History in the Spreadsheets

We have written on this blog in the past about the advantages of expanding into the digital side of history. The other students of Digital History and I have explored the benefits and hazards of this, along with the various methods of doing so. Often, the focus is on the “product”, so to speak. The concern is with adapting historical work to better present it in an ever-expanding technological world, and the solutions that arise are plentiful. The 2018 Digital History class has explored the value of presentation tools such as websites, digital archives, and blogs, among other things. However, there are more benefits to modern technology than simply presentation. With the proper tools, historians can interact with the sources in ways deeper and more expansive than ever before.

Take, for example, the vast amounts of census data from nearly 230 years of work by the federal government. A catalog like that potentially provides access to biographical data on millions of people over hundreds of years, and yet, for much of its history, the census was cumbersome and difficult to explore. Historians and other researchers lacked both the time and the resources to go through census data (in its original analog forms) on a large scale to analyze these sources in a convenient or useful way. However, as these census records are now digitized, historians, with the help of computers, are able to pull information they want from census data in meaningful ways. The data pulled from databases like the census can be used in conjunction with other sources and historical knowledge to construct a realistic and well-supported narrative.

One straightforward and relatively simple example of this is using census data to examine demographic changes over time. From 1900-1930, Harrisburg, like the rest of the country, experienced influxes in immigrants of particular demographics. In 1900, about 14.12% of Harrisburg’s population was either an immigrant or the child of one or more immigrants. Over 90% of these were either German, Irish, English, Russian, or Italian immigrants. At this point, only about 1/3 of this group was foreign born, the rest being the children of immigrants. Compare this with 3 decades later in 1930. Some 75-85% of the German, Irish, and British communities were American-born. On the other hand, nearly 40% of Russian and Italian immigrants were foreign-born.

This discrepancy is tied to the fluctuations in the broader patterns of immigration into America through the early 20th century. Through this time, America saw a stark increase in immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, hence the higher numbers of Russian and Italian-born immigrants. On the other hand, fewer migrants came from Western Europe, so the number of German born citizens leveled out, and even decreased.

Let’s explore this pattern another way. Based on average age alone, we can determine that, before and around 1900, there was an influx of Russian-born migrants into Harrisburg. The average age of an immigrant from Russia in Harrisburg in 1900 was 29.9. On the other hand, the average age among larger, more well established groups like the Germans or the Irish was right around 50. This implies that there were fewer older Russian-born immigrants living in Harrisburg in 1900. It follows then that the Russian-born denizens of Harrisburg must have migrated more recently than those from Germany or Ireland, and thus were still younger and less established in the community. The Italian immigrants of 1900 reflect the same pattern, with an average age of 33.3, as compared to the 53.3 of the Irish, a nearly 20 year gap.

There are of course other ways to come to this same conclusion. Using the data recorded by the census, we can see how many first generation immigrants of various origins were living in each Ward of the city in both 1900 and 1930. Some groups, like the German and Irish communities, were spread relatively evenly throughout the wards of the city, with heavy concentrations of German immigrants in the 1st and 6th Wards. On the other hand, Russian-born people are overwhelmingly concentrated in the 8th Ward. This is in keeping with the other trends we’ve observed. As in other cities such as New York or Philadelphia, immigrant groups tended to stick together when they first arrived in a city, forming small clusters or neighborhoods to better establish themselves. In some cases, once they were present for a time, they began to expand throughout the city, as is the case with the German community. It therefore makes sense that the fresh Russian immigrants would be clustered together for support, just as the German immigrants would have moved beyond their neighborhoods years ago. Three decades later, in 1930, the Russian community has also expanded, no longer restricting themselves to the 8th Ward.

These are just a few of the ways digital tools can provide both a wider and deeper interaction with historical data and sources. I have only drawn the most basic conclusions using only surface-level evidence. A historian could spend a career working only on the two sets of census records from a single city. It is somewhat ironic that, while technology has made much of the historical profession easier, it has expanded the source material to a nearly unthinkable extent. The work may have become easier, but the data never ends.


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