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Eastern Apps: Visualizing Historic Prison Data

The American Philosophical Society Library’s Center for Digital Scholarship recently launched a suite of apps that allow researchers to explore historic prison data. "Eastern Apps: Visualizing Historic Prison Data" is a gallery that compiles three interactive apps intended to promote the exploration of data related to early inmates of Eastern State Penitentiary.

The data comes from Eighteenth-Century admission books compiled at Eastern State Penitentiary. The books record information on each prisoner, including the name, age, gender and race, religious affiliation, the crimes for which they had been found guilty, the sentence, and often a note on when they were freed (or died). Also included are the notes of the moral instructor. The moral instructor, similar to contemporary prison parsons, recorded a paragraph-length note on each inmate which details the religious education and other biographical elements.

Each app explores a different aspect of the prison data. The first analyzes word frequency in the moral instructor’s notes. The second app explores trends in sentencing lengths over the years covered by the admission books (roughly 1830-1850, with gaps). The third app reveals demographic information about inmates based on the sentences they were given.

The admissions books were digitized in 2015, the data was transcribed into spreadsheets by library volunteers, and the resulting datasets have been open to researchers since 2016 on the APS Github page as well as other services. Links to the digitized admission books (as well as the other Eastern State-related content) can be found on the collection’s finding aid.

The data generated for this project is currently being used in a Digital Humanities course at UCLA, has been written about in’s blog The Vault, and has been an important outreach tool to historians, sociologists, and geneologists.

View the project here.

Learn more about the APS Center for Digital Scholarship here.

Scott Ziegler
Head of Digital Scholarship and Technology
American Philosophical Society

APS staff benefited greatly from the assistance of staff at the Eastern State Historic Site. A special thanks to Erica Harman, Manager, Archives and Records, and Annie Anderson, Manager, Research and Public Programming for their suggestions, recommendations, and feedback. APS Digital Humanities Fellow Steve Marti built the apps, and the gallery was constructed by APS Center for Digital Scholarship staff.

2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner