The People’s Contest, A Civil War Era Digital Archiving Project

This digital humanities project, The People’s Contest, A Civil War Era Digital Archiving Project , is a digital archive of Civil War Era resources. It specifically brings together resources in the state of Pennsylvania between 1851 (when the Christiana Riot occurred, an event triggered by the Fugitive Slave Act) and 1874 (the end of Reconstruction). The purpose of the project is to make available research resources related to the Pennsylvania home front in the period around the Civil War.  It looks to me like it’s an Omeka-styled site.  The site is maintained by the Penn State University libraries.  Collaborating institutions include the Richards Civil War Era Center, the Senator John Heinz History Center, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  These appear to be the organizations that fund it. The project  was founded and is maintained by university digital librarians and history professors.  Additionally, both undergraduate and graduate students have worked on the project, and their project work and brief resumes are included along with the principal researchers. 

            The project clearly identifies its objectives and research questions  on the “About the Project” section of the site.  The collaborators want to provide access to archived collections that are held in various institutions in Pennsylvania.  This includes bibliographic records highlighting what is available at various archival locations in the state, historical images, transcriptions, and scholarship (essays, projects, links) that’s been undertaken from the resources.  The collaborators find that the home front of Pennsylvania during the Civil War era (1851-1874) has been understudied relative to battles and the Confederate home front.  The project states that a lack of access to (and therefore knowledge about) these archival resources contributes to the lack of studies.  The audience for this digital archive project is civil war historians.  But anyone could potentially find uses for this site. For example, persons looking for information about their ancestors or historians interested in non-civil war topics, like mid-19th Century labor and industrial history, popular culture or economy, might also find some of the resources useful.   

            Navigation to the resources is accomplished by four main access points: Newspapers, Themes, Catalog and Digital Collections.  The Themes  section provides historical contextual essays about mobilization, community, religion, household & family and politics & government.  However, at the time I reviewed this digital archive, the essays about emancipation & civil rights and commemoration were listed as themes, but accompanying essays were not accessible.  The Newspapers section provides a link to the Pennsylvania Newspaper Archive , which is also maintained by Penn State. The newspaper archive appears very comprehensive.  I browsed by date for newspapers printed July 13th through July 18th, 1863 (a time period useful to my research on draft riots).  For that week there are 65 editions from 35 newspapers.  This compares similarly to the 1,252 single-page images of newspapers I got from searching July, 1863 Pennsylvania newspapers at the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America  database.  The search tool from The Peoples Contest allowed me to specifically narrow the search to precise days, which I could not do at Chronicling America.  Additionally, Chronicling America simply “info dumps” all of the pages in random order.  Additionally, the viewer for newspapers in the Pennsylvania Newspaper Archive has excellent features, allowing for zooming close into high quality scans, download pages and make clippings.

            The Catalog section provides a searchable bibliography database to collections across the state.  It is supposed to be searchable by keywords.  However, when I tried using the keyword search function it was not working, which was incredibly frustrating.  The user can also browse these collections by themes (commemoration, community, economy & work, emancipation & civil rights, household & family, mobilization, politics & government, popular culture and religion). The collections can also be searched by persons/ occupations (soldiers, African Americans, business owners, women, children, young adults, workers, public servants and immigrants).  It also allows you to browse by repository, which is helpful if you know where you are looking for more (for example, a specific town or county).  The Digital Collections section lists twenty-four collections that are accessible digitally.  These include diaries, journals, letters, and the papers of involved persons.  Some other collections include pamphlets produced by the Union League of Philadelphia, a collection of family pictures, papers of aid societies, and newspapers produced by literary societies.  One of the most interesting collections is the searchable records of 24,000 Pennsylvanians listed as deserters.

             It appears that most of the items listed have not yet been digitized; most items that I checked consisted only of limited metadata.  Items in the Penn State Library collections are usually the only ones that are available online in digital format.  Resources from other institutions, such as county historical societies, are typically not accessible in digital format.  If a researcher found items that they could potentially use, they have to contact the repository that holds the items.  One probably would still have to make various trips to these archives to check the records and obtain information. It would be nice if this digital archive project could somehow find the means to get more of the catalogue into accessible digital online form.  Nevertheless, it is evident that a considerable amount of time and labor has gone into building the digital archive as it currently stands. The People’s Contest makes it very easy to identify records in Pennsylvania that are relevant to civil war research.  It would significantly reduce the amount of time it would normally take to track down most of these materials.  The resources that are already available digitally are incredibly rich and varied.  There are items that are listed as “Coming Soon” (the Ira Cliff scrapbook and Pinkerton’s reports on the 1877 Scranton riots), so the project is still in the process of adding more digital resources.

            This digital archive abides by some of the important trends in Civil War Era research.  One trend is improved visibility related to persons who have been traditionally excluded from the historical records – women, children, African Americans, for example.   The site also follows the trend of viewing the Civil War from a wider perspective beyond 1861 to 1865.  Historical perspective is often restricted when viewing the Civil War from within this prescribed time frame.  Considering the decades prior to and after the Civil War assists in tying the events of the war to larger historical trends in 19th Century American society.  For example, labor disputes have a long history that extends before, during and after the war.  This project serves as an excellent complement to another digital archive I recently reviewed, Valley of the Shadow, which provides extensive access to Civil War Era documents and records from Franklin County, Pennsylvania (and Augusta County, Virginia).  


Furlough, Mike, William Blair, Sabra Statham and Matt Isham. The People’s Contest, A Civil War Era Digital Archiving Project. Accessed October 10, 2021.

Ayers, Edward, Anne Sarah Rubin, William Thomas and Andrew Torget. The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War. Accessed October 10, 2021.