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.

Bonus Episode: Live at Messiah College Educator’s Day


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.

OAH 2018 Dispatch: Digital History


Messiah College students engaged in the Digital Harrisburg Initiative

We are pleased to add this dispatch from Gabriel Loiacono to our coverage of the 2018 meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Sacramento. Gabe is Associate Professor of History and Director of the University Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and is currently writing a book tentatively titled: “Five Lives Shaped by the Poor Law: Stories of Welfare in the Early Republic.”  Gabe writes:

This dispatch is about two digital history panels. I had a wonderful conference overall, including my own panel, “Beyond Northern Exceptionalism” (#AM2347). I will say nothing about that panel except that its genesis was on this blog when I read an interview with my co-panelist Christy Clark-Pujara about her book Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island. I read the interview and the book, reached out to Christy, and with Chad Montrie, Stephen Kantrowitz, and Sharon Romeo, we had a thoroughly enjoyable panel.

Now on to Digital History….

Giddiness and Guilt. I alternate between those two sensations when using digitized primary sources for my research and writing. The OAH panel “Consequences of Digital Technologies for History: A Roundtable Discussion on the Digital Future of the Historian’s Craft” (#AM2675) helped me to think about why that is. Panelist Lara Putnam caused much introspection in the audience when she said, and I paraphrase: “if you are feeling shameful about having used digitized sources, and that’s why you’re not citing the sources’ digital formats, we need to talk about that.” I, for one, have felt that shame and this panel helped me to think about why.

Panelists Andreas Fickers, Lara Putnam, Jason Rhody, and Jennifer Guiliano offered really thoughtful critiques about how, precisely, primary sources and the historian’s craft are changed by digitization. Fickers emphasized how we really need to think about the digital tools we use, how search engines are not neutral, and how sources are manipulated in the process of digitization. He offers a model of “thinkering,” thinking while tinkering, in order to come up with updated methodologies to fit our updated tools. Putnam pointed out how there have always been problems with how our sources are collected, preserved, and found, but some problems are new, like algorithmic bias. Now is the moment to “retro-engineer” old problems while thinking about new ones.

Putnam also pointed to what is lost in moving from the “analog” methods of finding and reading an old newspaper, and the digital method of encountering it as a search result. In particular, much of the contextual information about the newspaper, from other issues to what the rest of the issue says to where you can find this newspaper can disappear in a digital search. Rhody and Guiliano both referenced the ethics of google searches and Guiliano called into question the ethics of’s business model. Leaning on the work of communications studies scholar Safiya Noble (see Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism), they underlined how google searches of women or people color often turn up biased results. To what extent do biased results shape our and our students’ historical research? Moreover, how are historians of our period going to cope with using billions of tweets as sources?

The panelists only began to answer these questions. Guiliano warned that we better start learning statistical methods and how algorithms work. All underlined how important it is that we develop some methodology that takes into account the differences that digital tools make in our research and understanding.

This Digital History panel had my mental wheels spinning, and I decided to take in the next session in that room: “Teaching Historical Literacy in the Digital Age” (#AM2581). To my surprise, the rest of the audience was totally different, which was too bad. These panels spoke to the same big questions and there could have been a rich inter-panel conversation had more people listened to both. Four two-year college professors and one high school teacher made up this panel: Abigail Feely, Chris Padgett, Elise Robison, Rob Marchie, and Sara Ball. Where the first panel focused on theory and research methodology, this panel focused on the practice of teaching. The teaching expertise of the panelists shone in one after another example of how to harness digital platforms for teaching and how to help students think critically about digital sources. One of my favorites was to assign students to critique a website or even a google search in terms of what was missing and how dated or well-rounded the sources behind these digital resources were. Another favorite was to ask students to take digital photos of something (such as the suburb nearby) before students even knew they would be focusing on Levittown the following week.

