Deserters and Digitization

It has been a hectic past few weeks.

You’ll probably learn from my classmates how the college has shut down the campus and moved all classes online (not a serious handicap for a Digital History class) due to the COVID-19 outbreak, so I’ll spare you the details. Fortunately, we were able to spend our last class meeting before the shutdown to do some research in the PA state archives in Harrisburg, a mere two hours before it was closed for the virus as well.

Our trip to the state archives. I’m the second one in the first row. This image was taken by our professor, Dr. Pettegrew, on March 12, 2020.

I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for in the archives, or what I would find. I decided to focus my research on Harrisburg’s role in World War I (the study on political machines I mentioned in the last post did not quite work out). As an industrial town, Harrisburg was likely to play a large role in the manufacturing of war materials. I was hoping to find things like government orders for factories to start producing military equipment, or something of that nature. That angle did not generate anything, as I was only able to get through one box of material (RG/019/ADJT/24 carton 17) in the time allotted, and that was primarily concerned with the 1917 draft registration. I did, however, find something else that was rather interesting.

Interspersed throughout the collection were lists of deserters, dated to May 25, 1921, with orders to apprehend the men listed on them (as long as the expense of doing so did not exceed $50). It is unclear if the men deserted while in Europe or if they were simply missing when it came time to be shipped out. A disproportionately large number of these deserters were listed as being from Steelton, a small industrial town about four miles south of Harrisburg. I was very curious as to why this was. Currently, my running theory is that Steelton was home to a large number of recent immigrants who were not invested in the United States’ entrance into the war. They would have resented a draft that might pit them against former fellow countrymen or even friends and family. This will require more research to confirm, however. I am also interested in finding out if any of these men were apprehended and if so what happened to them. With the archives now closed, however, it seems unlikely I will get the chance to do this.

A typical list of World War I deserters from the state archives. The document lists the individuals’ name and place of residence when they registered for the draft. Note the number of times Steelton is mentioned. The author took this image at the state archives on March 12, 2020.

My admittedly brief experience in the archives brought me into contact with the process of digitization. We were asked to skim quickly through the materials we had and digitize any that looked useful for further study. We did this by photographing the relevant documents and recording any metadata relating to them. While necessary due to our limited time in the archives, the process somehow seemed both tedious and rushed. Most of this was probably due to me not being as prepared as I should have been. Digitization paradoxically can both preserve primary sources and make them more vulnerable. On the one hand, digital versions of primary sources allow more people to access them without the original being exposed to potential damage. In this case, it allowed us to continue studying the documents we found even after we could no longer see the originals. On the other hand, digital data is more easily destroyed, be it by file corruption, accidental deletion, or damage to the server it is stored in. Damage to a physical primary source often leaves at least some of the source intact, but digital sources are destroyed entirely. It is something we must take into consideration in this increasingly digital world: how vulnerable it all is.

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