RRCHNM Faculty Use Digital Tools to Explore Historical Newspapers

RRCHNM Faculty Use Digital Tools to Explore Historical Newspapers
The largest newspaper in the Chronicling America collection.

The National Endowment for the Humanities announced on July 27, 2016 that Lincoln Mullen, Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Art History at GMU, has taken first place in the "Chronicling America Data Challenge." His project, "America's Public Bible: Biblical Quotations in US Newspapers" will be featured at a conference at the Library of Congress (LOC) in September, where Mullen will receive a prize of $5,000.

Participants were asked to produce a creative web-based project that utilized information from the Chronicling America database. Housed at the LOC, the database contains over eleven million pages of historically significant American newspapers published between 1836 and 1922. The information is free and open to the public.

Newspapers from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contain a treasure trove of information not just about what happened in the past but also about how journalism and print media evolved over time in the United States. Patrick Murray-John, a research assistant professor at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, submitted a project called The Shape of the News, that used the vast data trove to investigate how the size and format of newspapers differed during the era. While the smallest newspaper measured only about 4 inches by 6 and one-half inches, the largest one was about 31 inches by 44 inches—almost double the size of today's papers. The number of columns in each paper also varied widely. Murray-John's work raises interesting questions about when and how newspapers became the standardized production we see today.

In his project, Mullen approached the newspapers by asking a deceptively simple question: which Biblical verses appeared most frequently in newspapers from 1836 to 1922? Mullen then created a program which allowed the computer to compare the text of the King James Bible (the most widely used edition in circulation at the time) with the billions of words in the "Chronicling America" database. An astonishing 866,000 Biblical verses were identified.

Mullen emphasizes that his digital tool represents only the first step in making use of the newspaper collection. The next step is to analyze the context of the quotations in order to understand when and why they were used, and to track changes over time. Mullen notes, for example, that "Suffer the little children come unto me" (Luke 18:16), appears so often because it was a phrase used in children's Sunday school lessons. During the Civil War, the frequent appearance of the verse, "Righteousness exalteth a nation" reflected the belief, common in both the North and the South, that God was on their side. Less obvious was the phrase: "Jug not, lest ye be jugged." After doing some digging, Mullen determined that this was a joke published in eastern Tennessee newspapers referring to the prevalence of moonshine in the region. As Mullen and Murray-John's work demonstrates, the use of digital tools promises to open up exciting new possibilities for future of historical research.