Searching for Answers

Photo by Kelan Amme

As part of the Digital History course offered at Messiah University, students are given the opportunity to gain experience in archival research during visits to the Pennsylvania State Archives and the Historical Society of Dauphin County.

During two separate trips to Harrisburg, students were tasked with identifying manuscripts, books, and other sources in order to conduct research relevant to their final project topics. Students were then tasked with digitizing their findings through various methods of scanning, such as their cellphone, a DSLR camera, or CZUR scanners.

My experience at the Pennsylvania State Archives was quite stressful, as the manuscript groups I had pulled yielded no information relevant to my topic of prostitution in the Old Eighth Ward. The first manuscript group I had pulled included law books of Harrisburg, detailing many specific crimes and infractions one could be charged with during the early 1900s, however, none mentioned prostitution or any similar misconduct. The second manuscript group I viewed contained a collection of court cases concerning pavement regulations in the city, with some cases of machinery being placed in the incorrect locations. In addition to this collection of court cases, there was a pair of extremely deteriorated, handwritten court ledgers. The ledger’s handwriting was exceptionally complex cursive, making it difficult to decipher what was written, worsened by the condition of the ledgers. Because of this, immediately following the State Archives trip and prior to visiting the Historical Society of Dauphin County, I decided to change my topic to that of food and confectioner businesses and their significance to the residents of Harrisburg. I chose this topic due to food’s tendency of bring people together as a common ground, and I believe that there will be interesting trends regarding the types of food available in the city during this time period.

With my new project topic chosen, I was able to identify a manuscript group located at the Historical Society of Dauphin County that contained a great quantity of materials related to various markets, grocers, and confectioners that were active in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The types of documents included advertisements, postcards, and shipping correspondence. The archivist working at the historical society was extremely helpful in assisting my research, showing me other resources that may expand upon my project’s topic. This archive trip was much more successful than the prior trip to the State Archives, however, I have plans to revisit it with my new topic in mind so that I can expand upon the information I discovered.

Scans by author

As I looked through the various documents in the manuscript group, I began to understand how many different businesses in Harrisburg were dedicated to providing its residents with access to not only essential food items like grains and other staples, but confections like candy and ice cream. Additionally, there were a great number of stores that provided residents with coffee and teas from all over the world, making Harrisburg a major location in the exchanging of food and other goods.

After the visits to the archives, Dr. David Pettegrew taught us how to record metadata for the resources we accessed during our research. Compared to the actual research at the archive, recording metadata took a lot longer, though was relatively simple to complete. As I plan to work in the public history field, primarily in a museum or archival setting, learning how to complete such processes is extremely helpful so that I may aid researchers and work more efficiently.

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.

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