Digital History: A Reflection on the Past Few Months

The same image from my original post back in March. New technology is incorporated into an old system, represented by Clio, the muse of history. From

It has been a very interesting semester. Now that it is coming to an end, as all things do, we will pause to look back on how far we have come.

Digital history was a very new field to me, as I am sure it was to most of my fellow classmates, but it has served to challenge the way I perceive the craft of history. I will admit I am still somewhat wary of it, but I now understand its usefulness, and perhaps its necessity, to the field. The introduction of new tools, such as databases and story maps, have shown me that to study history can be much more than just examine old books. It has also expanded the kinds of stories history can tell. Now we can see the small events (such as immigration and demographic change) as well as the large ones (such as wars, famines, or plagues). History is not just in the past or even just happening in the capitols of the world. History is happening all around us.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus hammered home this point to me. All of our lives were turned upside down by a virus that started in an open-air market halfway across the world. As no time before, it became clear that we were all living in a historic time, a defining moment of our generation. It all came very suddenly. I still remember the fear we all felt on those fateful days leading up to Spring Break. We tried to reassure ourselves, telling ourselves that they would never shut the school down over something like this or that we would be back in a few weeks at the most. We were wrong.

We were fortunate that, unlike some of the other classes the college offered, the Digital History class seemed specially designed for remote learning. We naturally had access to all the materials for class because everything was already online. Unlike most of my other classes, I think the experience of digital history was actually enhanced by remote learning. With most classes, remote learning was detrimental. Even with the use of video conference programs such as Zoom, some personal touch was lost. But, for some reason, this did not happen with digital history. Instead, class time was significantly shortened (always a benefit in a student’s book) and we were allowed to work on the lessons at our own pace. I found that this made it easier for me to learn the material.

This brings me to the culmination of this semester: the final project. As discussed in my previous posts, it will focus on the forgotten World War I deserters from Steelton. The research for this project may be the one thing that was made more difficult by the coronavirus outbreak, as I did not have access to as many resources as may have been helpful. For example, I would have liked very much to explore the criminal justice records to see if any of the deserters had been prosecuted, and if so, what the outcome was. Nevertheless, I think the research we were able to do has been adequate. We have discovered that most of the men on the deserter’s lists from the PA State Archives were disproportionately likely to be from African American households. We know that racial tensions between African Americans and white Americans rose significantly after World War I, in no small part due to the actions of African American soldiers during the war. What we have seen in these lists is likely a reflection of this ongoing nationwide tension, a microcosm of the whole United States.

The document that started it all. One of the lists of deserters from the Central Pennsylvania area issued just after World War I. This image was taken by the author on March 12, 2020.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.