Fifteen years ago, while working on her dissertation, a Franklin & Marshall College scholar was among the first to examine the criminal records in Sonora, Mexico's State Judicial Archives. It had just been opened to the public.
But during her research on family, community and law in early 19th century Mexico, Assistant Professor of History Laura Shelton came across an unusual series of infant murders committed more than a century earlier. The cases intrigued her.
"There's sort of a big mystery here. Between 1870 and 1910, there is this big bubble of infanticide cases in northern Mexico," she said. "My project is to figure out why that happened. "
Shelton is working with two F&M student researchers, Hackman Scholars Cesar Diego, a sophomore computer science major, and Morgan Gray, a double major in Spanish and history. To investigate the cause behind this rash of infanticide, part of a larger body of research on the roles of midwives in 19th century Mexico, she and the students will examine the cases of 60 infanticides.
Diego is making digital formats of several thousand pages of records sent via email from a research aide at Sonora's archives who has been helping Shelton. Gray, who is preparing to study abroad in Peru next fall, will read and catalog those records.
The project merges computer science and history, reflecting how technology today is making more and more historical records available via the Internet.
"Increasingly, historians and other people in the humanities will be working with computer science people," observed Shelton.
Diego builds the digital architecture of Shelton's research. He has downloaded into a manageable database an estimated 50 gigabytes of data that the research aide in Mexico has provided. He then converts the information into PDF files.
"I had to write code that would systematically change the names of all the files so Morgan could read and comment on them," Diego said.
Since classes ended in May, Diego has done much of the work at his Los Angeles home. He said he appreciates the importance of integrating humanities fields and computer science for research purposes.
"This is a good exercise for him in terms of managing data," Shelton said. "What this does is really democratize information, making it accessible to everyone."
Gray indexes the PDF files on each infanticide case in order to make the professor's database searches accessible and swift. Gray said that requires her to "go in and get an idea of what's in each case."
Gray and Diego are two of 94 students in F&M’s Hackman Scholars Program this summer, collaborating with 50 F&M professors to support the faculty member's research projects.
An endowment by the late William M. and Lucille M. Hackman established the program in 1984 to increase the opportunities for students to do research in their fields of study. In addition to the Hackman Scholars on campus this summer, 44 students are working through other grants with 23 F&M professors.
While Shelton has focused her research on a narrower period, the data the students have collected and collated covers a broader time frame, from 1860 to 1930.
Until the late 19th century, Sonora's courts relied solely on the village midwifes to examine the corpses of infants and the suspected mothers. Eventually, courts in the urban centers began turning to medical doctors for these duties.
Gray has started reading files from cases in the late 1920s and writes descriptions of what the transcripts and related medical records offer in terms of information about an alleged infant murder. "The medical discourses have been fascinating," she said.
As she translated the documents and examined them for historical significance, Gray soon realized she was immersed in her double majors, Spanish and history.
"It's been interesting to integrate those two areas," the rising junior said. "I've found I know more Spanish than I thought."
The computer processing of historical documents has not just made her research more efficient, Shelton said. "It has totally revolutionized how historians work."