Historical Research in the Digital Age

Historically, humanities research was done by travelling to libraries and archives in order to access microfilm or carefully preserved print copies of primary sources. In some cases, training in proper handling technique was required before access was granted. The advent of online databases has rapidly made resources more widely available, helping to remedy (in some cases) the lack of representation of minority voices in the historical narrative.

We must remember, however, that primary sources like newspapers are not perfectly transcribed into digital form. As Ian Milligan writes, “We are witnessing the application of commercial optical character recognition (OCR) technology to our work, a process that takes an image, recognizes shapes that are in the forms of letters, and writes the output in plain text. … Applying these tools, initially designed for specific commercial applications, to historical documents yields mixed results.”

Exploring a Newspaper Archive

In order to examine how the digitization of resources may influence the research process, I chose to investigate the following question:

How did agricultural workers’ unions in the South influence immigration policy during the Great Depression?

I quickly discovered that this question, while interesting, would be difficult to research because I was not familiar with names of specific agricultural unions in the location of interest. Searches including the word “union” yielded several articles concerning the Civil War, even though I had restricted the time range to between 1929 and 1950. I was also frustrated to find that, although I could search for both “union” and “immigrant” or “immigration,” since the papers were organized by page, my searches often yielded pages with separate articles each containing one of the topics I was interested in.

I therefore modified my question to:

What was the public perception of changing immigration policy during the Great Depression?

It was much easier to find an article concerning this topic. I quickly located an article from The Indianapolis Times titled “Bans propose to place bars on immigrants: Total ban, or 90 per cent quota slash, among answers to Hoover.” The article primarily focused on President Herbert Hoover’s request to Congress; he is quoted in the article as asking that, “Immigration restrictions now in force under administrative action be placed upon a more definite basis by law.” Several different proposals are briefly mentioned in the body of the article, mostly without comment on their merits, although reference is made to contemporary European immigration policy.

The American Civil Liberties Union dominates the final third of the article, as the authors present its “severe criticism” of Hoover’s request. The article ends with a quote from Forrest Bailey, then-director of the ACLU: “The number of persons deported by the department of labor in recent times is greater than ever in history and the harships [sic] of these deportees is notorious.”

Knowing that immigration policy did get dramatically stricter during this time period, and knowing that anti-Mexican and anti-Chinese rhetoric was especially strong, I was surprised to see the ACLU given such a strong voice. It is, however, worth noting that this article is on the very last page of the paper. An earlier page presents a political cartoon depicting with predictable sensitivity two Japanese men reacting to American-Chinese trade agreements.

The way the paper amplified the ACLU’s protests towards Hoover’s dramatic request made more sense when I looked at the front page of that same issue.

Above the fold on the front page of The Indianapolis Times on December 14, 1931. From Chronicling America, an archive by the Library of Congress.

In the most prominent position possible was the above article. Seeing the newspaper downplay the mere possibility of economic hardships (in 1931!) shows why they might not agree with Hoover’s positioning of immigrants as a job-stealing problem that had to be dramatically minimized.

To contrast with Hoover’s request for stricter immigration law, I also found a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt in German-English newspaper Siebenbuergisch-Amerikanisches Volksblatt. On page 7 the paper included a list of quotes from notable figures from the previous week. The first entry read:

President Roosevelt, in a message to the convention of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers:

“I need not stress the tremendous contribution of American organized labor to the preservation of our democracy in these days of global war. I know that the American people can continue to count on the membership of your union–so many of whom are immigrants, or the children of immigrants–in this critical period of our nation’s life.

“It is the fervent hope of all free peoples that before very long every vestige of fascism and nazism will be stamped out from this world. New problems will then face us. I am confident that the American people can look forward to the continued cooperation of the organized workers of this country in the solution of those new problems and in attaining the economic and social progress which is so essential to our own happiness and to continued world peace.”

Theodore Roosevelt

The way Roosevelt specifically addressed the union and specifically called out immigration made me want to return to my initial research question, but I held out because thoroughly answering that question would take more time than the scope of this assignment warranted.

