“What historians lose when the census questionnaire is short”

6e11b-census-record-wp

As Rachel Basinger notes at Perspectives Daily, historians use the federal census to make sense of the past. I don’t use the census in my own research, but I have asked students to write neighborhood histories of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania based on early 20th census records. The census is a great way of exposing students to primary source research.

This year’s census, which is being advertised as “ten questions in ten minutes,” is, according to Basinger, “losing the stories of countless Americans, particularly those who have been historically marginalized and who do not leave many other records of their lives.”

Here is more from Basinger’s piece:

Since the census has gone digital, it is easier and quicker for many people with internet access to answer more questions. The 2020 census was a lost opportunity to tell the stories of how COVID-19 impacted specific Americans, but the 2030 census doesn’t have to be. The census is an important tool for historical research, and it’s time to give historians plenty of information to tell meaningful stories about every American.

Read the entire piece here.

Harrisburg’s history of racial injustice

Harrisburg_capitol_building

Two of my colleagues in the Messiah University history department, Bernardo Michael and David Pettegrew, have an op-ed at PennLive today on their work on the African American communities of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Pettegrew is the director of the university’s Digital Harrisburg Initiative. He and my colleague Jim LaGrand edited the most recent issue of Pennsylvania History journal, a volume which focuses on the work of Digital Harrisburg and includes short essays by several of our students.

Here is a taste:

One of the long-lasting outcomes of the racial protest movements this summer should be a broader recognition among the American public about how unjust historical policies perpetuated by systemic racism ended up dividing our nation’s communities.

In the mid-state, we are gradually gaining a clearer historical picture of the processes that segregated our own region in the later 19th and 20th centuries. African Americans were placed under constant surveillance while being denied equal access to social services, education, employment, housing, worship, transportation and entertainment. There are many episodes in this history that are coming to light.

Consider the location of recent protests in Harrisburg around the State Capitol Park, which, historians have shown, occupies the site of the vanished neighborhood of the Old Eighth Ward, the heart of the city’s African American and immigrant communities from 1850-1913. The Old Eighth was vital to abolitionist work in the Commonwealth before the Civil War—here Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison met an angry crowd of revelers in 1847—and was significant in the fight for suffrage after the war.

Although the neighborhood was the heart of Black political organizations, societies, businesses, and churches, legislators felt it an eyesore to the new state capitol building dedicated in 1906 and campaigned successfully to replace it with green spaces and state buildings in the subsequent decade.

Read the rest here.

Yesterday Trump gave a speech about the suburbs. It sounded very familiar.

Redlining

Our history students at Messiah University are doing some great work as part of the Digital Harrisburg Initiative.

An exhibit on the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation‘s redlining of Harrisburg in 1935-1936, with primary reports of the commission, a list of resources, and an interactive story map was recently published at the Digital Harrisburg website.

The documents were originally found by my colleague Bernardo Michael. Students (now graduates) Rachel Williams and Sarah Wilson digitized the maps two years ago. And our friends at Harrisburg University helped us launch the Story Map.

The interactive map shows the original language used by surveyors to zone Harrisburg and its surrounding boroughs and townships and includes links to original photographs. The exhibit also provides a good foundation for understanding the history of racial segregation in the city.

I thought about this redlining project today when I heard Donald Trump speaking at the White House:

This part of Trump’s speech wreaks of segregation, red-lining, and racist dog-whistling:

  • The suburbs, where mostly white people live, are “beautiful” and they will be destroyed if Biden gets into office.
  • If Biden is elected your property values will decline because of rezoning. More people of color or poor people will arrive.
  • The only city Trump mentions is Minneapolis. When most of his followers hear “Minneapolis” these days they think about race riots. This is a dog-whistle.
  • “Crime rates will rapidly rise.” Who are these criminals? Who does Trump have in mind?
  • What does Trump mean when he says the suburbs will be “obliterated by Washington Democrats, by people on the far left that want to see the suburbs destroyed?” People have “worked all their lives to get into a community,” Trump says, “and now they are going to watch it go to hell.”

He’s not even hiding it any more.

Here is some more history:

Do You Know About the Digital Harrisburg Project?

Digital Harrisburg Journal

Photo by Peter Powers

PA History Harrisburg

Photo by Peter Powers

The Digital Harrisburg Initiative continues to roll on at Messiah College. My colleagues are happy to announce the recent publication of an entire issue of Pennsylvania  History journal devoted to the project.  It contains essays by Messiah College faculty, students, and others who have been involved with the project over the years.

