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Five Questions with Chronicling America Digital Conversion Specialist Tonijala Penn

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Tonijala Penn
Tonijala Penn

The following is a guest post from Tonijala Penn, Digital Conversion Specialist for Chronicling America.

Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with.

I’m a Digital Conversion Specialist in the Serial and Government Publications Division. Primarily, I work on the Chronicling America website providing access to information about historic newspapers ranging from 1836-1922, as well as select digitized newspaper pages.

Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collections?

I wish! But, as soon as I discover one another one comes along and trumps it. Chronicling America is chock-full of good stuff, just saying….

This week my favorite happens to be an ad about Duffy Malt Whiskey, which indicates that, “All doctors agree that Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey is the greatest summer medicine for the weak, wasted and run-down in body, nerve and muscle.”

Advertisement from
Advertisement from The Spokane press, July 28, 1905

While the ad might seem odd or hilarious to a 21st century reader, patent medicines at the time often included many unusual ingredients, including alcohol.

Share a time when an item from the collections sparked your curiosity.

It didn’t exactly happen in that order, but curiosity was sparked nonetheless, so I think that counts, yes? I watched a documentary directed by Ken Burns titled Unforgiveable Blackness, which was about the boxer Jack Johnson. I found his story compelling, especially the part about the fight of the century between Johnson (Galveston Giant) v. James Jeffries (The Boilermaker), so I did a keyword search using his name in Chronicling America to find out more about the fight that divided a nation. My spark led me to create a Topics in Chronicling America feature on this boxing match.

Tell us about a memorable interaction with a K-12 teacher or student.

I was promoting Chronicling America at the National Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference with Educational Outreach when I discovered the four-letter word that makes teachers’ faces light up. Do you want to get teachers’ undivided attention and feel like a rock star?  Use the words “free” and “online primary source” in a sentence. With school budgets constantly being trimmed down coupled with the cost of online database subscriptions, the word “free” gets their attention.

What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with?

The digitized content in Chronicling America promotes analytical and critical thinking, which is a wonderful way to get students to form their own opinion about the written word while conducting research using primary resources. Students have the ability to research topics from newspapers throughout the nation to see how news was conveyed to the masses differently based on the geographical or political slant of the newspaper.



  1. Great comments, Tonijala Penn.
    Proud of your work.

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