Congratulations and thanks to Sarah “Moxy” Moczygemba for a great discussion in the “Ask an Archivist”! The full posting is copied below and available on H-AmRel.
Ask an Archivist: Sarah “Moxy” Moczygemba, Florida and Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project
Our latest interview is with Sarah “Moxy” Moczygemba, Outreach and Promotion Assistant for the Florida and Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project. It’s a bit of a change of pace from our usual sort of interview, but I found her answers to be very insightful, and she goes into significant detail about the database and some sample searches. Enjoy!
- Could you tell our audience a little about your institution and the database you administer, including why they were established and their missions?
I work for the Florida and Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project (FPRDNP) which is part of the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP) funded by the NEH and housed at the Library of Congress on the site www.chroniclingamerica.loc.gov. The goal of this project is to digitize historical newspapers from 1836-1922 for preservation, accessibility, research, and educational purposes. The grant was established in 2004, with initial focus on the years 1900-1910. Each U.S. state and territory is eligible for the grant, although it is only given to one institution in said state. The complete list of affiliated states and their host institutions can be found here: http://www.loc.gov/ndnp/awards/. As of last year, over 10 million pages have been uploaded and more are being added regularly.
Since grants are given out at the state level, the section of that larger database I work on is the Florida and Puerto Rico project, which is housed at the University of Florida in the Smathers Libraries (http://ufdc.ufl.edu/ufndnp). Because of this institutional support, the content we upload to Chronicling America also makes its way into the Florida Digital Newspaper Library (http://ufdc.ufl.edu/newspapers) and the Digital Library of the Caribbean (http://dloc.com). What sets the content on Chronicling America apart from these UF databases from the user’s perspective is that Chronicling America utilizes Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which makes everything text searchable. Although that technology certainly isn’t perfect, it certainly does help if you’re trying to find a particular person or place.
- Does your database contain records or information regarding specific religious denominations or congregations? If so, which ones? Are any of particular significance? What are the general date ranges covered by the database?
While the date range of Chronicling America is wider, on a practical level most of our Florida papers fall in the range of 1900-1922, so they’re excellent for anyone with an interest in the early 20th century broadly. What makes Chronicling America and the FPRDNP different than some of the others covered in this series so far is that it isn’t explicitly religious in nature. That being said, religious content is pervasive in our papers because of the role religion plays in culture. The majority of our papers cover religiously associated social concerns such as Prohibition, the Klan, anti-Catholicism, Women’s suffrage, and more. The Florida and Puerto Rico papers aren’t related to any specific denomination, but in reading them it’s rather apparent that the Florida papers are writing for a predominantly Christian (and Protestant at that) audience. The one paper we have for Puerto Rico at the moment (La Gazeta de Puerto-Rico) is mostly related to government matters and is drastically different than the Florida papers in terms of social content.
- Your database does not have an obvious religious link, but could you recommend some sample searches for individuals interested in the history of religion?
A lot of using Chronicling America involves trial and error as well as patience. As I mentioned, Chronicling America allows for searches using Optical Character Recognition, but that typically fails to pick up things written in non-standard fonts, which, unfortunately, is what is used in many section headings and advertisements. For example, some papers (The Pensacola journal specifically) have sections like Pulpit News, Church Notes, or The Churches that don’t show up in a search but are extremely eye-catching. Some sample searches I’ve had success with include specific denominations, the name of churches in the area, and the names of popular preachers and politicians who spoke on religious content. Other searches, like the word “sermon” for example, are good for finding not only who preached where and when, but also occasionally yield the full-texts of these sermons. Society sections are also useful for following life events like births, weddings, and deaths as well as club meetings, many of which were held at or associated with churches. As someone who studies religion in addition to working on this project, I can confidently say there is an abundant amount of relevant content.
There are, of course, some issues associated with a database of this nature. I’ve already mentioned the imperfect nature of OCR searching, but I’d like to expand on the specifics a bit. I advise anyone using Chronicling America to not be dependent solely on search results. If you know the date range of a particular event, for example, you can narrow your search but also take the time to look at other pages in the same issue. Play with multiple words and phrases that can be associated with the subject you’re exploring. In short, don’t expect technology to do all the work for you. In terms of human error, there are two interrelated subjects worth mentioning. First, users need to take be aware of and use relevant historical language when conducting searches. This may sound obvious to someone familiar with using a physical archive, but it is an issue I’ve found students have an issue keeping in mind. Also, users need to be cognoscente of the fact that there are both spelling errors and alternative spellings in these historical papers, and once again, this will affect search results.
- Why should a scholar of religious history visit your database?
In my opinion, scholars interested in religious history should explore Chronicling America and think about its utility both in terms of teaching and scholarship. From a teaching perspective, it’s an archive that can be easily accessed in the classroom. Due to students’ familiarity with accessing information using a search engine format and their expectation of accessibility, it can serve as an entry point to larger discussions about archives. In terms of scholarship, some of the barriers associated with typical archives, like travel, don’t exist due to the digital nature of this collection. In terms of usability, pages in Chronicling America can be downloaded and have permanent links associated with them, so it’s relatively easy to incorporate the texts into presentations and other visual projects. Practical matters aside, as I mentioned above, a wide variety of topics associated with religion-sensational and mundane-are reported in the pages of our papers.
- Speaking generally about the University of Florida’s library system, do you know of any other resources related to the history of American religion or contemporary religious studies within your institutional holdings?
There are many resources in the UF library system that could be of interest to scholars of religion. Given the nature of this interview, I’d like to focus on those that are accessible online. UF manages the Archive of Haitian Religion and Culture: Collaborative Research and Scholarship on Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora (http://dloc.com/vodou) and the Jewish Diaspora Collection (http://ufdc.ufl.edu/judaica) which both have an explicitly religious focus. This is in addition to the aforementioned Florida Digital Newspaper Library (http://ufdc.ufl.edu/newspapers) and the Digital Library of the Caribbean (http://dloc.com) which, like our project, contain religious content.