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The NEH “Chronicling America” Challenge: Using Big Data to Ask Big Questions

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This is a guest post by Leah Weinryb Grohsgal of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Graphic about the data challenge winners.Historic newspapers offer rich histories of American life, with glimpses into politics, sports, shopping, music, food, health, science, movies and everything in between.  The National Digital Newspaper Program, a joint effort between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress, seeks to preserve and provide open access to America’s historic newspapers via Chronicling America.  The site now contains over eleven million pages of digitized newspapers as well as a digital directory of over 150,000 titles from small towns and big cities across the United States.

Not only are the newspaper pages openly available, but the data is too.  The Library of Congress has developed a user-friendly Application Program Interface, which can be used as a doorway into the newspaper data in Chronicling America.  Because of this commitment to openness, users can now interact with these rich sources both as individual pages and as big data sets used to show trends over time and space.

NEH recently asked the public, “How can you use open data to explore history?”  We invited members of the public to produce creative web-based projects demonstrating the potential for using the data found in Chronicling America.  Entries could be data visualizations, web-based tools or other innovative and interesting web-based projects.  Entries came through, the U.S. government’s hub for federal prize and challenge competitions.  The nationwide competition garnered extremely high-quality entries on a variety of subjects, which showed the importance of and potential for making this rich historical data openly available.

The results are in.  NEH has announced six open data challenge prize recipients.  The winners will receive cash prizes and will attend the National Digital Newspaper Program annual September meeting in Washington, D.C. to present their work.  We join with the Library of Congress in celebrating the questions and insights that can be gained from making open data and excellent primary sources accessible to the public.

And the winners are…

First Prize
American Public Bible: Biblical Quotations in U.S. Newspapers
Entry By:  Lincoln Mullen, Assistant Professor, Department of History and Art History, George Mason University (Fairfax, VA)

This project tracks Biblical quotations in American newspapers to see how the Bible was used for cultural, religious, social or political purposes.  Users can either enter their own Biblical references or choose from a selection of significant references on a range of topics.  The project draws on both recent digital humanities work tracking the reuse of texts and a deep scholarly interest in the Bible as a cultural text in American life.  The site shows how the Bible was a contested yet common text, including both printed sermons and Sunday school lessons and use of the Bible on every side of issues such as slavery, women’s suffrage and wealth and capitalism.

Second Prize (Tie)
American Lynching: Uncovering a Cultural Narrative
Entry By:  Andrew Bales, PhD Student in Creative Writing, University of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, OH)

This project explores America’s long and dark history with lynching, in which newspapers acted as both a catalyst for public killings and a platform for advocating for reform.  Integrating data sets on lynching created by Tuskegee University, the site sheds light on the gruesome culture of lynching, paying close attention to the victims of violent mobs.  The site allows readers to use an interactive chronological map of victim reports and see their state-by state distribution, linking to Chronicling America articles.

Second Prize (Tie)
Historical Agricultural News
Entry By:  Amy Giroux, Computer Research Specialist, Center for Humanities and Digital Research, University of Central Florida (Orlando, FL)

This site allows users to explore information on the farming organizations, technologies and practices of America’s past.  The site describes farming as the window into communities, social and technological change and concepts like progress, development and modernity.  Agricultural connections are of significance to those interested in various topics, including immigration and assimilation, language use and communication, education and affiliations and demographic transitions.

Third Prize (Tie)
Chronicling Hoosiers
Entry By:  Kristi Palmer, Associate Dean of Digital Scholarship, Indiana University-Purdue University (Indianapolis, IN)

This project tracks the origins of the word “Hoosier.”  The site’s maps visually demonstrate the geographic distribution of the term “Hoosier” in the Chronicling America data set.  This distribution is measured by the number of times the term appears on a newspaper page.  Each point on the map shows a place of publication where a newspaper or newspapers contain the term.  Another feature on the web site is the Word Clouds by Decade visualizations, which are created by looking at the word “Hoosier” in context.  The text immediately surrounding each appearance of the word is extracted and from this the most frequently occurring terms are plotted.

Third Prize (Tie)
Entry By:  Claudio Saunt, Professor, Department of History, Co-Director, Center for Virtual History and Associate Director, Institute of Native American Studies, University of Georgia (Athens, GA)

This site discovers patterns, explores regions, investigates how stories and terms spread around the country and watches information go viral before the era of the internet.  The site argues that newspapers capture the public discourse better than books do because of their quick publication schedule.  For example, users can track “miscegenation,” a term coined in 1863 by a Democratic Party operative to exploit fears about Lincoln, and “scalawag,” a recently arrived term that quickly gained currency after 1869.  Other examples for use are tracking regional differences in language, tracing the path of epidemics and studying changing political discourse over time and space.

K-12 Student Prize
Digital APUSH: Revealing History with Chronicling America
Entry By:  Teacher Ray Palin and A.P. U.S. History Students at Sunapee High School (Sunapee, NH)

These students used Chronicling America newspaper data to create a variety of visualizations —- maps, charts and timelines -— to explore questions about U.S. history.  The projects use word frequency analysis -— a kind of distant reading -— to discover patterns in news coverage.  Some examples of investigations include geographic coverage of Plessy v. Ferguson, temporal trends in the use of the words “secede” and “secession,” articles about Uncle Tom’s Cabin by year, state-by-state coverage of the KKK and geographic trends in coverage of labor unions.

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