Help Find Historic Cartoons in World War I-era Newspapers

The crowd-sourcing effort is the first project in a new digital workspace that aims to make the Library of Congress’ vast resources more accessible

WWI-era newspaper photo
A newspaper's photograph of six men, all of different ethnicities. The caption reads: "Through by birth the men in this group, photographed at a National army cantonment, are as diverse as one could possibly imagine, they stand together in their readiness to fight for Uncle Sam." North Platte semi-weekly tribune, November 23, 1917, via the Library of Congress

The nation's oldest federal cultural institution, the Library of Congress, is turning to new technologies to keep its collection accessible, and they need your help, reports Shaunacy Ferro for Mental Floss.

The Library is seeking volunteers to sort through digitally scanned newspapers from the World War I-era and mark all the silly comics, political cartoons, illustrations and photos. Users can help make the historical newspapers more searchable by doing one of three tasks: marking, transcribing and verifying.

The first task is simply drawing a box around pictures or illustrations and their captions. The second involves transcribing information from those captions. The third is verifying that other volunteers' efforts match what you see.

The project, Beyond Words, offers a unique look back in time. 

In one short session, perused faded text from the Saturday, August 3, 1918 issue of Tulsa Daily World. The page was full of short, intriguing pieces that seemed to stretch the contemporary definition of news, with headlines like: "Jeweler Finds Cap to Match Button," "Food Administrator Here Next Thursday," "A Child Gets Cross, Sick and Feverish When Constipated." Ads for machine oil and tonics also took up space on the page, but we found no illustrations to mark.

The next page offered something. Underneath the headline "Another Reporter Gives Up Pen for the Sword" lay a picture of a Walter A. Phelan, "the sixth member of the News-Times' local news staff to enlist in the service of the United States since the declaration of war on Germany." The photograph comes from the The Sound Bend News-Times on June 21, 1917. Another find: a photograph of George "Babe" Ruth and a drawing of the man "at the top of the Batting Pole" — the pole being a literal one that cartoons of baseball players climb.

The final page of our search revealed a multi-panel comic depicting various characters riding a bicycle modified with propeller blades fore and aft. The caption reads:

DEAR TOMMY: We're having a lot of fun with this windcycle. Our Minister and I tried it first on the boardwalk; but a policeman chased us off. Then we took it on the beach, and Papa, got rattled and ran it into the surf, but a lifeguard pulled him out. He is learning to ride is all right! Yours, etc., WILLIE

Beyond Words is just the first of a selection of projects, experiments and resources that the Library of Congress will offer as part of, a new online space, designed to help the collection reach more eyes. 

“We’re excited to see what happens when you bring together the largest collection of human knowledge ever assembled with the power of 21st-century technology,” says Kate Zwaard, the chief of the Library’s National Digital Initiatives office, which manages the new website, in the press release. “Every day, students, researchers, journalists and artists are using code and computation to derive new knowledge from library collections. With labs, we hope to create a community dedicated to using technology to expand what’s possible with the world’s creative and intellectual treasures.”

All of the images are in the public domain, and there is a gallery of images and text that users have already marked and transcribed.

“What I like about crowdsourcing is it gives people a chance to discover hidden gems in the collection,” says Tong Wang, the IT specialist who created the project, in a press release from the Library. "You never know what you’ll find poking through old newspapers."

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