Into the Digital World: A Future Historian’s Step by Step Journey

By Kelan Amme

My name is Kelan Amme and I am a junior at Messiah University. I am a History major, with a concentration in Public History, and a minor in Digital Public Humanities. I have always been interested in history ever since I was young as my family and I would take camping trips for weeks at a time across different areas of the United States and Canada. Besides also loving history-related shows and documentaries (the Egyptologist Zahi Hawass was my favorite “personality” growing up), museums, national parks, and other public history sites always intrigued me. I think it was the fact that I knew that just on the other side of the display case was something that was ten plus times more my age that was in one piece, sitting right here for me to look at, just like thousands of people did before me. As I got into high school, I began to take videography and video editing courses where I developed skills that gave me a connection to the digital world. Back then, I never made a connection between history and technology, but during my sophomore year that started to change when I created a short genealogical history documentary for my English class where I video-interviewed my grandparents and digitized family heirlooms. With some hindsight, I now have a feeling of pride in myself knowing that even then, I started exploring some form of digital history.

– Me!

I started to gain a greater sense of what digital history was during the public history course that I was fortunate enough to take during the 2022 Spring semester. Taught by Dr. Sarah Myers, my class and I were given many experiences to learn about what the public history discipline entails. This included analyzing online articles and sources, visiting local public history sites, listening and viewing oral history interviews, and creating an “UnEssay” project of our choosing for our final. The main goal of the project was to have us do historical research and tell a story through any medium that was not a traditional essay, so my classmate Keli, and I decided to create a documentary highlighting the historical influence of Gargoyles, specifically on the campus of Princeton University. While doing research, I couldn’t help but wonder how I could be adding new information and context to pieces of stone that has loomed off the sides of buildings for generations, but as I have reflected, this quote has stuck with me. In his book, Technology and the Historian, Adam Crymble writes “[t]his work included both approaches devised to engage with the existing scholarship (new answers to old questions) and also to provide new means of working with digital texts (new methods and workflows)” (Crymble 28). Even though I was not directly working with digitized texts as my main source of information, I feel that these “new methods and workflows” apply to analyzing historical architecture through video form.

-A few examples of the gargoyles on Princeton’s Campus

This summer I had the opportunity to practice and explore the world of digital history “professionally” at my first historical internship. I worked at the Metlar-Bodine House Museum in Piscataway, New Jersey as an intern in the archives. Now, going into the internship, I knew almost nothing about the hard skills necessary for being an archivist, and I certainly was not sure if it would be the right position for me. One of the first projects that I took part in was learning how to use the PastPerfect database software where I would create digitized records of the museum’s objects, artifacts, and documents that needed to be preserved both physically and online for researchers. At the time, I did not know that I was even doing digital history, but as I grew accustomed to working in an archive, I realized that keeping records of items that were of historical significance in a museum database is exactly the work of a digital historian. I was also fortunate enough to continue to build my videography skills by conducting oral history interviews for the museum, which was yet another form of digital history. Ultimately, creating digital versions of existing physical artifacts and new, digital versions of oral histories helped me understand the growing disciplinary movement of transferring the “analog” to the “born digital.”

-The Metlar-Bodine House Museum

Now that I have entered my first Digital History course this fall semester, I have begun to learn from my professor, Dr. David Pettegrew, about the true nature of how the Humanities discipline intersects with digital tools. Much of the insight that I have learned so far has come from our class readings, which so far have been Technology and the Historian by Adam Crymble and History in the Digital Age by Toni Weller. These two readings have outlined the historical context around how the historical profession has evolved through the digital age while also providing in-depth studies into different aspects such as the popularity of scholarly blogs and navigating internet archives. Crymble, as well as Dr. Pettegrew, have also introduced me to other aspects of digital history including how Computer Information Systems (CIS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) help scholars work together on projects such as the website that this blog is based on, the Digital Harrisburg Initiative. These readings have been beneficial in shaping my overall understanding of how broad the subject of Digital History is outside of my previous assumptions, which were simply putting “history” into digital forms like videos or pictures. Besides our readings, I have also begun to learn how to use digital tools such as the bibliographic reference software program Zotero, which has helped me organize and manage any sources that I feel may be pertinent to my classes or personal historical use. 

As I have begun to think about my research topic for my Digital History course, I feel that I am starting to lean towards the topic of Harrisburg’s Underground Railroad or the public’s perception of the Old Eighth Ward during its final days through newspaper articles. This will hopefully combine the information that I have been gathering for my Humanities Projects course with the information available to me on the Digital Harrisburg website that I will be using as a resource for Digital History. So far I have been able to focus on the life of African American orator T. Morris Chester and his life as a correspondent during the Civil War. Within this, I will be working with fellows from the Center for Public Humanities at Messiah University on developing resources for the McCormick Public Library in Harrisburg, which recently opened the T. Morris Chester Center wing to honor his legacy. This will also be in conjunction with T. Morris Chester Way, which was dedicated on Walnut Street in Pennsylvania’s capital city, a road that connected the historic Old Eighth Ward to the Susquehanna River.

– T. Morris Chester’s grave at the historic Lincoln Cemetery in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

As the semester continues to press forward, I am looking forward to building my knowledge surrounding digital history as well as specific skills within the discipline such as navigating historical databases and analyzing sources specific to my project.

Kelan Amme is a junior History major with a concentration in Public History, and a minor in Digital Public Humanities at Messiah University. He also works as an Archival Assistant at the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah University Archives, and the Ernest L. Boyer Center Archives at Messiah University.

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