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Word Gets Around

Clipping of an 1896 newspaper article from the Library of CongressThis newspaper article is among those accessible in the Library of Congress collection, now indexed through U.S. News Map.
Image: Library of Congress

Populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic National Convention with a speech in which he called for a new currency standard based on silver rather than gold. Over the next few years, his “Cross of Gold” idea spread across the country, with thousands of newspaper mentions.

But it took 120 years and a collaboration between Georgia Tech data scientists and University of Georgia historians to see exactly how that idea spread. Researchers tracked Cross of Gold using U.S. News Map, a database of more than 10 million newspaper pages that is helping researchers see history with spatial information that hadn’t been available before.

“Every historical development has a spatial component to it, and often one that is central to explaining the ‘how’ and the ‘why,’” noted Claudio Saunt, chair of the Department of History at the University of Georgia. “With this new search engine, we now have the ability to see where newspapers were writing about a subject, and how interest in that subject changed over time. It’s a powerful tool for historians, and one that can shed new light on the past.”

A free service, the database is available at www.usnewsmap.com. It is based on data from nearly 2,000 U.S. newspapers published between 1836 and 1924 that were scanned by U.S. universities with support from the U.S. Library of Congress. Each word of that text was then indexed for use in the database, explained Trevor Goodyear, a research scientist in the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI).

In U.S. News Map, each instance of a term that appeared in the newspapers is represented with a dot, and lighter dots indicate multiple mentions. Users can move a slider to see how terms pop up in different cities and follow a link to images of the newspaper pages.

“We’ve placed the data onto a map of the United States that allows users to view how the term moved across the country over time,” Goodyear explained. “You can navigate through time to see how each term was used in different locations. You really get a sense for how ideas went viral during that time in history.” 

— John Toon

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