Digital History in a Pandemic

Digital History in a Pandemic

Sentence docket from the Pennsylvania State Archives

In the blink of an eye, the end of my senior year is on the horizon. I can say that without a doubt this semester did not turn out how I expected it to. On March 12, my digital history class and I were sitting in the archives beginning our exciting final projects when we got the email that changed everything. The email instructed us to pack our books, and any necessary medication because we would not be back to campus until after Easter due to the rapid spread of Covid-19. A few days after arriving home, we got another email telling us that Messiah College was closed for the rest of the semester and our classes would now be held exclusively online.

Before we were sent home, my class learned about the accessibility that digital history provides (Digital History). More people are able to access historical sources, artifacts, and research than ever before. People no longer have to travel hundreds, or even thousands of miles to visit a museum or archive because most have been digitized. A historian’s job has always been to create a “persuasive retelling of the past” (Digital History and Arguments), and now this has expanded to not just retelling on paper but online as well. As the article “Doing and Making: History as digital practice” by Jim Mussell explains, the role of a historian can now be described as making absent context tangible for the wider world, and making the imagined virtual and visible in order to reconstruct a retelling of the past (Mussell, p. 89). This transformation of sources into data has not taken history away from primary sources, but “provides a new context in which these sources might be encountered” (Mussell, p. 88). When I was still at Messiah, this was nothing more than interesting information about the capabilities of digital history; however, now I have come into direct contact with what digital history can do.

This infamous bawdy house is just a few buildings down from Market St., one of the busiest thoroughfares in Harrisburg at the time.

My research project on prostitutes in Harrisburg from April 1902-April 1903 has now been done using primarily online research. Originally, we were going to be able to return to the archives and the state library to obtain more primary sources. Now, we are left with the original information and photographs that we collected on our first archival visit on that fateful day. The Digital Harrisburg organization has digitized hundreds of materials on Harrisburg and much of my primary source research has come from their previous work. Due to the wonders of digitization, in addition to the photographs I took of arrest records and sentence dockets, I have been able to access census data (one of the biggest sources used for my research), city directories, newspapers, and photographs that I would have been unable to access in person during this time of social distancing.

This address was located within walking distance of the train tracks and the capital complex, which were both busy areas.

For my final project, I used a sample of 28 women arrested for owning or working in bawdy houses between April 1902 and April 1903, which I found using a combination of arrest records and census data. Due to the government shut down, I was unable to return to the archives, so the names I collected from my first trip were the only ones I was able to work with. In the end, I would have loved to find more names and make a larger quantification of women arrested for prostitution, but that will have to be a future research project. I was unable to locate all the women in the arrest records in the census records or city directories. This may be related to a number of factors. The arresting officer could have spelled a first or last name incorrectly, or the woman could have given a false name to avoid future detection or family shame. It is also important to remember (as I stated in my previous post) that the record of the arrest does not automatically equal guilt. Some of these women could have been innocent and merely at the wrong place at the wrong time, or targeted by police because of their race or social status. Unfortunately, that truth died with many of these women who left no records of their lives.

There were three addresses of women arrested for owning bawdy houses on Mulberry St. This was one of the closest streets to the train tracks.

From the 28 women I analyzed, I came to realize that when it came to the location of bawdy houses, the surrounding location was more important than the ward. Out of the 28 women, 13 were arrested for owning and operating a bawdy house (the other 15 were arrested for working in the bawdy houses). These 13 addresses were scattered throughout the wards of Harrisburg, with no one ward housing a majority of the women. However, all 13 addresses were in important strategic locations throughout the city. Seven of the 13 were walking distance from the Harrisburg train tracks, a common location for bawdy houses. The other six were located on or next to the main thoroughfares of Harrisburg. My final project will be presented as a story map, which will provide a visual map showing the addresses of the 28 women in my study.

While this semester definitely did not go as planned, it has been interesting to put the benefits of digital history into practice. I have had to rely solely on digitized materials, such as websites (like and, and online archives to complete my research project. The transition to online classes was different but not as frustrating as I had expected. In reality, I think it was an educational and unique way to experience digital history.

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