The Digital Harrisburg Initiative is a series of digital public humanities projects carried out by faculty and students of Messiah University in collaboration with Harrisburg University of Science and Technology and community partners. Our work is devoted to exploring the histories of Pennsylvania’s state capital, creating public resources for learning about and understanding Harrisburg, building community and institutional connections across the region, and deepening student knowledge of local history, the humanities, and digital technology. While our website and our projects touch on a range of materials in Harrisburg’s history, we are especially interested in carrying out projects that encourage students in the practice of service, leadership, and reconciliation (the mission of Messiah University) and make a local contribution toward the formation of a just, civil, and equitable society.

This website is the public outlet and portal for the products and processes of our work, which include a series of student digital projects and exhibits, interactive maps, datasets, publications & presentations, interviews, and blog posts created by the students and faculty of Messiah, Harrisburg University, and community members between 2014 and the present.

The Digital Harrisburg Team at Messiah University in 2018-2019: Molly Elspas, Project Manager Andrew Dyrli Hermeling, Rachel Williams, and Anna Strange


The Digital Harrisburg Initiative began in spring 2014 through four classes. Professor David Pettegrew’s Digital History class used the site to report on student archival research related to Harrisburg’s successful City Beautiful Movement and to outline the digitization of federal census data for the city in 1900 and a contemporary historical atlas of the city. Professor Jeff Erikson of Messiah and Professor Albert Sarvis of Harrisburg University worked with their GIS courses to begin digitizing the 1901 atlas and relate  census data to geocoded addresses in GIS. Dr. John Fea and his students in Pennsylvania History conducted archival research related to the region’s churches, cultural and religious organizations, and African-American history. These courses populated this site with new material, spawned an Omeka website devoted to City Beautiful, created a database of information about half the population of the city in 1900, and digitized several of the wards in GIS.

Since this initial burst of activity, our initiative has grown and expanded to embrace an array of collaborative digital and public humanities activities. We have maintained energy through courses in digital history and geospatial technology, work study positions and internships at both institutions, a faculty-student working group, and the Center for Public Humanities Student Fellows Program.

The Center for Public Humanities student fellows and Digital Harrisburg students of 2019-2020 meet with Mr. Lenwood Sloan, director of the Commonwealth Monument Project, and Mr. Calobe Jackson, Jr., local historian.

Our past activities and projects have included, among others:

  • archival research and digitization of documents from the Pennsylvania State Archives
  • developing a database of census records for Harrisburg residents in 1900-1930
  • creating geocoded digital layers of historical maps and interactive maps of the city
  • projects and exhibits exploring Harrisburg’s City Beautiful movement, floods, clothing designers (Mary Sachs), racial redlining, restrictive covenants, the Old Eighth Ward
  • poetry workshops with local schools
  • the Commonwealth Monument project celebrating Harrisburg’s African American history
  • publications in the journal Pennsylvania History and elsewhere
The 2014-2015 Digital Harrisburg working group including (moving clockwise from top) former Harrisburg University GIS student  Dan Stolyarov and Messiah students James Mueller, Rachel Carey, and Rachel Morris.

As we have implemented student projects for these courses, we have connected with faculty and students in other courses and institutions, historical societies in the region, community partners, and individuals well-versed in Harrisburg’s history. 

We invite you to explore our activities at this site. If you would like to connect with us in 2022-2023, please contact Dr. David Pettegrew of Messiah University.

Professor John Fea discusses best practices in archival research to the inaugural class of Messiah’s course in Digital History.

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