My First Job as a Digital Historian

At the end of the fall semester of my sophomore year of college, I was told that through my current internship I would be able to research and write for a monument that would later be installed in the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. Without hesitation I accepted, but as the exhibit developed it became a little more daunting. I had never been involved in a project of this size before nor did I have any experience with Public History work outside of college functions. It was amazing to have been given the opportunity, but my perfectionist nature made me worry about actually executing what was asked of me.

However, the practical experience Look Up, Look Out provided for me was invaluable. Because of the nature of project, there were a lot of different pieces that required attention. We needed to scan census record for the 100 names being included on the Commonwealth Monument, look through years of archived information on the Old 8th Ward to construct narrative stories, restore photos of the ward from before its demolition, and scour online databases for information about the history of the area. The sheer variety of work gave me the opportunity to develop many different skills and approach my work from several angles.

Map of the 8th ward in 1901 (http://harrisburgu.maps.arcgis.com/apps
/Viewer/index.html?appid=7fa9323bb309448bb3f6fb167101c1bc)

I had been working with Digital Harrisburg projects for a year before becoming part of Look Up, Look Out but had never delved into the Old 8th Ward in specific detail. Most of the sources I read painted it as a filthy place with a criminal reputation. Now, however, I’ve become acquainted with the inhabitant’s depth of character as well as their active influence on the entire city. Through this project I have gotten to know the rich history of the ward as both a site of many different cultures but as one of thriving community.

Map of the Capitol Park complex today (Google Maps)

Just by comparing a map, one can see how much was demolished when the new Capitol Park was installed. I’ve been to the Capitol complex many times and cannot deny the beauty of the park. The consequence for this beautification, however, was the loss of an entire section of Harrisburg’s history. Many churches, for example, served as places of community for African Americans who resided in the Old 8th ward. They hosted speakers like Frederick Douglass, offered aid to the poor, and even educated those who were kept from public schools before they were integrated. After the Capitol Park Extension Commission razed the area in question, 5 churches were forced to relocate throughout the city (1901 Sanborn Fire insurance map). These places created a support system for local families, and when they moved it was hard to maintain such support. Having worked on the oral history exhibit for Digital Harrisburg, I heard the testimonies of current members who recount their congregation’s struggles in a city which seemed to reject them. There’s a humanity found in these stories that really brings light to the history itself.

Tanners Street Looking South East toward Wesley Union AME Zion Church c. 1897 (Pennsylvania State Archives RG17 Box 23)

The images and stories I’ve been in charge of this semester have not only given me a new perspective on the Old 8th, but have also supplied the opportunity to bring a more integrated history to the public’s attention. Joining those like Penn State Historian Michael Barton and many others, Look Up Look Out enables our team to use digital history to recognize the minority and working class history of Pennsylvania’s Capitol. Their lives along with those of the City Beautiful reformers, front street affluents, and all those in between make a more complete picture of Harrisburg’s development. My first job as a public historian held manifold opportunities for public engagement that became interwoven with my studies in digital curation. It was one of the best experience I’ve had as a college student, and I look forward to many more projects to come.

Works Cited:

1901 Sandborn Fire Insurance Map, Digital Harrisburg, http://harrisburgu.maps.arcgis.com/apps/Viewer/index.html?appid=7fa9323bb309448bb3f6fb167101c1bc

Featured image courtesy of Nathan Simms, Student Fellow for the Center for Public Humanities at Messiah College 2018-2019

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