The People’s Contest praised for innovation

The September 2014 issue of the “Journal of American History”—the flagship journal of all scholars of American History in the world—gave high praise to The People’s Contest website at Penn State.

archived newspaper“The People’s Contest: A Civil War Era Digital Archive” is a collaborative project of Penn State’s University Libraries and the Richards Civil War Era Center. The project promotes research into the lived experience of Pennsylvanians between 1851 and 1874, and its website features a unique bibliographic database of hidden collections from historical societies throughout the state, digitized manuscripts, and contextual essays.

Reviewer Adam W. Dean wrote, “The People’s Contest presents an innovative model for the future of digital history, combining an archive, a gateway to primary source collections and a journal. Its mission is delightfully focused: the Web site authors seek to help scholars understand the Pennsylvania home front during the American Civil War. As the authors rightly note, most Civil War–era historians have focused on the Confederate home front, neglecting the rich political, racial, ethnic, and gender clashes that characterized Pennsylvanians’ experiences during the war.”

illustration of soldier with flagAccording to William Blair, director of the Richards Center and Liberal Arts Research Professor of U.S. History, a unique aspect of the project lies not only in the partnership with the University Libraries but also with many county historical societies across Pennsylvania. Field workers led by Project Manager Sabra Statham of the University Libraries, and assisted by Richards Center Managing Director Matthew Isham, combed the state to identify hidden treasures that tell Pennsylvania’s story during the Civil War Era. While the library has digitized select collections from this survey, the project also has generated a catalogue that directs historians and the public to letters, diaries, ledger books and other primary materials in these various repositories organized according to such categories as gender, family, politics and dissent.

“Pennsylvania,” Blair noted, “along with Ohio and New York, sent the most men to the battlefields. These states also provided the most significant support of the cause through furnishing weapons and other war material.” Yet, he added, Pennsylvania was also a highly contested state before, during, and after the war, belying the overly simplistic image of the North as a unified region.

Tim Pyatt, the Dorothy Foehr Huck Chair and head of The Eberly Family Special Collections Library, states, “The People’s Contest allows us to share the University’s rich and unique Civil War manuscript and photograph collections in the context of other important Pennsylvania Civil War collections. We are delighted that we are a partner in this important project.”

Other project partners in this collaborative project include the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission; the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; and the Senator John Heinz History Center, in association with the Smithsonian Institution.

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