Digital History and online learning have taken on a whole new meaning for me and many other students across the county and the world in the past few weeks. Last Thursday we visited the PA state archives and sorted through materials left behind from those living in Harrisburg a hundred years ago. I was looking through documents in the first two folders of Record Group 20, Box 1. It contained documents from the meetings of the Board of Commissions of Public Grounds and Buildings. Before we had been there too long, my phone buzzed with a notification that we would be starting classes online after spring break until at least Easter. Later this was extended to the rest of the school year. We had gotten into the archives just in time because the next day they closed for the foreseeable future. We asked ourselves how classes and schedules would change in the weeks to come. Some classes like my darkroom photography class required major changes, and it is now digital photography.
With an awareness that we would not be back to the archives, I continued my digitization work and took pictures of documents with my phone. My project is about the demolition of the Eighth Ward and the planning process for building the Capitol Park. This turned out to be especially critical due to the COVID-19 Pandemic and the need to socially isolated in our homes. Digitizing them was harder than I had expected. Once I was at home it took a while to sort through the documents and organize them because some of them were slightly blurry, but I managed to get one good copy of each document and save it onto my laptop. Some of the documents detail information such as what houses the state had bought already from which owners, and where they were located in the Eighth Ward. Most of the documents discussed the houses but one included a letter from the architect of Capitol Park. The letter talked about what all would be included and how much he would be paid for his designs and work. There was also a contract outlining the work that the architect would do, and it was signed by the governor, state treasurer, and auditor general. The text also discussed some sculptures to be made for the grounds and how much they would cost. There was also a summary of everything that had happened from 1920.
Collecting and uploading documents are not the only challenges researchers face while digitizing documents. There is something fundamentally different about reading text on a screen vs the original documents. The format makes a difference in impact while reading about historical events. Even more issues with digitization cause problems. In Digital History, Cohen and Rosenzweig outline negatives and positives of digitization. Even if images are online, they may be hard to access because computers cannot read handwriting, and this makes it harder for an image to appear in a search. If we type up sources, we can solve this problem but increase other problems such as accuracy. Handwriting can tell us a lot about a person and may give us increased insight into a topic and person. For example, last semester my friend was researching Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens. You can easily access typed up letters of theirs on founders online, but they lose something very important. In one specific letter, the original was edited heavily by both Hamilton and later his son which drastically changes the meaning of certain parts of the letter. You would not find this information out unless you went online on the Library of Congress website.
On the flip side, Digitization can have many benefits such as increased access. From my house, I have access to newspapers, articles, and books talking about Harrisburg and the demolition of the eighth ward. Without these resources, it would be impossible to keep doing my work at this time. So much material has been digitized in recent years in databases such as Chronicling America. Databases such as JSTOR give us access to secondary sources online. Digitization also allows people to view documents too fragile to examine in person. It allows researchers from across the world to see documents in an archive far away. Despite the monetary cost of digitizing documents, it also allows documents and topics that are rarely seen before to be used commonly. Beyond its relationship with history, the internet allows many people to feel connected during a time when we are socially isolated. We can Skype with friends, go onto Zoom and video chat for classes, and watch recordings of sermons even as church services are canceled. These pros and cons make digitization more complicate than good or bad. It is a format that must be used carefully so that knowledge is not compromised any more than necessary.