Learning to Uncover Truth in Digital History

I began working with Digital Harrisburg in September of last year and I was quickly immersed in the world of Digital History. Though I was able to adjust and become acquainted with the work I was doing, as an English major, the practices of digital history were skills that I mostly learned on the fly. I examined a collection of photographs of the Old Eighth Ward in Harrisburg and grouped them by their location; I began to plot points in a GIS. These were wildly enlightening experiences, but I was very limited by my experience. I am excited to finally be taking Messiah’s Digital History class in order to further refine my skills, and learn new ones.

One of the photos I analyzed (H.A. Mark Laundry at 412 Walnut St. Ca 1911-1917)
Source: Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-017.522.

In working on The Commonwealth Monument Project I encountered plenty of purposeful Digital History Work, and even got to be a part of presenting alongside some at this year’s Humanities Symposium. With that said, I have been unable to shake the feeling that thus far my experiences in Digital History have been mostly utilitarian. I have loved everything I’ve done, and clearly it serves a purpose, but my goal this semester is to build my skill set to the point where I can create something that is more than just functional. I want to use my abilities to find new information and shape it into something that shows people something new about the world they live in, — and given how personally invested I have become in early 20th century Harrisburg — the city they live in as well.

Map of Harrisburg in 1901 as it appears in the ArcMap Interface

I have no shame in admitting that as a writer my first priority (for better or worse) is creating something that the reader enjoys reading. Digital History isn’t that simple. As I spend more time in this discipline, I am learning to curb this instinct and to value the historical perspective. Good Digital History contains a variety of opinions. It also possesses interpretability. I must trust that by presenting the historical facts of a situation that the user will gather their own conclusion, I cannot try to force one on them.

In “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History” Daniel T. Cohen says the secret to success in Digital History is ” a curious mixture of collaborative energy and willingness to support and welcome innovation and creativity.” As disciplined as the field is, and as important as it is to understand the craft, the net success of my project will be determined by my ability to use everything at my disposal — my peers, archives, any previous scholarship — and my acceptance that what I create might be completely different from the history projects that I have studied. Good historical research (and especially the digital variety) must be accessible, and at the end of the day this is the true measurement of its merit. The entire purpose of the discipline is to share valuable information with the rest of the world, and if the final project cannot be accessed or understood by the average person, it has not achieved its goal.

I am very interested in historical issues of justice and what can be learned from them. This interest has been fed by my experience thus far at Messiah, a school that greatly espouses values of reconciliation and all the complicated discussions that come with them. I spent most of my high school history education learning that in many cases, the prevailing narrative of history privileges certain viewpoints over others, (while not in every case) tending to devalue the minority perspective. The story of The Old Eighth Ward is a perfect example. People spent nearly a whole century thinking that the neighborhood was a slum that deserved to be wiped from the city map, as we are just now learning that couldn’t have been further from the case.

While the project that I have already worked on will not unequivocally prove this little known reality to the world, it is my hope that it will allow people to interact with the truth. I would like to find some way to help people interact with the truth in this course as well. I am the very interested in the topic of restrictive covenants, (amendments to land deeds that determine certain restrictions to the way the land is used or who it is used by) because in many cases they are still prevalent in contemporary contracts. Even though our culture now looks down on the practice of using legal measures to restrict the living situations of minorities, the remnants of a culture that did not, still remain.

There is of course the issue of research and documented proof. It is not enough to simply declare that a problem exists. I will have to uncover the truth and do the work to present it to the public. After that, the narrative is out of my hands.

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