Perhaps the single most exciting point I took from this panel was that historians’ skills are precisely the skills that students need to navigate the digital age. Evaluating the source (archival or digital) that you are looking at is what we teach. Likewise, building up context and the ability to take apart the argument being presented to you are skills that we teach! This was an exciting clarion call for us historians. Let’s tackle these new problems in research and teaching with our old methodologies, and develop new methodologies for new sources.

There were other digital history panels that I could not make. I bet those were good too. What an exciting series of issues to tackle at the OAH.

Live Tweeting a Historical Event


Spokane’s Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture, the site of the Twitter “re-enactment”

Over at Northwest History, Eastern Washington University public historian Larry Cebula writes about how he and some local historians conducted a Twitter re-enactment of Spokane’s 1889 fire.  According to his post, several folks got together with historical documents and began composing tweets using the hashtag #greatfire1889.  They even got coverage in the local newspaper!

Cebula writes:

It was a blast. We each worked from a different resource about the fire, books and letters and newspaper articles, and pulled out striking and dramatic bits. The 144-character limit of Twitter was not as much of a problem as I would have thought, and we quickly figured out that 144 characters equaled about one-and-a-half lines on the Google Doc. We tried to keep the Tweets roughly chronological as we added them to the document. The Google Doc had the great advantage of allowing everyone to see what the others were working on and avoiding duplicate tweets on the same subject. We added brief citation notes to each tweet, not to be tweeted but to document where we had found the information in case there were questions later. We also looked at some of the dramatic photographs that Harbine had identified from the collections and wrote tweets to highlight those images.

After ninety minutes or so we had in excess of thirty tweets that did a really nice job of telling the story of the fire. Camporeale then assigned times to each tweet. The tweets went into Hootsuite, a social media tool that allows one to schedule tweets in advance, each set to be tweeted at the right time.

Cebula offers some tips for doing such a project in a public history or digital history course:

Live tweeting a historical event would make a great classroom project for digital and public history courses. This presentation lays out how they did a similar project on the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald has some good tips. Here are the steps as I see it

  1. Pick a historical event. Something dramatic, well-documented, and with contemporary interest. It needs to be an event that took place over a few days, not months. Choose a time period that you will be tweeting, maybe 3-7 days?
  2. Choose a hashtag. Make sure that it has not been taken.
  3. Assemble some resources. It really worked well to have different people pulling their tweets out of different sources. Resources could be a mix of physical and digital, with digitized books and newspapers offering a rich set of perspectives. Make a Google Doc with links to the digital resources.
  4. Write the tweets. If I were working with a larger class, I would organize the Google Doc a bit in advance by making headings for each days tweets. Encourage students to find relevant images to attach to the tweets.
  5. Schedule the tweets with Hootsuite or a similar social media manager

Read the rest here.

Religion and Digital Humanities in the Classroom

PA newspaperThis semester I have been following Kate Carte Engel‘s “History of Religion in America to 1865” course blog.   As part of the course Engel’s students are building a database of references to religion in revolutionary-era American newspapers.  I am really interested to see the finished product.

I should also add that Engel is an excellent blogger. She should consider continuing the blog (or starting a new one) after the semester is over.

In her most recent post, Engel discusses some of the challenges of her assignment.

Here is a taste:

We’re half way through our shared project of transcribing newspaper articles from the revolutionary era so we can analyze them for what they tell us about religion and the revolution. The results are very promising – the decrease in anti-popery, rising fears of irreligion and deism, the hollowness of a slave society talking about slavery and liberty without acknowledging the very real slaves in its midst, and Benedict Arnold as the devil. And that’s just naming a few of a top flight stack of projects. In short, we’ve got some fantastic studies that touch on the main themes of the era in a complex way. Every one of them is teaching us more than if I’d put together a list of articles on the subject.

But today, in the doldrums of the spring semester, I’m struck by the way that doing a DH project in the classroom is fundamentally different from traditional history teaching. Instead of having a syllabus that proceeds chronologically through a series of primary and secondary sources, we’re taking a third of the semester to dig deeply into particular topics through this framework. The work is not more time consuming, but it is a different kind of work.

