Midwest Time Machine, a new website from the Newberry Library, enables users to see the past through first-hand accounts of different figures, from a wealthy socialite in Chicago to a U.S. Army private who was part of the Lewis and Clark expedition. After a user chooses a “character,” they can peel back the layers of that person’s life by reading a sequence of primary sources from the Newberry’s archives.
Combining images and interactive maps with letters and diaries transcribed online by volunteers, the site explores the Midwest from a variety of points of view, presenting an expansive survey of the region’s history.
The eyewitness accounts of momentous events and everyday life that are accessible through Midwest Time Machine provide users with a direct link to the past. The diary of heiress Julia Newberry, for example, chronicles her reaction to the Great Chicago Fire in striking detail: “And then oh misery, the fire, the red, angry, unrelenting fire, leapt across the river + burnt + burnt til Mr Mahlon Ogden’s house was the only one left standing up to Lincoln Park.”
The text from Julia’s diary, as well as from the other letters and diaries on Midwest Time Machine, was compiled from more than 16,000 pages of transcriptions created by volunteers on the Newberry’s crowdsourcing platform Newberry Transcribe.
“Once it would have taken months or even years for a researcher to comb through this many documents,” said Jennifer Dalzin, the Newberry’s Director of Digital Initiatives. “We’re grateful to the volunteers whose efforts enabled us to complete the same search in seconds. We hope to collaborate with the public on such projects for many years to come.”
The Newberry has launched Midwest Time Machine as part of a multidisciplinary project titled What Is the Midwest? Offering perspectives beyond stereotypes of the Midwest as the nondescript “middle” of the country, the project explores the unique confluence of environmental and human factors that has defined the region and made it distinct.
What Is the Midwest? is generously funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.