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Digital History January Session: Reid Myers

Hello, I’m Reid Myers. That’s me, to the left. I am a sophomore history major with a concentration in administrative studies. This January at Messiah College, myself and nine other history students have the chance to take the Digital History course offered by the history department. We have three weeks to do so.

It’s a pretty significant challenge to fit a full semester length class into the span of less than a month, especially a class as unfamiliar and expansive as digital history. Going into the first days, I was unsure what to expect. I had a vague idea from work done in previous classes of data-driven, numbers-based history projects, where historians used impressive-sounding tools like GIS and threw around words like “progress” and “metadata”. I suppose, after my first few days of class, that this impression was not entirely wrong. There are certainly digital historians who do these exact things. But even three days of class discussions have been enough to show me that there was much more to digital history than I had expected.

For one, digital history is, in many cases, much simpler than I had anticipated. To an extent, much of digital history is just that: digitized history. What once was done by hand can now be done by machine. This means that digital history includes all sorts of things that I had not expected. It includes basic digital safeguards, like backing up all work to a hard drive, or, even safer, a cloud. Many of the class readings emphasized this point, describing how the digital archive is becoming an essential part of historical work. There is some speculation that the future of history will require adaptation to these new technological frontiers. Digital history also includes the use of programs like Zotero, a system of collecting and organizing sources and generating bibliographies that the other students and I have found particularly helpful. These basic processes are simply digitized versions of formerly manual tasks, but represent a stark improvement over the old way of doing things.

Digital history also includes many forms of communication. This too was a surprise to me. Digital history is not merely about the processes used to conduct historical research, but the methods used to present it to the world as well. From blogging, to tweeting, to personalized  websites, digital history includes an ever-growing list of ways for modern historians to share their work with a wide internet audience of historians and non-historians alike. This again can be an improvement in some ways over traditional methods such as books and journal articles. (Although these of course have their  advantages as well.) Many of the class readings delved into these subjects. Jeffery Wasserstrom, for example addressed some of the misconceptions many scholars have about blogging, asserting that blogs are not inferior to books and journals, as many scholars see them. Lee Skallerup Bessete made a similar point in favor of Twitter, arguing that the often criticized social media platform could be a valuable source of networking and connection among academics, including the historical community. These defenses of new platforms for historical work can be found in a number of the readings we’ve done for the class so far. Exploring history in new ways is an important aspect of digital history.

Some at Messiah have been doing this for a few years now in the form of the Digital Harrisburg project, a collection of historical census data and mapping information on the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, among other things. Hailing from the outer suburbs of Philadelphia in southeastern Pennsylvania, I don’t have a lot of experience with the Harrisburg, aside from a few elementary school field trips to the state capitol. This first week of class has really been the first time I’ve learned anything of the city’s background, in this case, of the City Beautiful movement in particular. I’ve been particularly interested in two aspects of the time period that have caught my attention. First, I found the identities of the campaigners and the way they ran their campaign. Politicians on a local scale, they nonetheless built a movement that led to significant changes in the landscape of the city, both physically and culturally. I am also intrigued by the unfortunate history of Harrisburg’s 8th Ward, destroyed to make room for the expanding capitol complex. Much good came out of the City Beautiful movement, but it was not without its costs. Renovation often requires destruction, and too often that destruction can harm the most vulnerable.

The lectures, discussions, and readings we’ve done so far have left me optimistic as to the weeks ahead in this digital history class. While the subjects themselves look interesting enough, the skills we will be working on will hopefully be useful in other classes and projects to come. I’m hopeful that by the end of the class, I will have gained a greater appreciation of even some of the benefits of digital history, improving my work in the present and future. Thanks for reading, and check back in the future for more Digital Harrisburg posts.

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