Digital Harrisburg

Photo by Peter Powers

David Pettegrew, the director of the project, provides additional updates at Digital Harrisburg blog:

It’s been some time since our last general update on the Digital Harrisburg Initiative, but that is not for lack of trying. Over the last year, in fact, our operation at Messiah College has grown, and our teams have been buzzing in activities, projects, digital tools, meetings, research, and public collaborations with community partners. It’s the abundance of work more than its scarcity that has been behind the silence on our end.

Each week at Messiah College, Dr. Jean Corey (director of the Center for Public Humanities), Katie Wingert McArdle (coordinator of Digital Harrisburg and the Center for Public Humanities fellows program), and I meet several times with different student groups who hail from humanities disciplines such as English, history, ethnic and area studies, and politics, as well as the occasional computer science student. Meanwhile, over at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, Professor Albert Sarvis continues to work with a team of geospatial technology students on the mapping components of the initiative.

Student work

Students at work in the Messiah College digital and public humanities lab

So today, let me touch on a few of the highlights in our Digital Harrisburg initiative. In fact, I’ll just be scratching the surface here, since I won’t be saying everything, and each of the following anyway is a world unto itself. Some of these will warrant additional posts in the months ahead if or as we have time. At the very least, students in my digital history and digital humanities courses will follow up this week and next month with discussions of their own research.

Our major updates in the last year:

  • Commonwealth Monument Project: Over the last year, our faculty and students have partnered with an exciting grassroots initiative in Harrisburg and the Commonwealth to remember and celebrate the city’s historic African-American community and multi-ethnic neighborhood of the Old Eighth Ward. This is an incredible project that has support from major local organizations, including the Foundation for Enhancing CommunitiesMessiah College, and M&T Bank, as well as state government. We have supported various activities in the city, including a poster campaign in the state capitol buildings and Amtrak station, a search for the descendants of the Old Eighth Ward, biographies of 100 important voices in the African American community, and interviews and exhibits. Read about the various activities of the Commonwealth Monument Project here on the Digital Harrisburg website, the project website, the Facebook page, and significant media coverage.
Posters of the Look Up, Look Out campaign on display in Parmer Hall at Messiah College right before the regional division of the National History Day competition. A parallel set of posters are on display in the buildings of the State Capitol Complex and Harrisburg Amtrak station.
  • Funding: Although most of the funding for our work has continued to come from the generous support of Messiah College (for this website and the historical and humanities work) and Harrisburg University (in the case of our mapping initiatives), the Messiah College group was fortunate to receive a Council of Independent Colleges grant last spring to support our 2019-2020 work related to humanities research for the public good (along with 24 other schools). That grant program, which is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has expanded our capacity to support student research and contributed to hiring a part-time project coordinator. Our project coordinators last year (Andrew Hermeling) and this year (Katie Wingert McArdle) have significantly improved the quality of our work in both its digital and public components. Our grant activities for the Council of Independent Colleges have focused on supporting the Commonwealth Monument Project (noted above)

Read the rest here.

Pennsylvania History: The Final Exam!

PA Hall

The 1838 burning of Pennsylvania Hall, a meeting place for abolitionists

For the past decade I have been teaching a course on Pennsylvania History at Messiah College. The class meets several requirements.  Some history majors take it for a 300-level American history elective.  Other history majors take it as part of their concentration in public history.  Non-history majors take the course to fulfill their general education pluralism requirement.

I have to make this course work for all of these students.  For the public history students, we do a lot of work on the relationship between “history,” “heritage,” and “memory.”  We also feature some training in oral history. Each student is required to do an oral history project in which they interview and interpret someone who can shed light on a particular moment in Pennsylvania history.  As a pluralism course, Pennsylvania History must address questions of religion, race, ethnicity, and social class in some meaningful way.