The upside of this is that the students are “doing history.” They’re producing something that has, as far as I know, never been done before. We have lots of studies of religion, and lots of studies of the revolution, but none I’ve found that look specifically at what people in read and wrote in the newspaper about religion at this time. It’s not a comprehensive study by any means, but they’ve already found some really interesting things.

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.

Job Opening: Ancient-Digital History at Bethel University

My friend Chris Gehtz, aka “The Pietest Schoolman,” has just announced a very interesting job opening at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN.   Bethel is looking to start a digital humanities major and they hope to hire a coordinator for the program with additional expertise in the ancient and medieval world.

Chris has described the job on Bethel’s Department of History blog:
We’re happy to announce that we’ve begun a job search for the newest member of our faculty: a gifted, innovative teacher committed to the mission of Bethel and able to straddle the fields of ancient/medieval and digital history.
First, our new colleague will teach upper-division courses in ancient and medieval history, and as a member of the team for GES130 Christianity and Western Culture. We’re committed to a curriculum that spans the breadth of human experience, including premodern history. And we think that’s all the more important for a Christian liberal arts college, where we want our students to understand the development and context of a faith whose roots stretch back into the ancient world.
But what’s makes the position especially distinctive is that whomever we hire will have the opportunity to shape and then coordinate a new major in Digital Humanities (or DH), teaching introductory and capstone courses and mentoring students as they build digital portfolios through coursework, research projects, and internships.
Thus far shepherded by History professors Chris Gehrz and Sam Mulberry alongside digital library manager Kent Gerber, the proposal for a DH major was the subject of a story in the Bethel Clarion last fall. Gerber described the field in this way:
Regardless of how digital humanities is defined, it is characterized by collaboration, creativity and multiple disciplines… You will see people who know a lot about computers working with people who know a lot about humanities research in archaeology, English literature, history, linguistics, art, communication studies or library and information science.
Gehrz added that the major should appeal strongly to students who have a passion for fields like history but are concerned about finding a career path:
I think there are a lot of students who really do love things like literature and languages and philosophy and history and theology… Yet they have a voice in themselves saying, “What are you going to do with that?” And part of what this [program] does is suggest, “Well, I can study all of these things that I love, and at the same time I’m getting skills that are very useful for any employer.”
Our faculty, students, and alumni have already been experimenting with digital approaches to research and communication. Gehrz and Mulberry have been prolific podcasters and digital filmmakers, and this May Gehrz and student Fletcher Warren ’15 will debut their digital history of Bethel in an age of modern warfare (here’s their project blog). Prof. Diana Magnuson has worked closely with Gerber and students like Warren in digitizing the holdings of Bethel and the Baptist General Conference. And The American Yawp, “a free and online, collaboratively built, open American history textbook” co-edited by History/Social Studies Ed alum Ben Wright ’06, was recently voted Best Use of Digital Humanities for Public Engagement. (Ben spoke to the impact of digital humanities on history as part of our recent interview on applying to graduate school.)
For further details about our ancient-digital position and instructions on how to apply, please see Bethel’sfaculty employment page. Priority will be given to applications received in full by April 7th.
Chris has also written about the job at The Pietist Schoolman

The Digital Harrisburg Initiative Rolls On

2015-02-11 09.00.32_m
DHI Fellows hard at work in the Messiah College History Dept.

Some of you who read The Way of Improvement Leads Home are familiar with the Digital Harrisburg Initiative.  If you still don’t know about the project, let me bring it to your attention here.  DHI is an interdisciplinary digital history project housed in the School of Humanities at Messiah College and run by my History Department colleague David Pettegrew.  It attempts to tell the story of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania from roughly the 1880-1930.  

Like most digital history projects, DHI is a work in progress.  David and his team of historians, GIS experts, undergraduate fellows, and student researchers continue to add new information to the site.

