A Blog Exploring the Backstories of the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi Project

Tag: digital humanities

Working with Student Researchers: An Interview with Mariah Cosens

By Mariah Cosens and Lindsey R. Peterson

The Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi (CWRGM) project’s metadata, transcription, subject tagging, and annotation work is accomplished by an incredible team of students from around the nation. Funded by the NHPRC and NEH, CWRGM presently employs seven graduate students, ten undergraduate students, and a high school senior from Mississippi, South Dakota, Illinois, and New York. Their time with the project provides students with hands-on training and experience in documentary editing, historical research, and DublinCore metadata, and many of our past student researchers have gone onto to rewarding careers in libraries, archives, and museums or to continue their graduate-level education in these fields. Their dedication, skill, and commitment are essential to our ability to make these critical historical records freely available online at cwrgm.org, and we believe their training and professional development is crucial to creating a truly collaborative, community-minded digital documentary edition.

This winter, CWRGM co-director Dr. Lindsey R. Peterson sat down with Mariah Cosens, a member of the CWRGM annotation research team and a first-year master’s student in the history department at the University of South Dakota, to discuss her work with the project. In the subsequent interview, Cosens highlights many of the important skills CWRGM student research assistants develop during their tenure with the project and the importance of this work.

Peterson: Hi Mariah. Thank you so much for agreeing to chat with me. Please tell us about yourself. 

Photograph of Cosens outdoors in a floral, light blue dress with a wide-brimmed white hat
Mariah Cosens, CWRGM Research Assistant and MA student in the history department at the University of South Dakota

Cosens: My pleasure. I’m Mariah Cosens, a first-year master’s student in the history department at USD, and I did my undergraduate degree in history at the University of Sioux Falls before coming here. I’m interested in twentieth century African American history and my thesis focuses on a Black-owned restaurant in southwest Missouri and how, amidst segregation, it created a safe, communal leisure space for Black soldiers deploying out of Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri during World War II. I am also pursuing a certificate in archival and museum studies at the university and am a researcher on the annotation team for CWRGM. I am also a mother of two young daughters and am married. 

Peterson: Thank you; you’re a very busy person. I suppose I should explain a bit about CWRGM’s background for readers. CWRGM, or the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi project, is a federally funded digital documentary edition. With the financial support of the National Endowment of the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, we are digitizing over 20,000 documents that were sent to the governors of Mississippi from 1859–1882. Many people incorrectly assumed that these records are from the governors themselves, but they are actually from an incredibly diverse body of authors. You can hear from women, impoverished people, soldiers, veterans, and even freed African Americans, among many more constituencies. Essentially it was like the Twitter of the era; just about everyone wrote to their governor. Once we have archival quality scans, student researchers write metadata for the collection, transcribe the original documents, and identify key terms in the collection. These key terms then become hyperlinked subject tags, allowing users to find any document in the collection that also shares that term. This is where the annotation team comes in. So, please tell us about your role with CWRGM.

Cosens: Well, I’m currently a research assistant for the annotation team. I was approached by you about a job openings for graduate students on the project, and I wanted to apply because it would connect my background and interest in Black history with digital and public history and expand my skills. My job on the project is to research those key topics that appear in the collection and give context to users to help them better understand this pivotal period. For example, when references to topics such as mass racial violence, like the Yazoo Race Massacre, appear in the collection, I draft up narrative and contextual explanations of what these events were. Essentially, I help users better understand what they are reading and about the complexities of this era, like the relationship between white and Black Americans during Reconstruction. 

Peterson: Well said. Tell us about a favorite key term that you have worked on.

Cosens: That would have to be my annotation for the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. It was fun to research and not just explain what the act itself was legally, but I also got to contextualize what previous laws had done and what its larger impact was, especially for those enslaved people who emancipated themselves. Relating the complexities of how people experienced the act was challenging, interesting, and important to work on. Annotations like this one really help me to become a better writer because I have to take a lot of complicated history about a topic and boil it down to a brief annotation that anyone from a grade school student to a scholar to a genealogist can understand. 

Peterson: That is a great example. What topics are you looking forward to working on?