This year, I split the class into four units:

After several tries, I think I have finally found a pedagogical formula that works.   The students take their two-hour final exam on Friday.  Here are the questions they are preparing:

In preparation for the exam, please prepare an answer to one of the following questions:

QUESTION #1

In each of our four units this semester, we spend considerable time talking about the idea of race and race relations in Pennsylvania History. How do issues related to race play out in the following periods and places in state history:

  • Early 19th-century Philadelphia
  • The Pennsylvania frontier in the 1750s and 1760s.
  • The way the Civil War has been interpreted at Gettysburg
  • The City Beautiful movement in Harrisburg
QUESTION #2
We often use the past to advance particular agendas in the present. Consider this
statement in the following contexts:
  • The Centennial celebration in Philadelphia (1876)
  • The Paxton Boys Riots
  • Gettysburg as a “sacred” site
  • The portrayal of Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward by reformers affiliated with the City Beautiful movement.

Good luck! Or as I like to say to my Calvinist students: “May God providential give you the grade you deserve on this exam.”

A Saturday Morning in the Old 8th Ward

Old 8th 2

I am really enjoying my Pennsylvania History course this semester.  As part of the last unit of the course we have been studying Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward.  The ward is referred to as “old” because it no longer exists.  The largely working class (white immigrant and African American) neighborhood was demolished in the first two decades of the twentieth century to make way for the building of the state capitol complex.  The destruction of the Old 8th Ward was the brainchild of the middle and upper-class reformers who brought the City Beautiful movement to Harrisburg.

Much of the narrative of the Old 8th Ward has been shaped by these reformers.  As you might imagine, this narrative is not very flattering.   City Beautiful reformers painted a picture of a broken-down community of run-down homes, crime and licentiousness, gambling, drunkenness, racial and ethnic otherness, and sexual promiscuity.  But as the scholars and students at the Digital Harrisburg Project at Messiah College have shown, the Old 8th was also a vibrant community of men and women who deserve to be taken seriously in their own right.  The work of the Digital Harrisburg Project has restored agency to this vanished community by telling the story of its members.

Recently, the Digital Harrisburg Project received a grant to place historical markers in the Capitol Complex at places of importance in the Old 8th Ward–houses of worship, homes of  African-American leaders, and even the ward’s red light district.  The organizers are calling it the “Look Up and Look Out” project.

On Saturday, I took some of the students in my class to the Capitol Complex to learn more about the people of the Old 8th Ward.  We have been reading about the City Beautiful Movement, the African-American community of the ward, and the butchers, barbers, confectioners, and bakers in the ward, so it was fun to walk the ground where this energetic community was located.

Our tour guide for the morning was Drew Dyrli Hermeling.  Some of you know Drew as the producer of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, but he also works part-time as the director of the Digital Harrisburg Project.  Drew not only helped us imagine what the Old 8th Ward would have been like before its destruction, but he also gave us valuable insight into the work of Messiah College public history students and Digital Harrisburg as they seek to retell this important and under-interpreted part of Harrisburg history.

Old 8th 1

Drew gets us started with an overview of the Capitol Complex and the Old 8th Ward

Digital Harrisburg Has a New Website

Capitol

Check it our hereDrew Dyrli Hermeling, the producer of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, is behind this impressive new site.

Also check out Digital Harrisburg’s “Commonwealth Monument Project.”  The team is places monuments at different locations in Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward, a Harrisburg neighborhood of largely African-Americans and other working people that was razed in the early 20th century to make room for the Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex.

Bonus Episode: Live at Messiah College Educator’s Day

Podcast

On May 21, 2018, the Office of the Provost at Messiah College surprised the faculty at their annual Educator’s Day with a live recording of our podcast. Under the theme “Flourishing in a Digital World,” the goal was to highlight the ways in which Messiah faculty have been using digital tools within their own scholarship. In that spirit, we interviewed history professor and lead architect of the Digital Harrisburg project, David Pettegrew (@dpettegrew); English professor and director of the Center for Public Humanities, Jean Corey; and film and digital media professor, Nathan Skulstad (@NathanSkulstad). The episode also features an interview of our regular host, John Fea, conducted by the director of the Agape Center, Ashley Sheaffer. Finally, special thanks also go out to the director of the Ernest L. Boyer Center, Cynthia Wells for organizing and co-producing the event.

How are People Using the Digital Harrisburg Initiative?

Verbeke

Digital Harrisburg is a digital public humanities project created by students and faculty of Messiah College and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology that explores the history and culture of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania area.  Read more about it here.

