Just in time for the Oscars, digital project focuses on Lincoln-based sermons

Published 02-20-2013

With so much attention focused on Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” and its 12 Academy Award nominations, the Digital Scholarship Commons (DiSC) and the Beck Center at Emory University’s Robert W. Woodruff Library have embarked on a joint project with aspects that researchers can apply to similar projects – using digital tools to analyze and compare the text of sermons delivered after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

 The Beck Center digitizes and curates some of the rare collections housed in the library’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL), creating electronic versions of fragile documents. A group of three DiSC graduate fellows are analyzing a collection of digitized texts called “The Martyred President: Sermons Given on the Occasion of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.” Their goals: to use various digital text tools to map geographic and thematic patterns in the 57 sermons. The scholars are calling their project “Lincoln Logarithms: Finding Meaning in Sermons.”

Sarita Alami, one of the graduate fellows, says each project participant used a different digital text tool to gauge its effectiveness in comparing the sermons. “It’s been helpful to see how different tools can be more useful or less useful, depending on the body of text,” she says. “Also, doing digital research can be very helpful, but it can be very experimental – sometimes it takes a lot of tries before you find something that’s going to give you results that are interesting.”

Sara Palmer, a digital text specialist with the Beck Center at the Emory Libraries who is working with the graduate fellows, tested an aspect of the project herself. She used Voyant, an open source tool that shows word trends and word frequency, among other features, to compare the northernmost sermon in Vermont and the southernmost sermon in South Carolina.

“They’re very different sermons,” Palmer says. She explains that the Vermont one focuses on Lincoln’s life achievement as freeing the slaves, the same theme seen in the movie, and a common theme in popular culture. In the Southern sermon, given by a Northern preacher who seems to be nervous, the theme conveys that Southerners had been led astray, Palmer says, and urges them to pledge loyalty to a unified country, shed resentment and come together.

Sermons often peak with a central idea in the middle, she says. Voyant shows the theme and word count for “slavery” peaking in the northern sermon, and “peace” in the southern sermon. “The tool shows you what you can pull together for text analysis,” Palmer says.

Stewart Varner, digital scholarship coordinator, says the project accomplishes several goals, not the least of which is to find ways for DiSC and the Beck Center to work together and apply newer forms of digital humanities work to the Beck’s myriad electronic collections.

“We have all these well-curated, well-formatted online archives and they’re just kind of sitting there,” Varner says. “The new wave of digital humanities work has to do with text analysis, using analytical tools to research cultural material. All these archives we created back in the late ’90s are really valuable as source materials for those kinds of analytics.”

Alami says the end goal is to create a kind of digital research tool guide that will help researchers choose the most effective digital tools for their work by answering a series of questions. “Say you have a body of text – is it digitized? Is it more than 500 documents? Does it cover a variety of geographic locations? Does it stretch across a few days or a number of decades? Depending on how they answer the questions, we can suggest different tools that would be helpful for them,” Alami says. “There’s nothing that exists like that right now.”

The graduate fellows will post their findings on a website that will launch Friday, Feb. 22 – just in time for the Academy Awards broadcast on ABC Sunday, Feb. 24.