DHI was launched a year ago this month.  Here is a taste of David Pettegrew’s celebratory post:

About a year ago, a number of faculty and students from several courses at Messiah College and Harrisburg University partnered to launch a new initiative to digitize Harrisburg’s history. It’s incredible how our original vision of the Digital Harrisburg Initiative (DHI) has grown over the last year as we’ve found new partners and begun to outline the social contours of the City Beautiful movement. Here’s an update on the groups, courses, and institutions who are partnering this semester to contribute to the initiative:
1. The Digital Harrisburg Working Group (Rachel Carey, James Mueller, David Crout, and I) continue to plow forward in making progress on the 1900 and 1910 census. We lost our wonderful GIS tech, Rachel Morris, to an early graduation, but we’ve since gained a new member David Crout.  Rachel is digitizing the 1910 census for Harrisburg, James is working on normalizing the 1900 data, and David Crout is working on the triennial tax assessments. You’ll hear more from all of our group during the semester.
2. John Fea’s class in Pennsylvania History at Messiah College is working on church rolls for Pine Street Presbyterian and St. Patricks Cathedral parish at the turn of the 20th century as well as the relationship of these communities to the City Beautiful movement. Once these membership rolls are collected and digitized, we’ll be able to plot members of these different communities according to their area of residence, and analyze membership against criteria like ethnicity, birthplace, and occupation, among others.
3. Jim LaGrand’s students in U.S. Urban History at Messiah College will be working on the occupational data for 1900 . It’s currently the only field in our database that is not at all normalized…
4. Professor Jeff Erikson is working with several students this semester on a directed study related to GIS. His students are georeferencing and tracing the 1902 Sanborn maps for Steelton, the community immediately south of Harrisburg. Since Rachel Carey has keyed the census data for Steelton, completing this will be a first step in understanding the large community of immigrants in Harrisburg 120 years ago.
5. Professor Albert Sarvis of Harrisburg University, in the meantime, is working with geospatial technology students on georeferencing the Sanborn maps of 1905 for Harrisburg. Once these are completed, we’ll add later years of Sanborn maps for the city.
6. Over at Jump Street, Andrea Glass is directing a group of capable high school student interns in digitizing images and documents from the Harrisburg City Archive. I’m hopeful that we’ll start to crowdsource some of the photos without provenience at this site to encourage identification. For some possibility, see the incredible site dedicated to the Philadelphia City Archive. We’re about to launch an Omeka site devoted to Harrisburg history that is a bit broader than City Beautiful.
7. We’ll be partnering this semester with Professor Michael Barton’s class at Penn State Harrisburg, who will analyze the census data for the Eighth Ward. This is a boon to us since Barton has been a pioneer in telling Harrisburg’s story, and his students produced some of the earliest work on the subject. See, for example, the excellent website about the Old Eighth Ward created and maintained by Stephanie Patterson Gilbert. Look for some interesting stories and historical analysis.
8. Since launching this site, I’ve heard from a number of people who are also working on digital projects related to Harrisburg. I think of Robert Shoaff, who is doing interesting work with city youth to build up a digital 3D model of Midtown called the Midtown Minecraft Project (see the blog here). There are others who have contacted me recently about their interests in contributing to the initiative.
There are a number of other exciting projects that are just developing such as public memory harvests and gaming, which we’ll publicize when the timing is right. Stay tuned.
Beyond these endeavors, a number of presentations are in the works. We’ll keep you updated. If you would like to support our initiative, visit the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference page and follow the link to vote for including our project in a major DH conference in July.
Things are happening quickly with the DHI. It will be interesting to see where we are a year from now.

