New tools developed by UNT researchers make online historical newspapers more accessible

Wednesday, May 30, 2012
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DENTON (UNT), Texas -- Users of the University of North Texas Libraries' Portal to Texas History are able to browse pages of historical Texas newspapers online, thanks to the National Digital Newspaper Program, "Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers."

Thanks to the research of two UNT faculty members, users will now have access to interactive visualizations that offer better ways to explore the content of these historical newspapers than typing words into a search engine.

Andrew Torget, assistant professor of history; Rada Mihalcea, assistant professor of computer science, and their partners at Stanford University's Bill Lane Center for the American West, received a $50,000 Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant from the NEH for the project, called Mapping Texts.

The project, Torget said, "came about, in part, because UNT has established itself as one of the lead universities for the Chronicling America program."

The UNT Libraries became a partner in the program in 2007 when it received the first of several National Endowment for the Humanities grants to digitize the newspapers and place them online. The hundreds of thousands of pages date from the 1820s through the 2000s, offering glimpses of daily life in Texas communities from those decades. Torget and the research team used a sample of 250,000 pages of the newspapers.

"When you can explore hundreds of millions of words, a basic text search simply isn't enough. For instance, if I search the 250,000 newspaper pages for ‘cotton' because I'm trying to find historical information as background for a book, I get more than 71,000 results," Torget said. "Mapping Texts is about solving a big data problem. We need to find new ways for people to make sense of the overwhelming abundance of information being made available in the digital age."

Mapping Texts includes two interactive visualizations built by the UNT-Stanford team:

Mapping Newspaper Quality maps a quantitative survey of the newspapers, plotting both the quantity and quality of information available. Mapping Language Patterns maps a qualitative survey of the newspapers, plotting major language patterns embedded in the collection.

Mark Phillips, the UNT Libraries' assistant dean for digital libraries, called Mapping Texts "a tool that puts new lenses on the content for researchers."

"It's a great example of how UNT researchers are using the content in innovative and creative ways, and shows that libraries need to think about how faculty members can more easily access large amount of content," he said.

Brett Bobley, NEH chief information officer and director of the NEH's Office of Digital Humanities, said that since all of the National Digital Newspaper Project pages are created using the same standards "work like the Mapping Texts project could, in theory, scale beyond the Texas newspapers to other states or even nationally."

"As we scan millions of pages of newspapers and other humanities materials, new methods for searching and analyzing the materials will become critical to scholarship," Bobley said.

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