Over at Harrisburg Magazine, write Rick Dapp has used Digital Harrisburg to learn more about four blocks on Verbeke Street.  Here is a taste of his article:

Memory is an elusive thing, often distorted by time and the inclusion of unintentionally specious fictions in the retelling of stories handed down from one generation to another. Occasionally a sliver of truth finds its way into our awareness and triggers a desire to expand our knowledge of it. When there is tangible evidence it’s a relatively uncomplicated process. When there is nothing to perceive imagination – and some research – is required.

If there is one pair of structures that provide an anchor for the Midtown section of the city, it’s the Broad Street Market. Despite the fact that there is no Broad Street in the city, it goes by that name nonetheless. In the nineteenth century there was an effort to make the name stick, but Verbeke Street prevailed. Named for William K. Verbeke, the street has two distinct characteristics. There is the section running from North 6th Street to 3rd Street, and, like a number of similar city thoroughfares, it terminates and then resumes on Cameron Street….

And he concludes:

How does one glean this knowledge that allows the imagination to recreate the past? It’s quite simple, you simply type in (on your computer – were back in real time again) https//digitalharrisburg.com/2014/12/16/explore-harrisburg-in-1900

The interactive map that has been developed as a collaboration between Messiah College, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology and the Historical Society of Dauphin County. The participants in this invaluable effort scanned the entire 1901 Harrisburg Title Company Atlas. Data includes information from the federal census that allows the viewer to determine the location of a specific property and numerous personal indices relative to families or individuals living within a specific property in 1901.

Log on and take a look at 314 Verbeke. You’ll never look at those vacant spaces on Verbeke west of the Millworks in quite the same way again.

Read the entire piece here.

Our First Live Episode of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast is in the Books!

Podcast on stageThis morning we recorded our first live episode of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast before the Community of Educators (faculty and co-curricular educators) at Messiah College.

The Community of Educators gathered today at “Educator’s Day,” a tradition in which our faculty and co-curricular educators mark the end of the previous year and turn our attention to developing ourselves for the year ahead.  The theme of this year’s Educator’s Day was “Flourishing in a Digital World.”

As I noted in my post this morning, the administration asked us to record an episode of the podcast related to this theme.   Our guests were three humanities scholars doing very creative work at the intersection of digital scholarship and place.  David Pettegrew runs Messiah College’s Digital Harrisburg Initiative, Jean Corey runs Messiah’s Center for Public Humanities, and Nathan Skulstad is a digital documentarian and story-teller.

We could not have done this live episode without the hard work of podcast producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling and Cynthia Wells, the director of the Ernest L. Boyer Center at Messiah.  Thanks as well to Ashley Sheaffer of the Messiah College Agape Center for interviewing me on the episode and the skilled technicians on the Messiah College sound team for making us sound good!

Stay tuned.  This bonus episode will drop sometime in the next few weeks.  In the meantime, head over to Patreon site and help get us to Season 5.

Some tweets:

And Drew’s excellent response to Mr. Hatfield’s snarky tweet:

Digital History at Messiah College

harrisburg digital

Yesterday I was telling the museum professionals at the PA Museum Association annual conference about our Public History Program at Messiah College.  Here is what I said:

As the chair of the history department, I have also been involved in helping to create Messiah College’s public history program.  Our public history students get training in the kind of historical thinking and historical content that all of our history majors receive.  That includes 39 hours of coursework.  But they also take a course in public history theory and practice and enroll in other courses that have substantial units devoted to oral history, local history, history education, public archaeology, and digital history.  But that is not all!  Students also take electives in topics such as web design, event planning, GIS technology, business administration, museum studies, public relations writing, or photography.    Our program is innovative, and I know of several colleges that have used it as a model for their own public history programs.

As I told the museum professionals, digital history plays an important role in our public history program.  We offer a 300-level course in the subject and use the Digital Harrisburg Initiative as a home base for a lot of our work in this area.

Want to learn more about digital history at Messiah?  Watch this video. (For whatever reason, I cannot get it to embed).

Digital Harrisburg at the 2018 AHA

DHI

I just finished chairing a session at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association titled “Placing the American Community: Lessons from the Digital Harrisburg Project.”

