Digital Detectives

I don’t often read true crime—to keep my faith in humanity somewhat intact, I usually like my murder mysteries to be fictional. But when I heard about local authors/father-and-daughter duo Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James and their history-true crime crossover, The Man From the Train, I had to take a peek. The Man From the Train details a yearslong string of axe murders in the early 1900s, all of which were committed late at night and within close proximity to a railroad line.

I don’t live all that far from a train station myself, so this was an unsettling read to say the least. But, as someone who loves research and local history, what really stood out to me in the aftermath was the starring role played by the mass digitization of newspapers. Not that long ago, the research necessary to uncover and connect the dots between these disparate crimes, separated as they were by time and sometimes considerable geographic distance, would have required a superhuman effort and/or an enormous team of researchers to scroll through years worth of microfilm from all over the country. Now, with hundreds of thousands of newspaper pages available in keyword-searchable digital databases, heretofore needles-in-haystacks can be retrieved in seconds with a savvy search string. Indeed, local poet Eric McHenry recently stumbled across evidence that Langston Hughes was born a year earlier than his official birthdate while dabbling experimentally with digital newspapers.

Find yourself wanting to get in on some old-timey digital detective action? Thanks to our friends at the Kansas State Historical Society, the Kansas Digital Newpapers Program offers Kansans free access to more than 8 million pages of pre-1923 Kansas newspapers. Historic newspapers offer glimpses into the everyday life of earlier times and are essential resources whether you are delving into your family’s history, the backstory of your old house, or the details of the sensational murder that rocked your town way back when. Want to help with the effort to make digitized historic documents searchable? The Smithsonian and the National Archives are just two of the many archives looking for volunteers to transcribe handwritten historic documents. Need help with your research? Drop by, give us a call, email us, or Book a Librarian. Armchair gumshoes, get sleuthing!

-Melissa Fisher Isaacs is the Information Services Coordinator at Lawrence Public Library.

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