Digital Harrisburg Initiative: March 2020 Update

Messiah College Center for Public Humanities students meet with members of the Commonwealth Monument Project

It’s been some time since our last general update on the Digital Harrisburg Initiative, but that is not for lack of trying. Over the last year, in fact, our operation at Messiah College has grown, and our teams have been buzzing in activities, projects, digital tools, meetings, research, and public collaborations with community partners. It’s the abundance of work more than its scarcity that has been behind the silence on our end.

Each week at Messiah College, Dr. Jean Corey (director of the Center for Public Humanities), Katie Wingert McArdle (coordinator of Digital Harrisburg and the Center for Public Humanities fellows program), and I meet several times with different student groups who hail from humanities disciplines such as English, history, ethnic and area studies, and politics, as well as the occasional computer science student. Meanwhile, over at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, Professor Albert Sarvis continues to work with a team of geospatial technology students on the mapping components of the initiative.

So today, let me touch on a few of the highlights in our Digital Harrisburg initiative. In fact, I’ll just be scratching the surface here, since I won’t be saying everything, and each of the following anyway is a world unto itself. Some of these will warrant additional posts in the months ahead if or as we have time. At the very least, students in my digital history and digital humanities courses will follow up this week and next month with discussions of their own research.

A group of students working on digital and public humanities work at Messiah College, March 2020

Our major updates in the last year:

  • Commonwealth Monument Project: Over the last year, our faculty and students have partnered with an exciting grassroots initiative in Harrisburg and the Commonwealth to remember and celebrate the city’s historic African-American community and multi-ethnic neighborhood of the Old Eighth Ward. This is an incredible project that has support from major local organizations, including the Foundation for Enhancing Communities, Messiah College, and M&T Bank, as well as state government. We have supported various activities in the city, including a poster campaign in the state capitol buildings and Amtrak station, a search for the descendants of the Old Eighth Ward, biographies of 100 important voices in the African American community, and interviews and exhibits. Read about the various activities of the Commonwealth Monument Project here on the Digital Harrisburg website, the project website, the Facebook page, and significant media coverage.
Posters of the Look Up, Look Out campaign on display in Parmer Hall at Messiah College right before the regional division of the National History Day competition. A parallel set of posters are on display in the buildings of the State Capitol Complex and Harrisburg Amtrak station.
  • Funding: Although most of the funding for our work has continued to come from the generous support of Messiah College (for this website and the historical and humanities work) and Harrisburg University (in the case of our mapping initiatives), the Messiah College group was fortunate to receive a Council of Independent Colleges grant last spring to support our 2019-2020 work related to humanities research for the public good (along with 24 other schools). That grant program, which is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has expanded our capacity to support student research and contributed to hiring a part-time project coordinator. Our project coordinators last year (Andrew Hermeling) and this year (Katie Wingert McArdle) have significantly improved the quality of our work in both its digital and public components. Our grant activities for the Council of Independent Colleges have focused on supporting the Commonwealth Monument Project (noted above).
  • Remaking the Website: We have a team of students working on expanding web content and revising templates of the Digital Harrisburg website. After years of hosting a blog site on, we upgraded to a new template last year, and are finally moving to a self-hosting model ( This will give us greater flexibility in presenting new datasets and exhibits. Look for changes over the next two months.
  • Datasets: We continue to work on building, refining, and improving our data and digital documents. Like a museum that puts on display only a few exhibits, most of our data currently resides in ‘deep storage’ off the network–on campus computers, storage drives, and the cloud. We want to make more of that data available beginning with exhibits on the Old Eighth Ward, the City Beautiful Movement, and Harrisburg’s African American community. We also will be working this spring to release demographic and geospatial data. We’re also currently discussing better ways to exhibit our wares (e.g., Power Library).
  • Presentations and Publications: We have always worked to publicize our work through local venues, academic conferences, and digital humanities workshops. But we recently had a unique opportunity to publish the work in a more formal way when Linda Ries, editor of Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies invited us contribute a special issue to this major state journal. We put out the call two years ago and the special issue has now finally appeared. Titled “Harrisburg, Digital Public History, and the ‘City Beautiful’,” the issue takes a new look at Harrisburg’s City Beautiful movement in the early twentieth century in light of data of the Digital Harrisburg Project, archival records from the Pennsylvania State Archives, historical newspapers, and public humanities work in the city. The issue includes articles by Messiah College educators and students, our principal collaborator at Harrisburg University (Albert Sarvis), notable local historians and scholars (Michael Barton, Linda Ries, and Susan Rimby, among others), journalists (Joe McClure), artists (Becky Ault), and community partners (Mr. Calobe Jackson, Jr.), on topics such as: Harrisburg’s parks, churches, and synagogues; significant women’s reform groups; Greek, Jewish, and African American communities; Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918; and the Commonwealth Monument Project. You can get a taste of the special issue through these three free articles posted on the website of the Pennsylvania Historical Association.
  • A New Map of Harrisburg: We love maps around here, especially those generated by the geospatial technology group at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. Professor Sarvis delivers again with this illuminating swipe map of Harrisburg and the Old Eighth Ward.
  • Research: Our work this semester in my Digital History class is focusing on the demolition of the Old Eighth Ward in the 1910s to make way for the capitol park. We’re especially exploring the important connection between City Beautiful and Capitol Park extension. Expect some updates from students as they make discoveries in the State Archives and State Library.

3 thoughts on “Digital Harrisburg Initiative: March 2020 Update

    1. Thanks so much, Michael Barton. We continue to build from your own excellent research and the Penn State Harrisburg program.

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