Cosens: Probably the annotations on the people that show up in the collection. I think that will be really interesting because I am excited to start seeing people overlapping in specific causes and become familiar with them. Sometimes historians feel as though they are acquainted with the people in their research, and I am eager to learn more about their life paths, their struggles, the decisions they made and why they communicated with their governors. Plus, this is where we will really start to identify Black authors by name and flesh out the lives of people who so often go unnamed in history. I also just started work on annotating organizations and that has been fascinating as well because these annotations become spaces where I get to tell broader stories about the past. It is so important to see how individuals impacted a historical narrative and it’s always enjoyable expanding my historical knowledge. 

Photograph of Peterson, wearing a grey shirt and glasses, leaning over desk and looking at a laptop that is being operated by Cosens, who is sitting at a desk and wearing a yellow cardigan.
CWRGM co-director Dr. Lindsey R. Peterson and student researcher Mariah Cosens collaborating on a project annotation

Peterson: I agree, the collection is full of interesting people and topics. How has your work with CWRGM connected with your studies in the history department’s master’s program at USD?

Cosens: The work is fascinating and has taught me a lot of valuable research skills, especially the importance of digital research skills and resources. I often research in online historical newspapers, journals, military records, and the census. And working from South Dakota to find quality primary sources on Mississippi’s history would be impossible without digitization. Not only that, but the sources I am helping put online will also become resources for other students, genealogists, and scholars in their own research, and I have even been able to contextualize my own research better. The themes I find from working on past annotations pertaining to CWRGM’s African American history have helped me to draw connections to my own thesis work, so that’s been really cool to see. As a student, it’s refreshing when your employment mirrors the skills required in your educational path. I get paid to hone these skills, and then I can deploy them directly into my own coursework.  

Peterson: That is fantastic! So many of the skills needed to create these editions are applicable to future careers for humanities students. That has certainly been my own experience. So, what’s surprised you in your work at CWRGM? 

Cosens: I forgot how hard it is to read cursive. (laughs) What is annoyingly surprising is how in the nineteenth century there were not given names to places, so there are all of these locations that existed then and were known colloquially, but they don’t exist anymore. Or at least they no longer are recognizable by their former names, so those terms have been difficult to locate. An example would be Harrison Station, Mississippi. Often these older towns or unincorporated areas were known colloquially through who first purchased and settled the land, but they’ve been subsumed by larger incorporated towns and cease to exist or are just a populated area in a county now. Finding locations like this really takes some digging. I went through many sources with Harrison Station, but none were verifiable or quality sources, so I had to keep researching. Eventually I found a history of the county that finally gave a substantial history to Harrison Station, its settlement dates, and other general context that would have been lost to the ages without the digitization of the source I used. Some days this job feels like a treasure hunt! But I find it very rewarding to finally locate a difficult to find location, person, or organization.  

Peterson: You’re essentially a historical detective! What are some of the challenges of the job?

Screen capture showing the original letter with cursive writing on the left-hand side of the screen and the transcription of the letter on the hand-hand side. The term emancipation has a dark pop-up box above it, explaining what this term means.
Screen capture of CWRGM letter, “Letter from A. P. Miller to Mississippi Governor James L. Alcorn; March 19, 1870,” showing the pop-up annotation associated with the “Emancipation and Self Emancipation” subject tag

Cosens: The size of the tasks in front of me can be a challenge. Some of these terms are huge, so where do I start? How do I boil down an experience like emancipation, with all of its diversity and impact, into a few sentences or paragraphs? It is a monumental task. The reverse is also true. I would also say that learning to be okay with not being able to identify a term and accepting that can be very difficult. Sometimes you can find information about a key term but cannot verify it with quality sources, so you have to move on. Other times you can’t find anything about that topic. It is just lost to history. 

Peterson: That is very true. Before we wrap up, please tell us about your future work with CWRGM and your own career goals.

Cosens: Well, I still have a year and a half left in my Master’s, so I’ll be finishing my coursework and my thesis. I’ll also continue with the annotation team but am interested in learning more about digital editing, and CWRGM is a place where I can gain those skills. Concerning the long term, though, I am leaning towards going into some type of public history field but am open to anything where I can use my historical research and writing skills. I am especially interested in digital research and connecting history to the public in digital spaces, so my training with CWRGM is invaluable to learning digital workflows, research, and communication. My interests have primarily been in African American history, but I’m also open to working on public history concerning United States history at large, too. If I could keep doing something as flexible, accessible, and fascinating as this work long-term, I would be delighted! 

