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Lessons from the Archives

One of my favorite parts of Messiah College’s Digital Harrisburg efforts has been the opportunity to explore local archives and delve headfirst into primary source research. As my fellow classmate Rachel pointed out in another Messiah College student-run blog, it truly is an unparalleled experience to have the original copy of a primary source sitting right in front of you. That’s not to say, though, that the researcher does not experience a few bumps along the way. I’ve learned a few lessons as a novice archival researcher.

First, even smaller archives like Dauphin County Historical Society ( where I have been conducting the majority of my research) hold vast amounts of information, and it can be overwhelming to wade through it all. Many historical societies and archives have listed the content of their collections and manuscript groups online. Looking up that information before visiting not only saves time but also provides an easy method for browsing collections and obtaining a sense of which collections might contribute to one’s research.

Secondly, archivists and other researchers can be invaluable when it comes to searching for new avenues and areas to research. The best source that I have used in the City Beautiful project, a collection of Harrisburg’s late 19th-century municipal reports, came at the suggestion of another classmate who was at the archives the same day I was.

The 1890 Municipal Report of Harrisburg.  Source accessed at Dauphin County Historical Society Archives, MG030, Box 1 of 6, Folder 27.

The 1890 Municipal Report of Harrisburg. Source accessed at Dauphin County Historical Society Archives, MG030, Box 1 of 6, Folder 27.

It is good to pursue leads like this because they lead to some amazing discoveries, but at the same time, it can be a struggle not to become distracted by all the fascinating extraneous information one might find. For example, I came across a census taken of Harrisburg from 1791. I was enthralled by it and wished I had the time to examine it more closely. Unfortunately, my time was limited, and I had other research to do.

One must also be prepared to conduct many fruitless searches as well as to encounter problems. For instance, I wanted to look at glass plate negatives at the Pennsylvania State Archives. When I was searching online, I found that there was a glass plate negative of Harrisburg’s water works, but to my dismay, when I was at the archives and pulled it out of its folder, I found that it had deteriorated to the point where it was unusable.

One of the challenges in archival research is the deterioration of primary sources.  Glass Plate Negative of Harrisburg Water Works, PA State Archives, MG526, Box 2, S030.

One of the challenges of archival research is the deterioration of primary sources. Glass Plate Negative of Harrisburg Water Works, PA State Archives, MG526, Box 2, S030.

Although instances like these can be discouraging, it is all part of the archival experience. When one finally hits a gold mine (like the aforementioned municipal reports), it makes the accomplishment all the greater. The thrill of the discovery makes the journey worth it.

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