Here is the session abstract:

In spring 2014, students and faculty from Messiah College and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology initiated a collaborative digital project to place the entire population of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the neighboring (historically) immigrant town of Steelton, on contemporary historical maps from the early twentieth century. Through class exercises and projects, work study positions, and volunteer efforts, history professors and students input the entire population of these communities from the decennial censuses of 1900-1930, including all relevant census fields such as race and birthplace, immigrant status, occupation and industry. At the same time, and in conjunction with this work, GIS students and faculty at both institutions digitized contemporary maps of Harrisburg and Steelton. The result of this combined labor is a massive demographic database of over 300,000 names, linked to over 10,000 individual residences in a GIS. Teams have also begun to incorporate (via a unique property number) other large data sets such as church membership rolls, names and occupations from city directories, and property values for the same time span. And history faculty have mined newspaper databases and recorded oral histories to fill out the picture of the city.

The Digital Harrisburg Project has been a boon to our institutions, giving our history students new digital proficiencies in databases and GIS, and our GIS and computer science students an opportunity to tackle historical problems, while also creating real and enduring collaborations across departments and institutions. As importantly, the project has generated a new and powerful historical resource for understanding and rethinking major phenomena in U.S. urban history. The integration of multiple sets of information encoded at individual street addresses in GIS has created one of the highest-resolution digital images of an early twentieth century urban community transformed by immigration, population growth, and city planning. Plotting the population through time (1900-1930) sheds light on the dynamic patterns of human mobility and migration that were characteristic of communities at the junction of major roads, waterways, and rail lines. The datasets also have allowed us to reconsider the demographic, racial, and spatial aspects of Harrisburg’s successful urban reform movement, outlined most clearly in William Wilson’s pioneering work on The City Beautiful Movement (1989).

In this session, we provide an overview of the history of the Digital Project within our institutional contexts; outline the nature of the data sets including the geospatial framework; highlight the potential of the data for reconsidering broad issues of historiographic debate; and showcase our recent efforts to replicate the data for other cities and places through new technologies (computer vision). The goal of this session is to publicize the results of the project in anticipation of the imminent public dissemination of the demographic and geospatial datasets for purposes of research, and to highlight how others might engage in a similar project within their own communities. We also hope attendees will provide us feedback as we consider next steps.

Participants included James LaGrand (Messiah College History Department), David Pettegrew (Messiah College History Department), Albert Sarvis (Harrisburg University of Science and Technology), David Owen (Messiah College Computer Science Department), and Lisa Krissof Boehm (Urban Studies at Bridgewater State University).

Speakers focused on 3 aspects of the Digital Harrisburg Initiative:

  1. Digital Harrisburg as a collaborative venture between faculty and students at Messiah College, Harrisburg University, and civic institutions
  2. Digital Harrisburg as a pedagogical framework to help Messiah College history students develop digital proficiencies and make historical arguments with technology; and to introduce computer science and GIS students to historical applicatons of datasets.
  3. Digital Harrisburg as a public humanities project designed to engage different audiences in the city.

The audience–a combination of digital historians and Pennsylvania history experts–was small.  But they were also very engaged.  Commentator Lisa Boehm praised our work, told us to be “less humble” about it, and offered some great suggestions for moving forward.

Click here to learn more about the Digital Harrisburg Initiative.

AHA Bound!

washington-dc-capitol.ngsversion.1435610747994

I’m heading to Washington D.C. today for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. I will be joining thousands of historians in a weekend of presentations, panels, conversations, job-searching, book-browsing, receptions and other history-related activities.  As always, we will have the conference covered here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Check back often for updates from this D.C. history-fest!

I will be participating in two sessions.  Both will take place on Friday:

Placing the American Community: Lessons from the Digital Harrisburg Project

The Bible in American Cultural and Political History

I hope to see some of you there!

Our Second “Patron’s Only” Summer Mini-Episode Is Here!

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If you are a patron of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, you have heard from producer Drew Dylri Hermeling this morning about how to access our second patrons-only summer mini-episode.

Our guest on the episode is David Pettegrew, Associate Professor of History at Messiah College and Director of the college’s Digital Harrisburg Initiative.

In this episode, David talks about the technological innovations that are changing the way we do history and how digital history merges with local history and public history in Pennsylvania’s capital city!

We are thrilled to share this special episode with our patrons and send it along to all future patrons as well.  Please consider becoming a patron by visiting our Patreon page and making a pledge.  In addition to the usual perks of patronship (mugs and books!), new patrons will also receive our first 2017 patrons-only episode with Civil Rights Movement tourism expert Todd Allen.

Library of Congress Places 25,000 Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps Online

sanborn-maps-logo-1911-pennsylvania-allentown

This is huge.  We uses these maps for our Digital Harrisburg Project at Messiah College.