Thinking Critically About Our Data

By Lindsey R. Peterson

Increasing quantities of data are being made available online, making it easier to lose sight of humanity in digital spaces. Therefore, it is essential for diverse groups of users — scholars, educators, archivists, librarians, students, and the public — to evaluate the quality of online resources. This often means critically assessing our data and its uses, including if the representation of the people in the collection and its data is equitable. Users should be asking whether the data produced by digital editions is replicating, amplifying, or challenging inequalities and stratifications in contemporary society. This post introduces users to an expansive (but not exhaustive) list of questions to ask of data in digital editions based on our own exploration of the data we are producing at the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi Project (CWRGM). Consequently, it is designed to aid educators invested in teaching data literacy and accompanies CWRGM’s “Exploring Data in Digital Editions” lesson plan. Fundamentally, it seeks to remind users of data’s human element.


Digital editions produce massive amounts of data for scholarly, educational, and public use. Implicit within digital editions are concerns about equity. The Data Equity Framework is an online resource advocating for equity in data science. They note, “Data science methods can produce results, but only through interpretation can we garner any useful meaning from them.” Rather than being infallible, they remind us that processing data is subjective. They note, “It’s a combination of our best understanding of the limitations of the data, the methodology, and the content.” Data, however, often seems objective. Therefore, issues of equitable data are even more critical, as users mistakenly equate data with fact. This can lead users to overlook the need to evaluate online resources. While this post is specifically about documentary editions, the digital humanities seek to help users uncover and explore the subjective nature of data.

The following questions are designed to push users to analyze: Whose voices are represented in these collections and how? Whose voices are absent and why? It is imperative for users to critically evaluate the data produced by digital editions. Throughout this post, I offer several questions to help users do just that by providing examples from CWRGM where I work as the project’s co-director alongside Dr. Susannah J. Ural.

These key questions of analysis are designed to assist users who want to evaluate online resources. Specifically, I will review the data created by CWRGM, paying particular attention to equity and representation. But I also reflect on open access, digital accessibility, and usability. These questions can serve as a guide for facilitating discussions about data literacy, the humanities, and digital editions in the K-12 and post-secondary classroom. CWRGM even offers a 12th grade lesson plan at the website to help users do just that, which users can find here.


  1. What kinds of qualitative and quantitative data does the project produce and how is it generated and maintained?
    1. For example, is it by metadata, indexing, transcriptions, images, mapping/GIS coordinates, annotation, or something else?
    1. Is it open? What programs generate the data and how is it created?
  2. How does the edition’s data impact how people use the edition and what they know about the subjects/people contained in the collection?
  3. How are people represented by the data?
    1. For example, is it by a marker on a map, name, a group identity, or something else?
  4. How does this representation shape what can be learned about the subjects/people in the collection?
  5. What are the potential limitations and/or dangers of these representations or lack of representations?
  6. How can the digital edition address or subvert these possible limitations?
  7. How can users’ work—such as annotation, research, or art—address or subvert these possible limitations?
  8. While these questions are useful in the abstract, diving into the data found within CWRGM demonstrates how these ideas and inquiries can be framed when looking at a specific digital edition. I also offer examples of potential issues and opportunities found within CWRGM’s data.
Petition to Mississippi Governor Adelbert Ames; March 24, 1876

Petition to Mississippi Governor Adelbert Ames; March 24, 1876. Courtesy of the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi. Click on image to view entire document and transcription.


CWRGM is a digital edition that is digitizing 20,000 documents sent to the governors of Mississippi during the American Civil War and Reconstruction (1859–1882). Americans from all backgrounds wrote to the state’s governors with their concerns, and after 1865, this included African American authors. With NEH/NHPRC-funding, along with other support, these records are made freely available online. They include high-quality images of the original documents alongside transcriptions, which also feature annotated subject tags.

Document metadata, in-text subject tags, and annotations are designed to increase the discoverability of the people within the collection. They can help shine a light on historically marginalized people such as African Americans, women, and impoverished people. But the project also generates massive amounts of quantitative data for research and classroom use. New documents become available every few months until the project’s completion in 2030. The quantitative data is made freely available on the website and is updated every six months.

The documents housed at CWRGM provide an example of how to evaluate online resources. The methods our research team employs to increase discoverability within these collections create fruitful opportunities for users to think critically about how data is produced, the ethical implications of that data, and the data’s opportunities and its limitations. To explore these possibilities, I will refer to the African Americans subject tag and its cooccurrences file

Screen capture of subject tags and facets under the Military Units category at CWRGM.