Why I Love Digital Harrisburg

Cross-posted at Digital Harrisburg
The Digital Harrisburg Project has done much to rejuvenate the culture of the History Departmenthere at Messiah College.  As chair of the Department, I am excited about this initiative for several reasons:
1.  It allows our students to “do history.”  So often college history majors sit passively as their professors lecture at them.  Since Digital Harrisburg is directly connected to coursework in theHistory Department at Messiah College, our students can be actively engaged in the practice of history as they take courses in Digital History, Pennsylvania History, Urban History, Public Archaeology, and Public History.  We have decided that all of these courses will feed into our Digital Harrisburg Project.
2.  It offers opportunities for community service.  As our students start to make their presence known in local historical societies, they get a sense that they are contributing to the historical identity of a place.  As a result of Digital Harrisburg we will know a lot more about the social and cultural history of the city.  For example, right now students are working on The City Beautiful Movement, race relations, the Harrisburg Theater, a local organization to promote better libraries, and the 1900 census in the eighth ward.
3.  Harrisburg is a wonderful laboratory.  Harrisburg has a rich history and it is a small enough city to make a project like Digital Harrisburg manageable.  There is a little of everything here and the fact that the State Archives and State Library are located here allows our students to engage in undergraduate research at a very high level.
4.  Students are connecting their traditional history training to the digital world.  Whether or not Messiah College history majors pursue careers in history, they are gaining valuable experience in working with digital tools such as Omeka, GIS, and Zotero.

Digital Harrisburg: The "Pennsylvania History" Perspective

Paxton Presbyterian Church

Cross-posted at

As David Pettegrew noted in his original post at Digital Harrisburg, I am teaching a course in Pennsylvania history this semester at Messiah College.  This course is part of our newly revamped public history concentration, so students are not only learning about the history of the Commonwealth, but they are also getting training in local history, digital history, and oral history.

After meeting with all of the students individually this week, I am seeing some excellent potential contributions to our Digital Harrisburg initiative.

For example, Ben is hard at work on an digital exhibit (using Omeka software) on the Paxton Presbyterian Church and the way in which the congregation, which dates back to the early eighteenth-century, has remembered its past.  He is particularly interested in the way the church has dealt with the history of the so-called Paxton Boys, the Scots-Irish settlers from Paxton who massacred a group of Conestoga Indians in December 1763.  Much of his work is taking place in the Dauphin County Historical Society in Harrisburg.

Megan is working on an Omeka exhibit focused on the Harrisburg Community Theater.  She has learned that the theater was a part of the early 20th-century “Little Theater Movement” in America.  Much of her work is being conducted at the Pennsylvania State Archives.

I am also really looking forward to learning more about Beki’s oral history interview with an African-American man from Harrisburg who lived through a period of intense racial conflict in the city.  I am requiring students to submit transcripts with their interpretive papers, so we might be able to get the interview up on our Digital Harrisburg site.

These are just some of the interesting projects from my Pennsylvania History class.  Of course David Pettegrew’s Digital History course is also doing some amazing things in the city.  Stay tuned as we develop this site with more content.

Digital Harrisburg

As some of you may recall, the Messiah College History Department recently revamped its public history concentration to include courses and training in digital history, local history, oral history, public archaeology, and the teaching of history (at all levels to all audiences).  Students pursuing the concentration are required to take courses in subjects such as event planning, public relations writing, museum studies, digital media, business administration, graphic design, or website design.  Whether or not students pursue a career in public history, we believe that this concentration provides them with a host of transferable skills as they enter an ever-changing marketplace.

This semester the department is offering two courses that meet requirements in the public history concentration.  David Pettegrew is teaching a course in digital history.  In this course students are getting training in Zotero, GIS, Omeka (digital exhibits), and social media.  I am teaching a course in Pennsylvania history that provides training in Omeka, local history, and oral history.  Both courses are using local archives extensively.
Part of the department’s digital initiative is the creation of a project we are calling Digital Harrisburg. This project is only a few months old, but we are excited about the possibilities.  We have created a website devoted to the history and society of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  The Digital History class is doing archival research and digital exhibits related to Harrisburg’s successful City Beautiful Movement.  The students are also linking U.S. census records of Harrisburg in 1900 to contemporary digitized maps.  My class is working on digital exhibits related to archival collections related to the region’s cultural, religious, and African-American history.
We hope you will check in periodically with Digital Harrisburg to see what we are up to.  Don’t know where to begin?  Check out the blog posts from David Pettegrew’s Digital History students.