Supporting Research

Having found primary sources demonstrating the public perception of immigrants, I used the George Mason University library’s article and book search to find a modern prospectus on immigration during that time period. I initially searched for “1931 public perception of immigrants”, but found that most of the articles that floated to the top of the results were not about 1931 at all, but rather modern-day immigration. I added “in America” to my search and the top result gave me what I wanted.

The article, published in Social Science Quarterly by Irene Bloemraad, is titled “Citizenship lessons from the past: The contours of immigrant naturalization in the early 20th century.” She focuses primarily on data from the 1900, 1910, and 1920 U.S. Censuses, but the information is certainly relevant to the perception of immigrants as the Great Depression began. Bloemraad also applies her results to current migration and naturalization patterns.

Bloemraad finds in her research that the likelihood of an immigrant to become an American citizen was initially highly dependent upon the local political environments. She writes, “In 1900, where an immigrant lived influenced naturalization more than birthplace, ability to speak English, or literacy. The effect of residence was not just a function of urban political machines but appears linked to how warmly, or punitively, a state treated noncitizens.” Soon after this, however, she notes that the naturalization process was centralized by the federal government, and therefore, “the relative influence of national versus local politics on immigrant citizenship increased.”

She concludes that, “…the warmth of the welcome extended to newcomers–in the form of legislation and through local political mobilization–mattered greatly in encouraging citizenship among immigrants.”

Bloemraad’s article is primarily a research article, as she uses statistical analysis of census data to investigate the driving factors behind naturalization. I find it helpful because she includes very thorough descriptions of each potential factor, and extensively references prior work and opinions on the subject.

Reflecting and Updating

The question I finally settled on was “What was the public perception of changing immigration policy during the Great Depression?” This was purposefully extremely broad because I didn’t have enough background knowledge to usefully narrow the topic.

After looking through the newspapers, I was interested to note how unimportant immigration policy seemed to be. It was relegated to higher page numbers and shoved between ads for electrical services and Christmas presents. It seems like a significant amount of exploratory research would have to be done just to determine how to best find helpful primary source articles.

There are several ways I could narrow this topic, but Bloemraad’s article makes me curious about how naturalization of an immigrant would influence people’s perception of them. Did rates of naturalization increase as immigration policy became more strict?

A larger project might focus on what was driving the public perception of immigrants. Possibilities would include local and federal government policies, unions, trends in hiring by employers, and rate of naturalization. An underlying theme through all of these is, of course, racism. That merits its own large project: how did conscious or unconscious racism influence immigration policy during the Great Depression?

While briefly looking into these questions, I found that the newspapers had the largest influence in guiding my research. Based on the Ian Milligan article I expected to find the context of the full page helpful, but I was still surprised by how informative it was to have the surrounding articles and ads. The experience of looking at the article within its page as a whole brought me into the time and position of a contemporary reader in a way that a transcribed article couldn’t have done.


Fanslow, Robin A. “The Migrant Experience.” Web page. Voices from the Dust Bowl: the Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940 to 1941, April 6, 1998. https://www.loc.gov/collections/todd-and-sonkin-migrant-workers-from-1940-to-1941/articles-and-essays/the-migrant-experience/.
Bloemraad, Irene. “Citizenship Lessons from the Past: The Contours of Immigrant Naturalization in the Early 20th Century.” Social Science Quarterly 87, no. 5 (2006): 927–53. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42956588.
Scripps-Howard Newspaper Alliance. “Bills Propose to Place Bars on Immigrants: Total Ban, or 90 per Cent Quota Slash, among Answers to Hoover.” The Indianapolis Times. December 14, 1931, Volume 43, Number 186 edition, sec. Second Section. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82015313/1931-12-14/ed-1/seq-16/.
“They Said Last Week:” Siebenbürgisch-Amerikanisches Volksblatt. June 15, 1944. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83035274/1944-06-15/ed-1/seq-7/.
Milligan, Ian. “Illusionary Order: Online Databases, Optical Character Recognition, and Canadian History, 1997–2010.” Canadian Historical Review 94, no. 4 (2013): 540–69. https://doi.org/10.3138/chr.694.

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