Screen capture of subject tags and facets under the Military Units category. Courtesy of the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi. Click on image to view all available military unit subject tags at CWRGM.


When project researchers identify language that falls under one of CWRGM’s nine subject tag categories, they link it to an internally controlled vocabulary. For example, various references to enslaved people (such as servants, slave, servile population, etc.) are tagged with the controlled subject term “African Americans–Enslaved People.” A tag is added to a document no more than once. Then it generates an index of all documents containing it in the collection. While indexes like these are incredibly useful to users, we should always evaluate online resources like this. We can start by asking:

  1. How easy or challenging was it to find the data and methods on the project website and why does this matter?
    1. What benefits are created by subject tagging or indexing a collection? How can they aid users?
  2. How can these indexes make records pertaining to historically marginalized people more discoverable?
  3. What are some issues that may arise?

For example, while every document is drafted and goes through two stages of review by different CWRGM researchers (per CWRGM’s tagging protocols), subject tags are applied by humans and can be overlooked and misapplied in the collection. Furthermore, the boundaries of every subject tag are debatable. For example, how do you apply the African Americans tag when the subject is biracial? The authors’ meaning or intent can also be unclear. Sometimes tags can be added that don’t belong there or should have been added when they do apply. Multiple stages of review and transparency, including providing open access to the project’s protocols or explanatory subject tag annotations, are therefore essential to addressing these concerns.


Subject tagging creates an index of the documents within the collection that contain that subject tag. For example, this is an index of all of the documents in the collection that refer to African Americans. A cooccurrences file then exports the other subject tags that were also tagged in documents that received the African Americans subject tag. This file allows users to see what other terms are most frequently discussed alongside that subject tag. Again, users should evaluate these online resources:

  1. How easy or challenging was it to find the quantitative data and methods on the project website and why does this matter?
  2. What kinds of information can you find in a concurrences file? How valuable is it?
  3. Are there potential biases or stereotypes that could be reinforced by the data?

CWRGM users will find, for example, that to obtain other cooccurrences files they must email the CWRGM research team. Balancing a need to protect finalized versions of documents with the technology available to the project led to this decision. But emailing the CWRGM editorial team for cooccurrence data still creates a barrier to access.


Users may also note the potential issues and opportunities regarding representation in the collection’s data. For example, the African Americans subject tag shows a high correlation with tags connected to criminality. This could highlight and even reinforce long standing stereotyping of Blackness with deviance and criminality. Conversely, it also shows that criminal records and criminal proceedings may be a fruitful avenue for exploring Black experiences during the era. This may lead users to investigate white Americans’ use of the legal system to control, restrict, and subjugate African Americans during Reconstruction. It also can reveal Black efforts to resist the racially based adjudication of the law.

People can also be reduced to a group identity in the collection’s data. Where white men, are often readily identifiable by first name and surname, other historically disempowered people are less likely to be found this way. Many women for example are listed as Mrs. David Johnson. Enslaved people are rarely named and when they are, it is typically unclear what their self-identified names were. This document offers a rare opportunity where enslaved people included their first name and surnames. Other groups, such as the patients at the Mississippi State Mental Health Hospital are overwhelmingly referred to as inmates.

Annotations tied to subject tags, however, provide readers with missing information. They also do not alter the transcription of the original text. While CWRGM preferences tagging full names wherever possible, they also add the “African Americans–Enslaved People” subject tag to the document to link all references to enslaved people under one subject tag. This practice allows users to more easily study the experiences of those belonging to a collective identity.


Pop-up annotation for the “Convict Labor. Mississippi. Leasing Program” subject tag at CWRGM.

Pop-up annotation for the “Convict Labor. Mississippi. Leasing Program” subject tag on Copy of contract; October 27, 1874. Courtesy of the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi. Click on image to view entire document and transcription.

Pages include an archival-quality digital file of the original document alongside a transcription that includes annotated subject tags. You can see an example here. Subject tag annotations provide users with historical context, explanation, and clarification for how the term is used in the collection. While the document transcriptions and their subject tags produce the collections’ data, the annotated documents themselves offer opportunities to overcome some of the shortcomings of the collection’s data. These possibilities present exciting questions:

  1. How can reading the qualitative data (documents and annotations) and using qualitative thinking impact what we know, or think we know, about the quantitative data (or subject tagging and cooccurrences files)?
  2. How does this shape what we know about history/society and our research subject/s?

