Lost Treasures in Plain Sight

An exciting part of the Digital History course here at Messiah University is the opportunity to test the skills we learn in class out in the field. Over the semester Dr. Pettegrew took us to both the Pennsylvania State Archives and the Dauphin County Archives.

Our mission was to find information that will help build our final story map project and then digitize our findings. There are various methods and practices when it comes to digitizing physical artifacts.

Personally, I went with the iPhone digital scanner method over regular camera or CZUR scanners. One of the ingenious features apple phones have is the ability to scan documents in such a way that crops out the surroundings and corrects your page to scan as flat as possible. I could hold my phone above or in front of whatever I wanted to scan, and it would do it automatically. It also made it easy to scan multiple pages into one combined pdf. This combining feature was helpful for keeping multiple book or pamphlet pages together. From my phone, I was then able to transfer all my data in crystal clear scans to my computer in one go.

My research topic centers around Frederick Douglass and his various impact on the communities around him depending on his location. I knew Frederick Douglass had come to Harrisburg at one point in time to give a speech but wanted to know how his presence effects the old 8th ward and other communities in Harrisburg. However, what I found was even more intriguing.  Douglass seemed to always cause quite the stir wherever he went, which even led to an armed mob in Lancaster when Douglass tried to give a speech to encourage men of color to enlist.

For each of our projects, we have to find a place that holds the center of our story. The problem with my story is Douglass’ constant movement. Being a famous orator who rallied groups of people he never stayed in one place for long. Douglass was the definition of a “man on a mission.” Through my findings at Dauphin County Archives, I began to brainstorm the possibility of creating a story map project that documents the ripple effects Douglass had on each area he visited. This is where my project finally began to start taking shape.

As I searched and searched at both archives, I found myself coming up empty or thinking I had a eureka moment when in reality it wasn’t what I was looking for. It can be easy to become discouraged after hours of digging and searching and yet walking away empty handed. For me, I find myself enamored with the thrill of the hunt. There is something exciting about turning the page of a book and scanning for a name or topic and finally finding it.

While researching at the State Archives I had the opportunity to learn how to use a microfilm roll. The archivist showed me how to set it up, the controls, and off I went on my scavenger hunt through Thaddeus Stevens Papers looking for correspondence between him and Frederick Douglass. Microfilm brought an interesting learning curve. I read through the physical index to find where in the roll my potential treasure was hidden. Then I began to scroll and scroll, endlessly, until I finally struck gold about 30 minutes before the archives closed. The letter from Douglass to Thaddeus was not exactly what I was looking for, but it still added context to the point in time and the person I was researching – Frederick Douglass.

After our research experiences, Dr. Pettegrew told us a funny story that will always stick with me now when I research at an archive. Some researchers will claim to have “found” lost treasures after a trip to the archives. But, if you tell any archivist that you found a lost treasure while researching, I guarantee they will scoff and simply tell you, nothing is ever lost in an archive you just happen to be the one to open up that box, folder, or microfilm for the first time in a long while. An archive is full of treasure troves of memories, stories, artifacts, and information. None of it is ever lost. It’s simply stored safely till another researcher comes along with a hunger to learn.

Keli Ganey is a Junior History major at Messiah University with a concentration in Public History and minor in Digital Public Humanities. She holds the position of Humanities scholarship program leadership council co-chair, President of the Messiah History Club, works for Yellow Breeches Television as the station’s historian and serves on the editorial staff. Keli also is the exhibit designer at York County History Center. You see her many works in various forms on her personal website.

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