In an age of word clouds, topic modeling, text mining, and infinite archives, it’s not surprising that many discussions about digital history focus on the “big” uses of things like keyword searching and digitized texts. For historians, access to huge archives of online text raises important questions about how to read—and how not to read—a million books. Big archives also create exciting opportunities for visualization and text analysis like Building the Digital Lincoln, Rob Nelson’s Mining the Dispatch, and Cameron Blevins’ work on Martha Ballard’s diary.
But with all these exciting new ventures, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that simple keyword searches can still offer historians new insights into old sources. One of my most exciting “Aha!” moments (the moments researchers live for) came not along ago when I decided to enter a simple text string from one of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speeches into the search box on ProQuest’s database of historical New York Times newspapers. I did one search, and got exactly one result. But that was enough to enable me to shed some new light on an old Lincoln quote.