Data can help point users in fruitful directions, but it contains bias and can be used in harmful ways. Incorporating qualitative reasoning using the documents themselves into our research allows users to discover more about the people within the collection—such as their names, feelings, and experiences—and uncover the human experience where quantitative data often falls short. But there are also limits to what qualitative information can provide. Even with external research, for example, many groups of people cannot be identified by name.


Annotated subject tags and transcriptions offer exciting possibilities for increased access and discoverability in digital editions. Transcriptions, for example, can aid users with disabilities because they can be used in conjunction with online accessibility plugins, where the document images cannot.

Furthermore, adding subject tags within the document offers users (especially students) more appropriate, contemporary naming practices. It is important to keep in mind that not all members of that identity agree on the appropriate terminology or who belongs under the umbrella term.

“Jackson, Mississippi,” Elisaeus von Seutter Collection. Ca. 1800s. Sysid 96984. Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Adding annotations to the subject tags can help users learn more about the people who appear in these collections. For example, we can see women’s maiden names or identify the names of an enslaved person without automatically bestowing the enslaver’s surname onto them. Furthermore, historians can offer context in places where the document’s author used coded, inappropriate, or misleading language. For example, when an author refers to penitentiary work, an annotation can provide the greater context about Mississippi’s convict leasing program to highlight the racial inequalities institutionalized within the system.


Digital editions offer users access to primary sources and historical data on an unprecedented scale but comprise only an infinitesimal portion of the online resources available today. Society has struggled to critically evaluate the mass proliferation of information that has become available with a few quick clicks. The skills to critically evaluate online resources—how they were generated, presented, and maintained—therefore, are paramount. Turning to resources like this lesson plan, the Data Equity Framework, and digital humanities projects like CWRGM can begin to provide users with the tools and resources they need to ask critical questions of online information and most importantly, recenter the human element within the data.

Lindsey R. Peterson, Ph.D. is co-director of the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi Project and the Digital Humanities Librarian at the University of South Dakota (Vermillion). Thanks to funding from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission, she attended the 2023 Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) where she completed the Critical Pedagogy and Digital Praxis in the Humanities course. An earlier version of this piece was published as “How to Evaluate Online Resources using a Digital Edition,” a blog post she authored as part of her time at DHSI, which can be accessed here.

An Analysis of Women in CWRGM Using Metadata and Subject Tags

by Meghan Sturges

The Civil War and Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi Project (CWRGM) provides amazing opportunities for its graduate assistants. I was lucky enough to serve as a metadata graduate assistant for the past two semesters while finishing a degree in Library Information Science. When choosing a topic for my thesis, I knew I wanted to analyze CWRGM to highlight how one can use this archive to find accounts of marginalized communities, like women. Using quantitative analysis, I focused on letters written by women and about African American women. Both are under-represented in narratives about the United States Civil War era, and I wanted to see if metadata and subject tagging made correspondence in both categories easier to discover.

Before digging into the analysis, one must understand how CWRGM uses the metadata and subject tags to enhance this archive. CWRGM uses a version of metadata tags established by the Library of Congress (LOC) subject authorities and subject tags created by CWRGM project leads using controlled vocabulary. Developed to fill in gaps that the metadata tags do not quite satisfy, these subject tags are what allow traditionally minimalized/marginalized groups to become more discoverable in the CWRGM archive. For example, the subject tag Historically Free and Newly Freed African Americans was used in my research. This subject tag covers a variety of groups and experiences that researchers may not think to use when searching or terms that are now considered offensive and/or outdated. What CWRGM has done is make content more accessible by being thoughtful with its use of language.

As I began my analysis of the site in the Fall 2022, first I browsed the Explore the Collection page for any subject tag that revealed groups of women.[i] After examining the list of categories, I chose several for further investigation: Ladies Military Aid Societies, Widows, Nurses, and Seamstresses. The results indicated that southern white women were prolific participants in the Civil War. Of the 180 letters examined from this specific search, 57 or 31.6%, were written by women. Ladies Military Aid Societies had the most letters written by women, where 33.9% of all letters under this category were authored by women. These messages demonstrate that women raised funds, sewed uniforms, volunteered as nurses, and one woman, Martha S. Boddie, even offered her jewels to buy a gunboat for the Confederacy (see below).

