Encountering History in the Digital Age

By Derek M. Murphy


Photo by author

Prior to the Digital History course with Dr. David Pettegrew, I had little knowledge of the digital humanities, especially pertaining to history. My main exposure to digital history was through another course at Messiah University, Public History. In this class we discussed some of the ways history, more specifically public history, was digitizing through such things as digital museum exhibits and archives. In another one of my courses, Women and Gender in History with Dr. Sarah Myers, I utilized a digital archive, The Valley of the Shadow, for a research paper concerning crossdressing and transgender soldiers of the American Civil War. Though somewhat dated in its use of technology, it was very helpful in providing personal accounts via primary sources, in addition to information about various aspects of the war. In my Introduction to History course, I was introduced to Zotero, an open-source reference manager, however, it was very brief, and I did not fully understand how to use it in my work. I was also somewhat knowledgeable in the use of Wikipedia, though I had not used it in a long time.

In the Digital History course, we began by defining what digital history was, and what it entailed. In addition to a definition, we also identified and discussed the themes of digital history, essentially creating a framework of how digital tools can be used in conjunction with historical materials and research. The readings were very intriguing, especially those by the digital historian Adam Crymble who discusses how to understand technology and history from a historical perspective. It gave me a new way of looking at information and data, especially so after reading about the digitization of historical artifacts and documents. The activities that we have completed in the course have primarily been helpful in understanding the various tools and methods digital history can be used and presented. Properly learning how to use Zotero has streamlined my process for creating bibliographies for my other courses and projects. In order to give ourselves more experience with existing digital histories, we reviewed and analyzed the effectiveness of various digital archives, including the one I had previously used in my research paper for Women and Gender in American History. We were also taught how to use Wikipedia and the many ways it can be used to expand the information online regarding various topics. Though it was difficult at first, as its interface is unintuitive without prior experience, I eventually got a grasp for it and was able to contribute information on the Pennsylvania Farm Show‘s Wikipedia Page.

As a part of the Digital History course, I also have the opportunity to create a research project detailing the Old Eighth Ward and its significance to Harrisburg. For this project, I hope to focus on either the variety and breadth of businesses or the entertainment and night life of the Old Eighth Ward. The businesses located in the ward obviously fulfilled an important economic role during the period of its existence, but I would also like to analyze their role in shaping the surrounding community both inside and outside of the ward’s boundaries. I also find the night life of the Old Eighth to be particularly intriguing, as I don’t immediately associate the idea of a “night life” to what I currently know about and understand of the ward.

About the Author

Derek Murphy is a history major with a public history concentration currently enrolled in his senior year at Messiah University. This year, he has also had the honor of serving as the university’s History Club vice president as well as interning at the Archives of Messiah University. He has been a resident of Pennsylvania all of his life, and is very excited to be working on the Digital Harrisburg project alongside his fellow students of the Digital History course.

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