Harrisburg Transformations: Digitization and Datification

By Sam Erikson

Going to The Pennsylvania State Archives and The Dauphin County Historical Society were both formative experiences for me over the course of this Digital History course. When my classmates and I traveled to The Pennsylvania State Archives together a few weeks ago, I was immediately overwhelmed by the vast amount of collections. While I was able to easily sort through the manuscript group that I had requested, I knew that there was a seemingly infinite archive of information housed in the building. It seemed like the perfect scenario: a treasure trove of archive where I would surely find extensive information about bounty hunters, my research topic for this Digital History course. 

As I explored the files that I had requested and received from one of the archivists, I realized that my topic of bounty hunting in the Old Eighth Ward might have been too advanced for my capabilities in addition to the lack of resources I was able to come up with. After this realization, I changed my project’s focus to J. Horace McFarland’s involvement with the Harrisburg Park Commission and Harrisburg’s City Beautiful Movement. This proved to be more fruitful in findings, particularly at the Dauphin County Historical Society (DCHS). We took a class research trip, much like we did at the Archives, on October 29, to the DCHS. There, I was able to locate three valuable resources from the manuscript box I was given. 

Inside the Pennsylvania State Archives

Photo Courtesy of Sam Erikson

The first resource that I found of use was titled “Organization of The Harrisburg Park Commission And of Various Bodies Preceding It”. J. Horace McFarland is listed as a member of the Second Commission. McFarland was first elected to a position on the Commission organized on November 12, 1902, after John Hoffer, his predecessor, resigned in December 1904. . McFarland was then elected in January 1905 to the Second Commission.

The second resource that was particularly helpful was the “Report of The Harrisburg Park Commission For The Year Ending December 31, 1908”. Upon discovering it, I felt like I had struck gold. It detailed plans of completion for the park system, the need for increased acreage, the park nursery, the need for additional funds, and the dedication of a fountain called the Ensign Fountain at the intersection of Derry and Mulberry Streets. 

The last resource that was helpful was the “Review of The Work of The Harrisburg Park Commission Previous To 1908”, which was presented by Mr. McFarland. The review contained a description of the work being done by the Harrisburg Park Commission, including: a general plan, plans for State Street improvement (which would lead to the building of a new State Capitol), the Commission’s work in 1904-1907, athletics, and the park system. 

Another undertaking in recent weeks has been the datafication of Harrisburg records from 1900 and 1930. For these labs, my classmates and I utilized both Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Access. I am not tech-savvy by any stretch of the imagination, so this was a challenge for me. Although I experienced some setbacks in attempting the labs on my own, I was, overall, successful in completing them, albeit they were completed with difficulty. If I had more experience with both programs, I wouldn’t have struggled so much, but because this was my first time using either program, the difficulty of the labs was exponentially harder. 

The datafication process itself is extremely useful if you understand how to build databases and navigate their construction. For example, when I worked in Microsoft Access, there are tools that help you ask questions of the data, called queries (hyperlink). Queries can give you an answer to a simple question, perform calculations, combine data from different tables, add, change, or delete data from a database 1. It specifies what you are searching for by narrowing selections based on data you entered. 

Creating databases out of historical artifacts allows us to digitize history in a new way. Using tools like queries allows us to answer and raise complex historical questions, while discovering unique and new interpretations of the past. With these new interpretations in light of what digital history tells us, we can form new and compelling arguments in relation to existing historical conversations. 

Additional resources:

Julian C. Chambliss. “PERFECTING SPACE: J. HORACE MCFARLAND AND THE AMERICAN CIVIC ASSOCIATION.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 77, no. 4 (2010): 486–97. https://doi.org/10.5325/pennhistory.77.4.0486.

Wilson, William H. “HARRISBURG’S SUCCESSFUL CITY BEAUTIFUL MOVEMENT, 1900–1915.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 47, no. 3 (1980): 213–33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27772668.

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