The intent of this project is to invite you to learn about Reconstruction by providing a novel way to interact with Reconstruction-era Library of Congress content. Do you have questions, comments, discoveries? Share them on social media with #SituatingUs.
For that reason, I cast as wide a net as possible, processing all Library of Congress materials from 1865-1877 which are available in fulltext format.
This includes a wide array of material types. Examples include:
- A program for a service observing Lincoln’s funeral in Vermont;
- Walt Whitman’s notes as he worked through themes in Leaves of Grass;
- A book arguing for women’s rights and equality.
However, the vast majority of the documents are newspapers from the Chronicling America project.
I considered using materials from other time periods about Reconstruction, but decided against it due to two challenges: copyright and metadata.
Copyright. Works from after 1926 are not guaranteed to be in the US public domain as of the publication date of this site (2022). This means that most secondary sources analyzing Reconstruction are unavailable for this project. Notably, both W.E.B. Du Bois’s (1935) and Eric Foner’s (1988) seminal histories of Reconstruction are unavailable, along with many other modern interpretations. However, Lost Cause interpretations were advanced as a political project by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the early 1900s; for example, the notorious Birth of a Nation came out in 1915. Attempting to include secondary sources about Reconstruction would therefore result in an extremely one-sided slice through the data, due to the 1926 cutoff.
Metadata. Subject headers notwithstanding, library metadata is not really designed to answer a question like “what are all the works in this library pertinent to X”. Primary sources that are from Reconstruction are not generally about Reconstruction, even if they tell its story in important ways, and therefore won’t be included in a subject header query. Subsequent works that are in a sense about Reconstruction may be primarily about something else, and subject headers will only include the latter. Furthermore, there are many subject headers that may relate to Reconstruction. Therefore there isn’t a single query, or even a small set of queries, that catch everything I’m looking for. Fundamentally, subject headers serve as a guide for people who are seeking one, or a handful, or even a few dozen works focused on a particular theme, whereas I was seeking tens or hundreds of thousands of documents that had any light to shed. Therefore, I cast a broad net, performing broad-based date-range queries to pull in as much potentially relevant data as possible.
Additionally, as with any data-intensive project, I had to perform a lot of data cleaning to make the available data suitable for my purposes. I detail this in the data cleaning section.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the documents available to me for this project are not fully representative of the Reconstruction period for three reasons.
First, only a subset of all the documents available at the Library of Congress from this period. Many paper documents have not been converted into machine-readable text format because large-scale digitization is resource-intensive. The documents that have been digitized are the ones of particular public interest, and the ones for which dedicated funds have, at some point, been available. This means that many of the Abraham Lincoln papers are available as machine-readable text — but none of the Andrew Johnson papers, much less the Confederate States of America records. While it’s understandable and correct that the records of one of America’s favorite presidents would be made more accessible before those of its first impeached President, or of actual traitors, it does distort the record as presented by this project.
Second, the Library of Congress did not collect all documents produced during this period. All libraries must make decisions about what to store in their limited space, and not all documents are particularly significant. But what is “significance”? As Dorothy Berry says, “archives are institutions defining documentary history”, but historically they have done so in ways that serve predominantly white institutions whose goals (and understandings) have not necessarily included Black cultural memory. This is particularly significant for the Reconstruction period.
And third, slavery — the same institution that made the Civil War and Reconstruction necessary — deprived many Black people of the education to write their experiences and the resources to publish them. Even if every scrap of paper written on from 1865 through 1877 had somehow been available to this project, those scraps of paper would not fairly represent the range of human experience.
I am the sole person maintaining this project, and there is no funding for my time after January 2022. Therefore, unfortunately, I cannot provide extensive customer service.