Catholic Almanacs Project Getting Off The Ground

One unexpectedly rich source about the history of Catholicism in the United States is a series of Catholic almanacs containing extensive data about US dioceses throughout the nineteenth century. Today, the almanacs are housed at Boston College Libraries, and some are digitized and made available by Villanova, HathiTrust, and the Internet Archive. Now, as part of BC Libraries Catholic Collections Initiative, the Digital Scholarship Group is making Catholic almanac data more widely available and searchable.

The almanac we’re using for the pilot project.

Having explored several almanacs, we know first-hand the depth of the data: they include calendars for different Catholic celebrations, information about religious and secular leaders, and sometimes advertisements for Catholic publications and schools. Most importantly, there is a list of all the institutions in each of the country’s dioceses–and that is the 250-ish pages of each almanac that our project concerns. Every elementary and secondary school; every university and college; and every hospital, orphanage, and asylum that was under a diocese’s supervision is listed in the almanacs. As you might imagine, that is a lot of institutions, and we are able to see the name, location, and individual leaders of each!

The almanacs provide us a social history of the nineteenth-century United States. Rather than telling the story of the predominately white, male Catholic leadership only, these almanacs record a bottom-up story of Catholic people and organizations of all stripes in the United States. Churches range from the cathedral of Boston to a rural church in Olive City Oregon that served 150 miners. The people listed in these almanacs aren’t major players in the arc of American history; instead, they are the everyday leaders who served their communities for the common good.

Above: Ashlyn Stewart meets with students to discuss their work and advance their encoding skills.

Our job is to turn this dense list of institution names, places, and people into a searchable database, allowing those small stories of regular people to reach more users than ever, all while making our grassroots knowledge of the past more complete. We want users to be able to search for individuals and institutions to see what the almanacs say about them, and eventually to connect to other existing data about those people and organizations. We also want users to be able to visualize the almanac data at a larger scale; for example, they should be able to see a map of all the institutions and how they change over time as new churches form and the boundaries of dioceses expand.  

Before we begin building the database and creating visualizations, there is some crucial and unglamorous transcribing and encoding work to be done. Luckily for us, we trained and now manage a team of outstanding BC humanities students that are hard at work extracting data from these amazing almanacs. Using an encoding language called XML, they are tagging (and, thus, structuring) specific pieces of information as being part of the institution’s name, place, or affiliates. Victoria Oliviero has been focusing on the country’s largest dioceses, starting with Baltimore and New York City. Kaitlyn Bell has been working on Cleveland, and Curran Schestag has been focused on nearby Pittsburgh. Elliott Jones has been encoding Western dioceses like Oregon, while Lily Boyd has a share of Southern dioceses, starting with Louisville.

Here, you can see what TEI looks like and its correlating almanacs page.

Once our students have completed the full list of institutions from the 1870 volume (our pilot volume), the Digital Scholarship Group will be able to start work on converting the computer-readable XML data to a database format. Meanwhile, the students will be able to continue working on other volumes.  They will be kept quite busy, as the almanacs were printed every year from 1833 to 1895!