The year has finally come to a close, and I have learned a tremendous amount. When I first began this year, I was but a lowly English major searching for something to diversify my degree a little bit. I stumbled upon Digital Humanities and this led me to several new experiences involving the use of digital technology in the fields of humanities work. Taking this class was one of them. Not only did it help me to deepen my historical thinking, but I was able to garner many new skills that will be applicable in situations outside just history.
I used many of these skills in my final project for this class, a Storymap about Public Health in Harrisburg as the City Beautiful Movement passed through. My examination took on several facets, looking into and visualizing various aspects of City Beautiful’s effect on the health of Harrisburg’s citizens. I used population data from Digital Harrisburg’s databases, disease statistics from the Pennsylvania State Archives, and hospital locations from the Harrisburg City Directory of 1902.
When I entered the world of Digital Harrisburg last semester, there was a lot I still didn’t understand about Digital History, and I grasped certain things by default as I experienced them in action. This semester I was able to understand to a far greater extent why many things are the way they are. I fully realized the extent to which accurate data recording is important, so that it can be used by researchers in the future. I also learned a tremendous amount on the technical side with our visit to the archives.
Something as simple as taking a picture of an archival resource I had to seriously consider. I needed to take the picture in an area without glare, and at an angle that would not cause obstruction to the information on the page. I did a ton of work my previous semester with a set of photos from someone’s trip to the archives and never even gave a second thought into what made it so accessible.
Most importantly I learned to use data to make historical arguments. Access was a wonderfully helpful tool in that process. Databases allowed me to cross-reference things like race, employment, and residence to zero in on specific information that I could use to prove a point.
This was a very enlightening year to learn about Digital History, because midway through the semester, as the Coronavirus pandemic arrived, everything school-related became digital. My research, my work, my social interactions. The importance of access became abundantly clear as I, for the first time in my life, was unable to simply go to the library and find the information that I needed. Accurate digital records became a very serious matter because there was no substitute. I couldn’t go back to the Pennsylvania State Archives and take more pictures, nor could I double check the data that went into the census databases. I needed to be able to trust the digital frameworks that were around me, and luckily, I could. But the impression I will carry long after lock down and this virus are over, is that while it has its hangups, Digital History is absolutely vital, and is not just a convenience, but a responsibility.