in Louisiana that went on to become a businessman and establish the Concordia Eagle (Vidalia, LA) newspaper in the late 1800s. Young went from the dehumanizing reality of legally being property to turning himself into a successful entrepreneur and office holder. Norrie and Young are examples of the value of ethnic newspapers to understanding the history of the U.S. and the myriad experiences that constitute this history.
AP: Anything else you’d like to share with users about the Chronicling America collection?
JOB: Browsing Chronicling America can be overwhelming at first if you are not familiar with historical newspapers. It can seem foreign or dated information that does not feel relevant. However, newspapers are not just sources of information about daily events, even though these can be truly interesting as well. Newspapers also have true crime stories, drama, historical narration, and even love stories. Staff from the Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room section have a fantastic resource of recommended topic pages to start off with that include things like the Boston Marathon and the nationwide marathon craze or the teddy bear mania. This is a fantastic way of getting to know the collection aside from looking up publications from your home state or city to see what was on people’s minds during the time.
AP: Can you conceive of additional ways in which the online collection can be used for research?
JOB: As the interest in Chronicling America and historical newspaper collections in general continues to evolve, new ways of “reading” the publications are also being created. The work I was able to do over the summer will become data that the Library of Congress publishes for other people and institutions to use in their systems. The standardized data from the newspapers and the editors can then be processed by machines at scale and this affords other methods of interacting with the newspapers, like network visualizations or machine learning applications. There are a number of projects that are already using the data from Chronicling America to visualize and narrate history in ways that were not possible before. One example of this is the LC Labs Innovator-in-Residence Ben Lee who created a way of browsing the visual elements of newspapers from Chronicling America. His project, the Newspaper Navigator, uses machine learning to identify similar images across the collection which allows users to search by images as well as text. Newspaper collections are most often conceived as a collection of text but Ben’s project re-imagines it as a visual collection, too. I hope that things like linked open data and machine learning complement how we read materials in Chronicling America and attract others that may have found it difficult to engage with the collection before. These methods also encourage collaboration from people in different fields – whether that is computer science, literary studies or science and information studies – and these interactions produce new understandings of the collection, as Ben’s project shows.
AP: Thank you, Joshua, for all your hard work in making this collection more accessible! For more on Joshua’s project, check out this post from the National Endowment for the Humanities blog.
* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.