Digital project focuses on Lincoln-based sermons

By Maureen McGavin | Feb. 22, 2013

Story image

A group of graduate students at Emory University specializing in digital research in the humanities have created a new website that uses digital tools to analyze and compare the text of sermons delivered after Abraham Lincoln's assassination. 

Their project uses various digital text tools to map geographic and thematic patterns in the collection of 57 sermons, which reside in the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library of Emory's Robert W. Woodruff Library. The scholars are calling their project "Lincoln Logarithms: Finding Meaning in Sermons" and they hope it will become a model for the next wave of research in the humanities. 

"The [Lincoln] sermons are something we honed in on because we think the analysis we did could be helpful to a lot of researchers," says Sarita Alami, one of three graduate fellows in the library's Digital Scholarship Commons (DiSC).    

"Nothing exists like this right now," says Alami of the online guide. "The sermons are a game piece for creating a guide for people who are interested in doing digital projects and don't know what tool to use or where to turn. We created an online map so that researchers can know what to try."  

She and her colleagues hope their new approach will help other researchers at Emory and have broad applications. "Digital tools can enable scholars to know what questions to ask, and at the very least they make it faster to be able to ask interesting and relevant questions," Alami says.  

Working with Sara Palmer, a digital text specialist with the library's Beck Center that digitizes and curates rare collections, the DiSC scholars each used a different digital text tool to gauge its effectiveness in comparing the sermons. Some tools were useful, some not so much.  

"Doing digital research 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," says Alami. "That in itself was a finding," she adds.  

For example, Palmer of the Beck Center tested an aspect of the project using 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," says Palmer. She explains that the Vermont one focuses on Lincoln's life achievement as freeing the slaves, the same theme seen in the Spielberg movie, and a common theme in popular culture.  

In the Southern sermon, given by a Northern preacher, 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, according to Palmer. 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," she says.  

Alami says the Voyant analysis "raises a host of other research questions, such as how was southern writing about peace affected by Lincoln's assassination? That would not necessarily be a question you would know to ask unless you had the digital findings."