Here is a taste of the press release:

The Library of Congress has placed online nearly 25,000 Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, which depict the structure and use of buildings in U.S. cities and towns. Maps will be added monthly until 2020, for a total of approximately 500,000.

The online collection now features maps published prior to 1900.  The states available include Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Alaska is also online, with maps published through the early 1960s.  By 2020, all the states will be online, showing maps from the late 1880s through the early 1960s.

In collaboration with the Library’s Geography and Map Division, Historical Information Gatherers digitized the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps during a 16-month period at the Library of Congress.  The Library is in the process of adding metadata and placing the digitized, public-domain maps on its website. 

The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps are a valuable resource for genealogists, historians, urban planners, teachers or anyone with a personal connection to a community, street or building.  The maps depict more than 12,000 American towns and cities.  They show the size, shape and construction materials of dwellings, commercial buildings, factories and other structures.  They indicate both the names and width of streets, and show property boundaries and how individual buildings were used.  House and block numbers are identified.  They also show the location of water mains, fire alarm boxes and fire hydrants.

In the 19th century, specialized maps were originally prepared for the exclusive use of fire insurance companies and underwriters.  Those companies needed accurate, current and detailed information about the properties they were insuring. The Sanborn Map Company was created around 1866 in the United States in response to this need and began publishing and registering maps for copyright. The Library of Congress acquired the maps through copyright deposit, and the collection grew to 700,000 individual sheets. The insurance industry eventually phased out use of the maps and Sanborn stopped producing updates in the late 1970s.

I have spent far too much time looking at these maps this weekend.  You can view them here.

Why Computer Scientists Should “Stop Hating” the Humanities

HartleyThis issue keeps coming up.

Yesterday during a faculty meeting I listened to a colleague explain digital humanities to a group of more traditional-minded humanists.  He discussed the digital humanities as an effort to bridge the divide between computer scientists and humanistic inquiry.

Last weekend we dropped Episode 21 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Our guest was Scott Hartley, a venture capitalist who came of age in the Silicon Valley.  Hartley’s new book The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World argues that liberal arts graduates usually have the most creative and successful business ideas.

Now Wired magazine is getting into the act.  Check out Emma Pierson‘s piece “Hey, Computer Scientists! Stop Hating on the Humanities.

Here is a taste:

As a computer science PhD student, I am a disciple of big data. I see no ground too sacred for statistics: I have used it to study everything from sex to Shakespeare, and earned angry retorts for these attempts to render the ineffable mathematical. At Stanford I was given, as a teenager, weapons both elegant and lethal—algorithms that could pick out the terrorists most worth targeting in a network, detect someone’s dissatisfaction with the government from their online writing.

Computer science is wondrous. The problem is that many people in Silicon Valley believe that it is all that matters. You see this when recruiters at career fairs make it clear they’re only interested in the computer scientists; in the salary gap between engineering and non-engineering students; in the quizzical looks humanities students get when they dare to reveal their majors. I’ve watched brilliant computer scientists display such woeful ignorance of the populations they were studying that I laughed in their faces. I’ve watched military scientists present their lethal innovations with childlike enthusiasm while making no mention of whom the weapons are being used on. There are few things scarier than a scientist who can give an academic talk on how to shoot a human being but can’t reason about whether you should be shooting them at all.

Read the rest here.

 

What is Going On With Digital Harrisburg?

A lot.

I have been on sabbatical this semester so I am not privy to a lot of the day-to-day activity in the Messiah College History Department‘s Digital Harrisburg Initiative.  That is why I am thankful for the regular blog updates from the students in Dr. David Pettegrew’s Digital History course.

Yesterday Pettegrew published a wrap-up post (or perhaps mid-term report might be a better way to describe it) about all that is happening this Fall.  

