Becoming Trailblazers

Taking the new Digital History course at Messiah College has been an interesting ride. The course had many ups and downs, which can be expected for a brand new course. Both we, the students in the class, and Dr. Pettegrew were trailblazers for a course devoted to learning the new side of history, the digital side, that has become increasingly relevant in the early 21st century. With the remarkable development of technology in recent years, historical research and documentation have woven themselves into the digital world with the use of internet resources and various computerized programs. To plan to work with history in the new age, one must become familiar with its relationship with the resources of the times, such as internet archives or digital databases for Historical data.

The two largest ways that our class could learn this relationship were the City Social project and the City Beautiful project. The City Social project led us to an understanding of data and how that can relate to history. By collaborating with other students of a GIS course, we were able to, in a sense, digitally re-create sections of Harrisburg from the early 20th century. We did this by searching important census data taken in the time period and organizing the information into data sheets that could be queried to address the social and economic life of various wards in Harrisburg at that time. Additionally, students from a related GIS course worked to map the data on digital maps of various wards, which brought a visual element to the project.

The City Beautiful project had more of a historic feel to it because, like most historical projects, extensive research was required for it. Before the project could begin, the class read writings on the history of the City Beautiful Movement in Harrisburg, the reasons for its necessity, and the movements, implications, and general context within the time period. Afterward, we were introduced to the historical archives. This was an aspect of history that I, and most of the students in the class, had never been exposed to. We visited both the Pennsylvania State Archives and the Dauphin County Historical Society, which holds its own archives. For most of the semester, we took time out of our schedules to visit the archives and find real, hard evidence of the City Beautiful Movement. Whether it was personal letters of City Beautiful leaders, such as Mira Lloyd Dock, or images of street improvement plans, we were to gain experience in researching. This was a  different type of research that wasn’t just reading a textbook or a scholarly article, but required us to find genuine primary resources that you could hold in your hand. These historical artifacts we found were then digitized by our class.

Here is an example of an image before it was curated.
digital history image 15
Here is the image after being curated.

The digital aspect of the project was put into a digital museum called Here, we took the digital images we captured of the artifacts and transferred them to digital exhibits. These exhibits consisted of subjects of the City Beautiful Movement like its background and the visionaries who led it. The exhibit my group worked on was the exhibit of the improvements made during the movement. My partners and I spent many hours going through the archives, finding photographs, letters, articles, and other artifacts that contained information about the improvements done to Harrisburg. We then curated these images to make their viewing quality as high as possible. Once the images were curated, each student then added their respectable objects to their personal collections on the site, applying metadata to each image that was added. From these collections, all students of various exhibits could use the images to help tell their part of the story of the City Beautiful Movement in Harrisburg. Together, all the exhibits of the Omeka site work to share the history of the Harrisburg City Beautiful Movement to the public, a topic that has largely been ignored for the last century.

Our work with both the City Beautiful and City Social projects gave us a glimpse into the new world of History that is continuously being formed through relentless advances in technology. In order to gain an understanding of what historical work will be like for our generation, it was important to get first hand experience with the type of work that is being done out in the world before entering the field professionally. It can be argued that this experience is the most valuable thing that can be taken away from this course. Hopefully, many students in the future will take away even more from the course years down the road. If this hope comes to fruition, much of the credit may fall on Dr. Pettegrew and the students of this class in 2014 for being the trailblazers to start the course on the right path.

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