Archival Research: A journey that may not actually be about the destination

By: Rachel Dougherty

As my time in Digital History winds down as the semester comes to a natural conclusion, I find I have two final reflections from this course that seem to juxtapose one another.  First, I am truly amazed at the amount and quality of history that is able to be done in the digital sphere.  Historians, archivists, librarians, and students have done so much good work in the digitization of documents, artifacts, and primary and secondary sources in the past few decades; truly, so much work (and I’ll touch on this more below!)!  I have witnessed in my own work and that of my peers how much historical research can be done using only a laptop and connection to the internet; and I’ve been very thankful for that simplicity and accessibility!  In all my time as a history student, I never had felt the need to step into an archive to find research materials for papers and projects; and so for two years I didn’t.

That brings me to my second reflection: while there is so much available online, there is still an incredible amount of source material that remains un-digitized.  Part of this course was to visit both the Pennsylvania State Archives and the Historical Society of Dauphin County’s archives for research purposes.  And it’s a good thing, too; after all, archival research is a rite of passage in the historical discipline.  Even in our digitized world, there is still something to be said for going to an archive and having a sensory moment with the objects of your historical research; it was great to be able to sympathize with that sentiment for the first time. 

As for the specifics of my archival adventures: I experienced the way in which an archive can guide one’s topic of research.  I entered the PA State Archives with a few pretty fuzzy ideas.  I am very interested in art and art history and have a dabbled interest in architecture, so my plan was to look for some artsy story I could tell or photographs of architecture from the Old Eighth Ward to reflect on what beauty was lost during the neighborhood’s destruction.  I turned to Horace J. McFarland, a famous local photographer from around that time, hoping his collections would yield some results.  I found little in the way of photographic material that I could contextualize in terms of my knowledge or ideas for research, but I did come across two essays by McFarland; both discussing of photography as a medium for civic improvement. 

< Pennsylvania State Archives, image courtesy of Flickr

My interest in these McFarland essays piqued, I ventured to the Dauphin County archives with my class.  Here, my goal was to look for visuals or any other McFarland material to go along with the essays to tell a broader story about photography and motivations for getting rid of the Old Eighth.  I realized pretty quickly that that was far too vague and open-ended for a simple and productive trip to the archives.  Looking through McFarland’s personal papers, I discovered the document you see below: a program for the ceremonial opening of the new and improved Market Street Bridge entrance in 1906 that he attended.  And for some reason, I decided to flip my research topic to the impact of the City Beautiful Movement on this specific bridge.  There is something fascinating to me about Harrisburg’s initiative to not only beautify the city, but to also accessorize it, if you will, even down to the adornment of its entrances.  I think studying this specific corridor will reveal much about the priorities of Harrisburg in the early twentieth century. 

Historical Society of Dauphin County, image courtesy of Wikamedia Commons >

“Proceedings at the Dedication of the Market Street Entrance to the City of Harrisburg, PA”

I digitized my way through this archival enterprise; scanning documents and images using my iPhone, using best naming practices for future ease in location, and uploading my digitized findings for personal as well as future student use.  Over the past few weeks, I have also had the pleasure of digitizing slides from twenty plus years taken by Dr. Pettegrew and his archaeological work in the Corinthia in Greece.  Digitizing is thorough, time-consuming work.  And I have benefited off of the contributions of others in this area for years without thinking twice about it.  It’s safe to say my mindset in terms of digitization has changed.     

Our Digital History Class’s PA State Archives Experience, image courtesy of Dr. David Pettegrew.

I suppose my point is this: I am so grateful for all the material digitization that has been done, and it has been fantastic and eye-opening to experience this process for myself; but, history student, like myself, should not neglect the physical archive, both in research and in all it offers for digitization.  I never would have decided to focus on a bridge for my final project had I not come across a copy of a program that someone decided to save once upon a time, and it’s doubtful I would have come across such an insignificant document digitized online.  The internet is bountiful in terms of source material, but archives still hold so much physical material and take one on a journey that may not actually end up being about the destination.

Rachel Dougherty is a junior History major with dual minors in Studio Art and Art History at Messiah University.

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