Here is a taste:

City Beautiful: The Campaign for Beauty. Students are now developing a section of the City Beautiful Omeka site originally created by students the last time I taught this class in Spring 2014. This semester we are focusing on the campaign for public improvements that occurred in the city between Mira Lloyd Dock’s speech to the Board of Trade in December 1900 and the vote for a new mayor and the bond issue in February 1902. We have collected stories, photographs, and news items from newspaper databases for The Patriot (Harrisburg) and The Harrisburg Telegraph to better understand the reformers involved in the movement (including their residences and networks), the venues and places used for promoting the bond issue, and the areas of the city where campaigning was most active. We are trying to understand how the reformers sought to convince the population to vote on a bond issue to take civic debt (and higher taxes) in order to implement reform. Students will soon be adding short overviews to the Omeka site explaining how campaign events related to the space of the city. This map below, for example, shows the the residences (red) of some of the principal reformers who drove the campaign for improvement in 1901-1902 against the background of how the different city precincts voted for the bond issue to support improvements. The darker the background, the greater the support for improvement. (The first number in the map below indicates the ward of the city, the second number the precinct, e.g., 7.6 = Ward 7, Precinct 6).

And here are some thing you can expect in the future from the Digital Harrisburg Initiative:

Expansion and Other News. Finally, our team has been thinking over the last few months about how we might expand the project over the next year or two. Here are some developments:
  • Professors Jim LaGrand and Jean Corey at Messiah College are working with their students this year through a course in Public History (Spring 2016) and the Public Humanties Student Fellows program to tell the story of particular neighborhoods and churches in Harrisburg. This will certainly involve more oral history and documentary work than we’ve done in the past, which will comprise a whole new layer for understanding the history of the city.
  • Too early to say much about this, but I’ve been corresponding with individuals in other communities of the region (Mechanicsburg and Lancaster) about developing similar demographic and GIS-based projects for those communities.
  • We’ve applied for external grants to fund the development and refinement of our data sets.
  • Professor Erikson will be teaching his intro to GIS class again in the spring and will add more geospatial layers for other communities of the region.
  • The Burg
  • The public student humanities fellows are working with an interdisciplinary group of volunteers to discover the rich cultural/ historical landscape of the city through a project called Poetry in Place project, which invites regional public poets and Harrisburg City School students to write about significant sites. Eventually this project will be linked to a digital map of the city.

More Good News About the Digital Harrisburg Initiative

As I have written here before, Messiah College hosts the Digital Harrisburg Initiative, a digital project that is trying to understand early 20th-century Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  (Read our coverage here).

M. Diane McCormick has written a very thorough piece about the project at The Burg.  Here is a taste:

The turn of the 20th century was the era of City Beautiful, when Harrisburg was a leader in the young nation’s progressive urban movement.

Though City Beautiful has been well documented, questions remain. When ridding the city of typhus depended on a yes vote for a municipal bond for sewer upgrades, why did some precincts vote no?

We know about the elites who championed City Beautiful, but how did the reforms affect the everyday lives of citizens?

The questions are still being explored, but Digital Harrisburg has begun seeking answers. It started when liberal arts Messiah College and nerdy Harrisburg University started conversing on ways to blend humanities and technology. At Messiah, Associate Professor David Pettegrew turned his digital history class students into sort of 1900 census-takers, transcribing census data into a database for easy searching.

At the same time, students of Albert Sarvis, Harrisburg University assistant professor of geospatial technology and project management, aligned Harrisburg’s 1901 road network with today’s map. Another class vectorized—that is, drew the shapes—of city buildings and lined up the shapes with the address codes tied to the census findings of Pettegrew’s students.

It’s not as if the findings themselves are new. They’ve been discoverable in records for decades—for anyone with the unlimited time to find them. Digitization makes results instantly searchable.

Demographic trends in income, occupation, race and ethnicity quickly pop up by geography. Where did families live who had the highest rate of living children, versus those who had lost the largest numbers of children? That might have influenced their City Beautiful votes.

It’s a way to compare “a pattern or any other spatial layer you want to,” said Sarvis.

“It’s not just how many German illiterate women there are, but exactly where in the city they are,” he added.

Never Knew Existed

Rachel Carey joined the project as a Pettegrew student and is now the data master. The history major with a minor in music (she plays French horn) graduates from Messiah College at the end of 2015 and then looks forward to a graduate program in history.

Digitizing history is the 21st-century solution to the age-old puzzle of how to engage new generations in history, said Carey. Historians have a new tool to “bring the past into the present” and help contemporary audiences relate to the neighborhoods and communities of the past, even in “this smallish city.”

“My favorite part is being able to visualize the past, and that’s what this project is all about,” she said. “We take these people who formerly we knew nothing about. We put it on the Internet and map their houses. You go onto the map, click a house, and you can read all of this information about these people you never knew existed.”

