Reflections: Stories of Harrisburg and Digital History

The fall semester here at Messiah College is coming to a close, which means that my time in Professor David Pettegrew’s Digital History course is almost up. But looking back at my work in the course and the projects I have completed, I realize just how much I have grown in both my understanding of the relationship between technology and history and the story of Harrisburg in the early 1900s.

By using programs like Zotero, Google Drive, and Omeka, I realize that not only is the amount of information that is readily available online today very vast, but also that there are programs which have been created to manage this information. The amount of time researchers spend sorting and analyzing data can be greatly reduce, which allows them to take on project they may not otherwise been able to do. Similarly, programs such as Microsoft Excel allow for a better comparison and analysis of collected data. Thanks to the interconnectivity of today’s technology, programs like Microsoft Excel can be used to input information into GIS programs. GIS allows for spatial comparisons by georeferencing points on maps which overlay each other. Also, 3-D imaging programs, like Agisoft, allow for a better online visual representation of artifacts. Working with all of these programs throughout the Digital History course, they have shown me that technology has changed the way historians can do history and that these programs can provide unique perspectives of the past.

Map 3

Our class experienced this firsthand through our various projects. In our first project, we analyzed online versions of the Patriot Newspaper to compile a list of reformers in Harrisburg that were connected to the City Beautiful Movement. This data was put into a GIS program so that conclusions could be made about their connection the voting patterns of various precincts in the city (shown above). Based on the data, it seemed that the areas in which the reformers lived or the area in which improvements to the city were to be made created a positive influence in the vote.

A table derived from Microsoft Access what occupations Russians in Harrisburg in 1900 worked in.
A table derived from Microsoft Access what occupations Russians in Harrisburg in 1900 worked in.

In our second project, our class used Microsoft Access to query data from a census database of the residents of Harrisburg (shown right). This allowed me to suggest that factors such as demand, security, networking, and discrimination affected the Industry of Harrisburg. However, it must be kept in mind that, even when working with technologies that allow for new perspectives, the information being used is almost always tied to a physical collection of information. This is evidenced by our class trips to the Pennsylvania State Archives and the Dauphin County Historical Society. Moreover, for historians, the technology used is only meant to be a means of understanding the story of the past, understanding real people, their stories, and the context in which they lived.

Our final project seems to capture this mentality best. This project utilized Story Maps in order to both understand how spatial patterns affected certain events or groups of people as well as tell a story about the individuals who made up those spatial patterns (shown below). My project specifically focuses on ten prominent members of the Harrisburg League for Municipal Improvements. What I find most interesting is that each of these members had their own story. They had their own hobbies, experiences, and accomplishments. Yet, when looking at their stories together in conjunction with where they lived in relation to one another, there seems to be some commonalities that may be part of a bigger story. As I mentioned in my previous post, the proximity in which the reformers lived may have contributed to the creation and support of the Municipal League. While socializing over common interest like sports, the reformers could have decided to form the league after talking about their similar experiences of problems they had with the city. Lastly, the political experiences of many of the members and their close proximity to the capitol may have contributed to the political nature of the way the league functioned.

digital harrisburg story map pic
To further view my Story Map, click here.

Therefore, looking back at my own story of taking Digital History, I see that I have learned so much about the influences of technology in studying history. However, I have also learned a great deal by applying this technology to the broader historical story of Harrisburg in the early 1900s. I have come to know how the stories of individuals came together to form the larger and more complex historical movements in Harrisburg. Therefore, I would like to conclude by thanking Professor Pettegrew, everyone on the Digital Harrisburg Team, and all the people who followed our work over the semester. Thank you.

-Greg Slye

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