Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Drew VandeCreek
Drew VandeCreek

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

May 22, 2007

NIU will create new tools for teaching Twain

DeKalb, Ill.— Northern Illinois University will soon begin creating new tools for K-12 educators to help them teach students about one of America’s greatest and most well-known authors.

The digitization unit of University Libraries has won a $155,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create lesson plans on the topic of author Mark Twain and his era.

The NIU-developed lesson plans will be added to “Mark Twain’s Mississippi,” an extensive Web site ( produced by the library’s digitization unit and focusing on 19th century life along the Mississippi River, the topic of Twain’s most famous works.

The site is devoted to providing scholars, educators and students with primary-source materials, or materials created and published during the period of study, setting the author’s celebrated works into historical context.

Mark Twain’s Mississippi already features historical information, an author’s biography, video documentaries on Twain and his times, sounds files of 19th century music, numerous accounts of the region from the author’s contemporaries and searchable text of several of his most famous books, including “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

It also boasts a unique interactive 19th century map of the Mississippi Valley that can depict the growth of populations and railroad networks over decades and provides users with period photos of the places Twain referenced in his works.

“In the mid-19th century, the Mississippi River region was the country’s West,” said Drew VandeCreek, director of the digitization unit. “By the end of century, it had become the Middle West, but it was still new and exotic. Wealthy Americans and Europeans toured the region by steamboat and chronicled their adventures in letters and publications. We juxtapose these accounts with the mythic place created by Twain.

“The lesson plans further will give educators and students an opportunity to work with sometimes hard-to-find primary-source materials created during Twain’s era,” he added, noting that the Web site blends the new with the old.

The Web site’s sound recordings, for example, were made in the present day from period sheet music, and the interactive map uses cutting-edge geographic information systems technology allowing students to manipulate statistical information, such as census data from the period, in a spatial-map format.

The NEH grant to University Libraries carries a “We the People” designation. The goal of the “We the People” initiative is to encourage and strengthen the teaching, study and understanding of American history and culture. Projects that share the designation have a common goal of advancing knowledge of the principles that define America.

“This grant really speaks to the quality of work that our digitization unit is producing,” said Mary Munroe, interim dean of University Libraries. “It continues to receive recognition nationally.”

The library has won numerous grants to digitize scholarly materials for the Web on topics ranging from Southeast Asia to Abraham Lincoln. Just last month, NIU’s Lincoln/Net ( was awarded the 2007 Electronic Lincoln Prize, accompanied by a $10,000 cash award, for significant contribution in new media to scholarship about Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War era.

The initial launch of Mark Twain’s Mississippi was supported by a $212,000 grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

NIU’s partners in the Twain project include Chicago’s Newberry Library, Tulane University in New Orleans and the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Each institution contributes materials to the Web site.