At Messiah, the project has become an “energized enterprise” among faculty and students from many classes. Some students of Messiah History Department Chairman John Fea added Market Square Presbyterian Church membership records to the database, finding where church members, many among the city’s elite, lived in relation to neighborhoods and ethnicities. For the rest of 2015, inputting citywide property values for 1900 is a top priority for the Digital Harrisburg team.

Read the rest here.

Pennsylvania History Wrap-Up

Yesterday was the last day of classes for the Spring 2015  semester at Messiah College.  It was also the last day of my Pennsylvania History course.  Teaching this course at Messiah has been an interesting challenge.  Pennsylvania History is taken by a cross-section of students: history majors, history majors with a public history concentration, and general education students pursuing a “pluralism” distribution requirement.  In other words, some of the students get pretty fired up about the study of the past, while others are just enduring the course in order to get their pluralism credits “out of the way.”

The History Department at Messiah hopes to achieve multiple goals and purposes with this course. First, we hope that our students will gain content knowledge and learn how to think like historians. Second, we want them to develop an appreciation for the state in which they live or are attending college.  Third, we want to teach them practical skills for “doing” history.  These include digital history, local history, and oral history.

So how did this all work out?

In terms of delivering content, we read all of Pencak and Miller’s Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth.  Students had a quiz on every chapter, exposing them to content from native Americans prior to the arrival of William Penn all the way up to the turn of the 21st century.  Most of the lectures in the class played off of my strengths in early American history.  We covered Pennsylvania history up to the Civil War.  These lectures focused on the  native American-European contact, William Penn and the Quakers, the connections between religious freedom and liberalism in the colonial era, the Paxton Boys Riots, the Enlightenment in Philadelphia, the American Revolution, the Whiskey Rebellion, early republican politics, and the Civil War in Pennsylvania..

Early in the semester the students did some work on the 1900 census for the city of Harrisburg.  They matched the names on the census records with the names on the 1900 membership rolls of the Market Square Presbyterian Church.  We were then able to begin identifying the religious commitments of the people on the census and, with the help of Digital Harrisburg guru David Pettegrew, were able to mark the Presbyterians on a 1900 map of the city.  As might be expected, Presbyterians lived in some of the most high-end neighborhoods of Harrisburg, especially those neighborhoods situated along the Susquehanna River.  Thanks to some ethnic mapping done by the Digital Harrisburg project, we were also able to compare the places where Presbyterians tended to live in 1900 with the  places where Germans (mostly Lutherans and Catholics), Irish (mostly Catholics), Greeks (mostly Orthodox), and African Americans (most AME or Baptist) lived.

Presbyterians in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, circa 1900

The students were also required to complete an oral history project.  They interviewed someone who experienced a significant event in Pennsylvania History, prepared a transcript of the interview, and then used the transcript to write an eight-page paper on that particular event, using the interview as their only primary source.  Popular topics included rural Pennsylvania and the World War II homefront, the Three Mile Island meltdown of 1979, agricultural and family life in Pennsylvania, and the history of various religious organizations and denominations.  Students were held to professional standards of oral history practice.  One student loved the assignment so much that she wants to pursue an M.A. in history with a concentration in oral history.

Finally, students were asked to contribute to the Digital Harrisburg Project through an exploration of Catholicism in the city during the years 1900-1910.  Each student was given a ten-month period from a Harrisburg newspaper (thanks Newspapers.com) and told to write a five page history of Catholicism in Harrisburg during that period.  We then spent a couple of class periods trying to redact their various reports into some kind of narrative.  We never did decide on one overarching theme that defined Harrisburg Catholicism in this period, but we did spend a lot of time talking about the relationship between Catholicism and ethnic identity, immigration in the city, the Harrisburg Catholic response to the assassination of McKinley, Protestant-Catholic relations in Harrisburg, the local response to the death of Pope Leo XIII, and the building of the Cathedral of St. Patrick.

I am not sure all of my students were thrilled about doing these assignments.  Some didn’t really care about history.  Others wanted more content and fewer skills-based assignments. Some had no interested in Harrisburg.  But in general, like all diligent Messiah College students, they did the assignments with little complaint and perhaps even a bit of good cheer.  For a lot of them this was their first exposure to a history course and how historians think differently than nurses, engineers, or business professionals.

Keep your eye on the Digital Harrisburg Project website.  Some of the stuff that the class produced this semester may eventually find its way there.