Research at the PA State Archives: My Last Hands on Experience for a Long Time

I went in to my experience at the archives somewhat daunted, because I didn’t have an extremely concrete idea of what I was going to be looking for. Initially interested in researching restrictive covenants, I soon found that the archives would not be much help in that area. I decided to look at arrest records from 1911. These were interesting for sure, but not necessarily fruitful with regards to what I was looking for. I wanted to find information that could show me something, information that I could draw conclusions from and use to add to the constantly changing image that we have of early 20th century Harrisburg.

After I finished looking through arrest records, I then turned to the City Health reports from 1912. These were much more interesting. Our surrounding context perhaps aided in their appeal. These reports on public health from a century ago felt important as we received in that very session, the news that Messiah would not be resuming class after spring break due to the spread of Covid-19 (just hours after we left the archives, the building announced emergency closures as well).

The information I found was also extremely enlightening because of the involvement of the Old Eighth Ward in the data. Since this information is from 1912, it is the last year that the Old Eighth neighborhood was reported on before it was demolished. It, and the Seventh Ward clearly stand out statistically in almost every circumstance like the chart above showing the number of communicable disease. Although the Seventh Ward is a clear outlier in the data set, it is notable that the Eighth Ward had 11% more disease cases than the Second Ward.

The day spent researching at the archives taught me a lot about research in ways beyond just the consumption of information. For one thing, I realized how much I had taken for granted the high-quality images and charts that I deal with on a regular basis. It was surprisingly hard to photograph the charts that in a way that would allow for future use. I often found myself retaking and retaking because, though readable the text was out of focus, or, by tapping my finger to take the picture I had moved my phone just enough to tilt the angle of the image. Luckily we had tripods to hold our phones still as we took the pictures, and what began as a gadget I didn’t think I needed soon became a vital tool.

Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History discusses the practice of digitizing images at length. “In digitizing images, as with all digitizing, the quality of the digital image rests on the quality of the original, the digitizing method employed, the skill of the person doing the digitizing, and the degree to which the digital copy has adequately “sampled” the analog original.” In my case, though slightly worn, my source material was in decent condition, and my “skill” coupled with the augmentation of the tripod was adequate to take effective reproductions of the data. Although an iphone camera is fairly low tier as a digitization method, It served its purpose. I was able to “sample” the data fairly well since I was literally just photographing all the charts and data.

There is a lot to consider going forward. My interpretation of the data, and how I portray it is not yet set in stone. However thanks to digital technology I have the ability to use an analog resource in ways that would be otherwise impossible. This is a fortunate thing, because digital work is all most of us are going to be doing for a long while.

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