Printed newspapers play a much smaller role in American life than they did in earlier periods of our history. In the first decade of the 20th century—before the advent of electronic media—over 17,000 newspapers were published in the United States.
To give just one example of how ubiquitous newspapers were, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which had a population of 14,000 in 1910, had three daily and several weekly papers in English, German, and Norwegian. Newspapers are a major source for the political, social, and cultural history of America.
Thanks to the National Digital Newspaper Program (a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress) we have free access to much of this vast trove through the incredible Chronicling America newspaper database. This national project has digitized and makes available on the web over 10 million pages of newspapers published between 1836 and 1922.
While this prodigious archive provides source material for many historians who use traditional methodologies, the Chronicling America data also offers exciting new ways to understand our nation’s past. Projects such as An Epidemiology of Information, which uses text mining to explore how information about the 1918 influenza pandemic spread, and Journalism’s Voyage West, a visualization of the growth and decline of newspapers in the US,have shown some of the possibilities offered by computational approaches to this digitized archive.
The National Endowment for the Humanities now wants to encourage more projects like these and has issued a challenge “to produce creative web-based projects demonstrating the potential for using the data found in the Chronicling America website.” The NEH is looking for entries that “uncover trends, display insights, explore a theme, or tell a story.” If you can think creatively about new ways of using and presenting the Chronicling America data check out the Historic American Newspapers Data Challenge and help to promote a better understanding of the history of the United States.