Reflecting on the History of the Future

Three very informative and busy weeks later, our Digital History class is coming to a close.

To wrap up the class, we put together a research project with the goal of “Rethinking City Beautiful.” After spending time reading an original source, newspaper articles, and illustrated texts about the City Beautiful Movement, it was time to make our own argument about the urban renewal project. In a 1980 journal article, historian William Wilson made the argument that the conditions of industrialized Harrisburg prompted city elites to push forward an urban renewal project. Since Wilson’s article, historians have viewed the City Beautiful Movement as a successful movement led by city elites. For my first exhibition, I found images and articles from the turn of the 20th century demonstrating the need for urban reform.

However, for my second exhibition, I wanted to push a little against Wilson’s narrative. While the concept of success tied to the City Beautiful Movement is true to an extent–the movement did result in numerous beneficial changes in the city of Harrisburg–there is another side to the story. Along with the improved streets, water system, available green space, and more, there were evictions, displacement, and demolition. I decided to explore the Old Eighth Ward and its destruction over the course of the 1910s for the extension of the Capitol complex.

The handle for my website and all the tabs for the pages to visit

Michael Barton, a Harrisburg historian and author, alongside Stephanie Patterson Gilbert, led the development of the Old 8th Ward website. While I did not pull a significant amount of research from this site, it is a brilliant resource to learn more about the area of Harrisburg that was demolished due to the Capitol Park Extension Commission. Given that this existing resource has established the broad framework of the destruction of the ward, I created my exhibit about the Old 8th Ward focusing on the demographic databases. Queries from Access, formulas from Excel, and geographical information from ArcGIS all let me create a distinct and impactful website, which also included some archival records.

I summarized the development of the project in the “Process Statement” portion of my Omeka website:

“In composing this project, I knew that I wanted to give a voice to individuals who can no longer speak for themselves. The City Beautiful Movement in Harrisburg is full of prominent figures like Mira Lloyd Dock, J. Horace McFarland, Warren Manning, Vance McCormick, and others, but there are so many subtler characters as well. The people in the city votes were important, just as the teachers and students who improved Harrisburg’s school system were. However, the urban individuals that I wanted to represent through my research were those who did not benefit from the city’s renewal.

This is a letter from the Attorney General’s office about the Capitol Park Extension Commission and possessing the Old 8th Ward properties to demolish.

The new Capitol and its surrounding area is a magnificent feature of modern Harrisburg. However, the consequence of such beauty was the displacement of hundreds of Harrisburg families. The archivists at the Pennsylvania State Archives expressed a willingness to share information about the Old 8th Ward, so that is how I found my archival research. Since I was unwell at the time, my friend and classmate Sarah took lots of photographs from a record group at the PA archive. I put together three collections in the hope that it would make the website visitor feel like they were walking through the shadow of a neighborhood that is long gone. In addition to this information, I included a demographics page to show trends in the movement of people as a result of the Capitol Park construction. Finally, I added GIS information to give a visual of the ward’s change over time by viewing a single address to represent the whole of buildings lost.”

Pulling this project together, though an overwhelming task, was an amazing experience. Choosing a topic was a chance to explore something interesting and unique. Conducting original research at the archives or using databases like Access of Excel was an extremely gratifying opportunity. I never thought that I would have a complete research exhibition online, but this project made that possible. With the available time and individual nature of the assignment, I knew it could not measure up to Dr. Barton’s research on the Old 8th Ward. Nevertheless, it is a project of which I am proud and an experience that I value.

Top left: Zotero test library; Top right: WordPress test website; Middle left: Access 1910 Harrisburg Census; Middle right: Excel 1910 Harrisburg Census; Bottom left: City Beautiful Omeka site; Bottom right: Old 8th Ward Omeka site

The same goes for this class in general. I do believe that the exposure to Zotero, WordPress, Omeka, Access, Excel, and more in this class has increased my digital literacy. In addition, the secondary literature that we went over in class provided important context and guidance for navigating the digital world. Roy Rosenzweig, the late pioneer of digital history, describes the “needs, frameworks, dangers, and proposals”,  of “rewiring the History and Social Studies classrooms.” Introducing technology in history courses can give new purpose, interest, and relevance to the assignments. Since the students grew up in a digital age, bringing this technology into the learning process could improve academic results. Also, the democratic nature of the web makes it a great platform for expressing new ideas or posting projects that could not exist elsewhere due to funding or accessibility.

However, no matter how beneficial new technology can be in the classroom, it is important to not limit oneself just to digital history. If someone incorporates so much technology into their history lessons, the learning material may not be a priority. Therefore, a balance between traditional and modern teaching methods is necessary. In his blog post on digital minimalism, computer scientist Cal Newport promotes this argument. He says that “to be a digital minimalist, in other words, means you accept the idea that new communication technologies have the potential to massively improve your life,  but also recognize that realizing this potential is hard work.” What he means by this is that it is important to think about your online activities. Why are you visiting the pages that you are visiting? How long are you spending on them? Do they benefit you in some way, or is it empty of genuine value? To Newport, in this increasingly digital age everyone must reflect upon these questions.

I am sure that there is plenty more to learn, but now I believe I have a solid base for branching out more into the digital side of history. I am especially excited to implement my new capabilities as a continuing work study of the Digital Harrisburg Inititative.


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