Reflecting on Digital History 2022

Throughout this fall semester I have expanded my experience as a historian; however, particularly my experiences with the field of digital history. The digital history course exposed me to a great number of tools, such as website and blog creation programs like Omeka and WordPress. Both of these tools have allowed me to not only document my research and data for my own purposes but have also allowed me to share that research and progression with others via the internet. In addition to the ability to share my work, tools such as Zotero and Microsoft Access have allowed me to process bibliographical information and census data in intuitive ways. All of these tools have been instrumental in my historical knowledge and capability. I highly recommend each of these tools to any individual interested in conducting historical research or cataloging and interpreting historical data. Digital history can incorporate new technologies and tools to present history in new ways, thus expanding how history can then be interpreted. This is present in the Digital Harrisburg project, as well as many other similar projects where “On a methodological level, we are making an argument about the power of visualization as a storytelling medium, to show how mapping can spatially illuminate relationships of power and place” (1).

In addition to the myriad of software and programs we worked with in class, I also gained further experience outside the classroom, specifically in archival research. As a class, we made trips to the Pennsylvania State Archives and the Historical Society of Dauphin County in order to conduct research and identify documents relevant to our projects regarding Harrisburg and the Old Eighth Ward. As I move into my final semester as a history major with a concentration in public history, I cherished the opportunity to visit more archives and expose myself to more of that variety of work. Following graduation this coming spring, I hope to find work as an archivist myself, so this experience is extremely significant to my prospective career.

Harrisburg Business Directory, scan by author

As mentioned in my previous blog, “Searching for Answers,” my original project topic was on prostitution and red-light districts of the Old Eighth Ward. This proved to be a difficult task, as my research at the archives provided no materials or documents relevant to prostitution or any laws concerning such practices. As such, my project then shifted focus to the various grocers and confectioners of Harrisburg, mostly of the Old Eighth Ward, with a select few from the surrounding wards. I sought to tell the story of the places and people from which Harrisburg residents purchased food and agricultural products from in hopes of highlighting the significance of such businesses on residential life.

As a result of the City Beautiful project, the Old Eighth Ward, or “Bloody Eighth” as it was often referred to as, was demolished in favor of a park-like background for the then-new Pennsylvania Capitol Building. The consequences of such a massive demolition included the displacement of thousands of residents, included the various merchants who resided in the ward. In particular, merchants who dealt with food products impacted residents’ families greatly, with bakeries providing massive amounts of sustenance to households within the ward. Confectioners were also a vital part of the ward following the industrialization of the sugar refinement process, making confections an affordable source of products like ice cream and candy. Obviously, both bakeries and confectioneries of the Eighth Ward were forced to relocate prior to the demolition, with various merchants moving to a different ward in the city. The stories of these grocers, bakers, and confectioners reveal the effects of progress on the working-class communities as evidenced by drastic reconstruction of the ward into the State Capitol Building. My StoryMaps project is titled Food for Thought: Bakeries and Confecteries of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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.

(1) “Accuracy and Authenticity in a Digital City | Perspectives on History | AHA.” Accessed December 11, 2022. https://www.historians.org/research-and-publications/perspectives-on-history/november-2020/accuracy-and-authenticity-in-a-digital-city-emslave-streets-free-streets/em-and-the-landscape-of-early-baltimore.

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