Letter from Martha S. Boddie to Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus; February 1862. Courtesy The Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi. Click on image to view entire document and transcription.

The second largest category of women writing letters is under the section for Widows. Of the 103 letters that appeared under the term Widows, 34 were written by women. As one can imagine, the war created many widows and many of these letters are from women made desperate by the loss of their source of personal and financial security. Multiple widows, for example, asked to have taxes waived or requested they be pardoned from crimes committed to support their families. In one situation, Martha Craigan wrote to Governor Charles Clark in 1863, complaining of her cotton being burned as she and her neighbors were traveling to exchange the cotton for other goods. Craigan laments, “I never would have attempted it if necessity had not had drove me to it, having been deprived of the necessaries of life for the last three years, with a large and helpless family of girls, with no husband or son to assist in making them a support.” Despite appealing to local military officials, they could offer no assistance and referred her to the governor. Many women like Craigan were left in dire situations, and Confederate state legislatures worked to find ways to increase support for military families throughout the war.[ii]

Table A: Percentage of Letters Written by Women
by Metadata and/or Subject Tag

The documents relating to African American women’s experiences were even more exciting because for too long they have been silenced in United States history. Some of this is, scholars argue, is due to the limited sources available. It was illegal for African Americans (freed or enslaved) to learn how to read or write in much of the Antebellum South, and Mississippi was no exception.[iii] So, it is fair to say less African American-authored material is available for archivists and historians, but it is not impossible to hear their voices, as scholars have increasingly shown over the last several decades. In part, this is done by looking through the narratives of others to find information. The CWRGM subject tag Historically Free and Newly Freed African Americans helps with this, and I explored these for this search. At the time of the investigation, I located 238 documents of which 83 or 34.8% mentioned African American women. To be clear, many of these documents are written by white people and, as a result, carry a white interpretation of a Black person’s experience. Still, some documents are by African-American authors and used alongside other accounts by whites, they can offer examples of African-American women’s experiences before, during, and after the Civil War.

The largest number of letters about African American women were written in 1865, right at the war’s end. Many of these take the form of issued rations and food given to Mississippians from all walks of life by the Union Army. The documented rations in Table A represent only those issued to African American women, 66% of the letters examined in this analysis. Beyond being identified as female and African American, most of these ration cards give little information about their recipients. Still, data can uncover powerful stories, and the data relating to rations tells a tale of need. A possible way for this to be further studied is to examine any correspondence or journals written by the Union officers issuing the ration cards. A few specific officers issued many ration cards, and personal reflections may provide more details about African American women and others who needed rations. Another approach is through census, newspaper, and pension records, which may offer more information about the women’s experiences. Below is a Ration return of Lieutenant Franklin Force, in which 15 days’ worth of rations were issued to one male and nine female freedmen in August of 1865.

Ration return of Lieutenant Franklin Force; August 16, 1865. Courtesy The Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi. Click on image to view entire document and transcription.

As shown in Table B below, much of the correspondence—of the documents currently available online—referencing African American women did not appear until after the war ended. Only one document was written before the war, in 1859. Twelve were written after the war; four in 1868, one in 1869, three in 1870, and four in 1871. These are not happy letters. They tell stories of murder, exploitation, and cruelty against newly freed African American women. The first letter to appear in the search referring to an African American woman was from Sheriff Robert Meeks describing the murder of Lucy McCormick, a young African American girl shot to death.

Table B: Number of Letters by Year

One does not have to be a historian to find value in these archives. CWRGM offers excellent opportunities to study metadata, highlighting the role that archival methods play in making collections more discoverable for researchers. For me, that was the most significant impact of this project, which explored the efficacy of the CWRGM metadata and subject tags. The goal was to find narratives of women, and using the website’s guidance, that was simple to do.

[i] Data for this project was based on research conducted in the Fall of 2022 and the Spring of 2023; the documents and subject tags available at cwrgm.org are always growing and evolving, so this data may not reflect what is currently available at the site.

[ii] See, for example, Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[iii] Christopher M. Span, “Learning in Spite of Opposition: African Americans and Their History of Educational Exclusion in Antebellum America.” Counterpoints 131 (2005): 26–53.

Meghan Sturges is a native Mississippian graduating with her Master of Library Information Science in May 2023 from the University of Southern Mississippi. She served as a research graduate assistant for CWRGM for the Fall 2022 and Spring 2023 semesters. She has worked as a history teacher at Pascagoula High School for the past seven years. After graduation, she plans to pursue a career in Academic Librarianship.

