Project Showcase: Mapping the Fourth of July
13 February 2017 – editors
For more than two centuries, Americans have come together every July 4th to celebrate national unity. What happened during the deeply divided Civil War era? How did Americans commemorate their nation’s birthday as the nation was falling apart? A new project called Mapping the Fourth attempts to answer these questions.
Mapping the Fourth is the product of a collaboration between faculty, staff, and students at Virginia Tech who are creating a digital archive from thousands of primary sources—newspaper articles, diaries, letters, and speeches. Having long used July 4th documents in his research and teaching, project director Paul Quigley recognized their unique ability to uncover diverse first-hand perspectives on the transformation of American national identity and race relations during the Civil War era.
Funded by a “Literacy and Engagement with Historical Records” grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, Mapping the Fourth draws on expertise across the Virginia Tech campus: Civil War historians, crowdsourcing experts from computer science, a social studies education specialist, and data management and mapping personnel from the university libraries.
The site makes the sources accessible for anyone to read. It also uses crowdsourcing to transcribe, tag, and thematically connect different documents. Ultimately, Mapping the Fourth will become a new kind of historical resource of interest to professional historians, students, and history enthusiasts around the country. It is inspired by crowdsourced transcription sites such as Old Weather and Operation War Diary, but offers its users deeper levels of engagement with a wider range of primary sources.
Anyone can use the site, but the creators envision it as an especially valuable resource for high school and college teachers. July 4th primary sources can be used to teach the biggest themes of Civil War era history in a focused and uniquely engaging way. Right now the Virginia Tech team is working on an online tutorial feature that encourages users to think about key issues of primary source interpretation, such as perspective, context, and timing.
Mapping the Fourth is already fully functional, and the team will be adding new features in the coming months. Whether you’re looking for an innovative new teaching tool or you’re simply interested in finding out how people celebrated Independence Day in your hometown, check out Mapping the Fourth and join the conversation. For more information contact Paul Quigley.