Historians Behind the Screen, Lens, Records Box, Database… A Semester’s Reflection on the Second Capitol Expansion

Featured image credits: Walnut and Short Looking North Toward Capitol, January 4,1918, Private Papers (Series MG-085-APRP-3, Box 1), MG-085, J. Horace McFarland Private Papers, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg.

– By Kelan Amme

When I first began taking Digital History in August of this year (2022), I expected myself to be learning about how the historical discipline has transitioned to a digital age, especially when I received our main textbook: Technology and the Historian by Adam Crymble, in the mail. Little did I know that this course description would be spot on with what we would do in class.

“What does it mean to practice history in the digital age? In this course, we explore how technology is changing the way we think about, research, and present the past. Our emphasis will be on the practice of digital history through specific exercises in GIS, data collection and manipulation, internet archiving, database creation, website development, social media, image and video editing, and digitization. Through a range of applications, tools, and collaborative exercises, we will see how digital tools readily intersect with the practice of history and how these applications are changing the way we understand our discipline” (Messiah University course registration description).

After learning about the context and relationship that historians have had over the years in regard to digital technology, I was able to start researching for our final project for HIST 294. The parameters of our final included choosing a research topic centered around Harrisburg as well as much of the work that has been presented on this site, and during my initial search, I began centering my idea around the demise of the Old Eighth Ward through the eyes of the public, most specifically through newspaper accounts of the Capitol Park being built. After gathering many resources from Newspapers.com and the Library of Congress online archive, I selected a few manuscript groups to look through from the Pennsylvania State Archives. When I began researching, I realized that my dates from the 1910s did not match the dates on the documents in front of me (1920s-1940s). As I thought about changing my entire topic idea, I realized that the information I pulled from the PSA was on a topic that Digital Harrisburg researchers had published yet, let alone gathered resources on or even mentioned significantly in an article. I decided that my project would be centered around the Second Capitol Expansion, which took place from the 1920s through the 1940s.

Using the document highlighted above, I am in the process of designing a Story Map entitled “Unfit for Living, Fit for Beautification,” using storymaps.com that explains the process surrounding the Second Expansion from the point of view of the Pennsylvania State Planning Board. After the destruction of the Old Eighth Ward in the 1910s, the Pennsylvania Government began building the new Capitol Park, where one of Harrisburg’s most diverse communities lived. Within this park, they built new green space and office buildings, but as the city kept growing, the need for more space for government buildings became a thought in the minds of the city’s movers and shakers. Eventually, the neighborhood between North and Forster Streets became the next target, and from the ’20s to the ’40s, a significant amount of research went into why this location should become parkland. The creators of the Report outlined how they were going to do this in nine distinct chapters that cover the financial and legal aspects of the purchase, how they were going to map out the new streets, and through my Story Map, I plan to show the State Government did this and how the lives of the inhabitants were affected. This project is something that is going to continue past finals week of this semester, as there are many rabbit trails for me to follow as I uncover and present this information to the public. I hope that this project will also carry over into the “Introduction to GIS” (Geographic Information Systems) class that I take in the Spring of 2023.

In my past articles, I have reflected on my first time encountering Digital History as well as working with Microsoft database software like Excel and Access, but now I would like to briefly provide some closure to those who may still wonder how digital history can benefit the discipline. I know that I have oftentimes used the word “public” in my articles as I, a hopefully public historian, have been writing about the work I have been doing for the Digital Harrisburg Initiative, a project centered around bringing history to the public. As this class has commenced, I have grown to realize how digital history and public history are similar. As Sheila A. Brennan puts it, “Public historians and public humanities scholars are defined by the “public,” even when definitions of these practices are contested… public historians work with specific audiences on projects, they also have “a duty to serve particular communities…” Public digital humanities, then, should be identified by the ways that it engages with communities outside of the academy as a means for doing digital humanities scholarship” (1). Essentially public history provides historians with a way to bring their research out of an academic journal article and into the masses in the form of museums, monuments, memorials, documentaries, etc. Digital history does the same, but it focuses on training historians to learn the hard skills necessary to accomplish some of those research tasks. Historians will have to learn how to make PDF scans machine-readable in OCR programs, how to use the Microsoft Suite to not only save important statistical data but to also make searching quicker, and how to use digital GIS programs like storymaps.com to tell their stories. We have already seen this as the COVID-19 pandemic forced many public history institutions to have to adapt to new ways of reaching their audiences. Trevor Beeman, the Executive Director of the American Alliance of Museums, highlights how changing to a digitally based format to tell a story proved useful when engaging with museum visitors.

While working at the William Root House Museum and Garden in Marrieta, Georgia, Beemon looked to transition the museum’s touchscreen experience as renovations and workspace infringed on the daily functions of the museum’s tours. Initially, the docents leading the tours would carry a tablet around to different rooms, showing the guests historical photographs and information about each location, but eventually, this had to change. “Converting to a self-guided experience would also allow us to standardize the content of our tours, which was especially important as we worked to incorporate more of the human element of the site than before… says Beemon.” (2) This self-guided approach to history is trending upward in today’s time, and digital and public historians are at the forefront of the movement.

To end this article, I would like to use a quote from Beemon’s article that helps sum up the work that my fellow student colleagues, mentors, and I have done at Digital Harrisburg i

“What we have crafted at the Root House is a visitor experience that’s truly unexpected. Guests often return to the visitor center expressing their surprise at finding something so technologically complex and progressive in a house museum. Little do they know how it was cobbled together by our small but passionate museum staff using very limited resources. But we’re all museum people here, right? Accomplishing the impossible using limited resources is what we do!” (3).

Please check out my Story Map here. This project is still ongoing, but I invite you to see what I have so far.

(1): Brennan, Sheila A. “Public, First.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. 2016. https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled/section/11b9805a-a8e0-42e3-9a1c-fad46e4b78e5#ch32.

(2 and 3): Beemon, Trevor. “A House Museum Built for the Digital Age.” September 2022. https://www.aam-us.org/2022/09/22/a-house-museum-built-for-the-digital-age/.

Kelan Amme is a junior History major with a concentration in Public History and a minor in Digital Public Humanities at Messiah University. He also works as an Archival Assistant at the Messiah University Archives, a diplomat for the department of History, Politics, and International Relations, and is the Social Media Manager for the Messiah University History Club. His LinkedIn profile can be found here.

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