If You Build It, And They Come . . . Does The Site Work For Them?

By Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D.

CWRGM had a wonderfully productive year in 2022. We made 3,980 additional documents freely available at our website (our total is now just over 7,000 of a projected 20,000 documents). Each of these digitized documents contains metadata, transcriptions, and subject tags that enhance discoverability. We also made incredible progress on annotation, led by Senior Associate Editor Lindsey Peterson, who oversaw the team’s annotations for 991 places, 103 events, 68 organizations and businesses, 195 occupations, 55 social identifiers, five vital statistics. That means, by December 2022, all but 20 documents at CWRGM.org had some annotation and they averaged five annotated subjects per document (see our Annotation Protocols if you have questions about this process).

We also retained most of our talented 2021-2022 team members and added more students representing multiple colleges, universities, and community colleges from across the state: the University of Southern Mississippi, Millsaps University, Mississippi State University, The Mississippi University for Women, and Pearl River Community College. We lost two team members to other positions, but at least one of them secured that work in part due to what they had learned with us, which is wonderful to see . We were also joined by a first-rate new Assistant Editor, Sarah West (you can see our current research team and our alums here). We hosted an annual educator workshop that generated three more CWRGM lesson plans and led our first National History Day (NHD) workshop for students from Council Bluffs, Iowa (Kirn Middle School and Abraham Lincoln High School) and from Akron-Westfield, Iowa (Akron-Westfield Middle School). If you are leading or part of an NHD project, I encourage you to check out our NHD resource page and video.

While we’re pleased with this progress, Lindsey and I couldn’t help but wonder how users were exploring our site and if there are ways to improve their experience. We offer tips on how to “Explore the Collection.” And analytics can reveal data like how many people access the site, which pages they visit the most, and how long they stay on the site. But what about issues with discoverability and accessibility? We can gather feedback about errors or if users want to share more information about something in a document, but that doesn’t answer the question of how they explore the site and how we can make that experience as successful as possible.

Visit our “Explore the Collection” page for tips on, well, exploring the CWRGM collection.

This spring, CWRGM is focusing on that very issue, especially as it relates to the records of marginalized groups whose voices have been underrepresented in archives. Ours is a nineteenth-century collection of governors’ papers, and if you know anything about nineteenth-century Americans, it seems that everybody wrote to their governors about absolutely anything. Even people who could not write would find others to write on their behalf. We are thrilled with the diversity of our collection that spans the era of one of the most revolutionary times in U.S. history and the “finds” our volunteers and research team are making freely available to all. But we don’t know that equally diverse contemporary groups are “hearing” these voices today. That is, after all, one of our goals. We want this archive’s users to be as diverse as our collection; this is an archive for everyone, not just scholars and others who are wealthy enough to have the time and training to explore it successfully. So, how do we measure if we are accomplishing that goal? Furthermore, are users with different types of interests finding records as easily as we think they can? Is there something we could do to improve discoverability?

Lindsey and I had already tried to get at this information with simple surveys. We sent these to educators, to fellow Civil War-era scholars, to our advisory board, and we even reached out to genealogical and historical associations to send them to their entire membership. But we’ve received little feedback.

So Lindsey and I did what we always do when we hit an editorial wall — we reached out to our friends in the documentary editing community. Ben and Sara Brumfield, in particular, had some great suggestions that led us to two specific ventures this spring. The first involves partnering with The Luster Company, a consulting firm that specializes in unearthing and highlighting marginalized Black voices. The Luster Company will help us assess the current discoverability and accessibility features at our site, reach more diverse user groups to discover how they use CWRGM.org, and see if there are ways we can improve the site. We’re also working with individual chapters of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS) to share our project with their members and workshop the collection. Our goal is to introduce the chapter members to the collection and then see how they, as trained and experienced historical genealogists specializing in African-American historical research, access our rich collection to see if there are ways to improve our digital organization and search features.

We’ll report back on the results of this venture, but we’re sharing our ideas now in case other documentary editors are facing the same dilemma or if any of you have successfully resolved this issue through other means. By all means – please let us know.

Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D. directs the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi Project. She is Professor of History at the University of Southern Mississippi where she directs the Center for Digital Humanities and is a senior research fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She is the author of numerous books and articles on the U.S. Civil War era.