Omeka and Pennsylvania History

Unfortunately no student chose to work on the Harrisburg Senators collection

Over the last week or so I have been doing a few posts on the Pennsylvania History course I am teaching this Fall.  Today I gave a lecture which I called “People in Pennsylvania Before William Penn.”  We talked about the native populations in the region and the Dutch and Swedish presence in the Delaware Valley.  Thursday will be devoted to an “Oral History Workshop and a discussion of Donald Ritchie’s Doing Oral History.  So far I am enjoying the balance in this course between content and the practical skills needed for doing public history.

Speaking of skills, the students have finally chosen subjects for their Omeka digital exhibits. Here are some of the things that they are working on:
At the Pennsylvania State Archives (Harrisburg, PA):
  • The Explorers Club of Pennsylvania
  • The Harrisburg Community Theater
  • The Society for Better Pennsylvania Libraries
At the Cumberland County Historical Society (Carlisle, PA):
  • Camp Michaux (CCC camp in the 1930s and POW interrogation camp in the 1940s)
  • The McClintock Slave Rebellion of 1847
  • The Underground Railroad in Carlisle
At Ye Olde Sulphur Springs Historical Society (York Springs, PA):
  • The Mademoiselle Club (A women’s reading group dating back to the 1940s)
At the Messiah College and Brethren in Christ Church Archives (Grantham, PA):
  • The Messiah Home Orphanage
  • The Messiah College Solar Car
  • The Grantham Brethren in Christ Church
  • The Roxbury Holiness Camp Meeting
  • The Carlisle Brethren in Christ Church
At the Northern York Historical Society (Dillsburg, PA):
  • The Dillsburg Farm Fair
  • The Dillsburg One Room Schoolhouse
At the Dauphin County Historical Society (Harrisburg, PA):
  • The Paxton Street Presbyterian Church
I will be visiting all of these collections with my students in the next two weeks to get them oriented and then they will be conducting research on their own in preparation for their exhibit.  Stay tuned.

This Semester: Pennsylvania History

Yesterday I met for the first time with the students in my Pennsylvania History class at Messiah College.  This is not only my inaugural run with this course, but it is also my initial attempt to bring digital and public history into the classroom.  As I told my colleague David Pettegrew (who is teaching a new course on digital history this semester), it feels like we are embarking on the wild, wild, west of academic history.  It should be fun.

We will be reading the following books:

Randall Miller and William Pencak, Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth.  I love this book. It not only covers Pennsylvania history from the colonial period to the present, but it also has chapters on doing Pennsylvania history through oral history, archaeology, literature, art, geography, genealogy, folklore, photography, and architecture.  My only gripe is that it is big and heavy. (And I am using the paperback edition).

Donald Ritchie, Doing Oral History.  Students will use Ritchie as a guide for a small oral history project.  They will interview a person of their choice and write a paper connecting the story of the interviewee with a larger development in the history of the Commonwealth.

Carol Kammen, On Doing Local History.  Kammen’s book is a classic guide to working with sources in local communities.

I am hoping that students will find Kammen’s book useful as they work on a digital history exhibit using a collection in one of several archives in the vicinity of Messiah College.  Over the past month I have located collections in several local repositories, including the Pennsylvania State Archives (Harrisburg), the Dauphin County Historical Society (Harrisburg), the Messiah College Archives (Grantham), the Brethren-in-Christ Church Archives (Grantham), and the Ye Olde Sulphur Spa Historical Society (York Springs)  By Thursday, I also hope to have identified collections at the Northern York County Historical and Preservation Society (Dillsburg) and the Cumberland County Historical Society (Carlisle).  Stay tuned.

It has taken some work to identify and examine close to thirty collections, but I have actually enjoyed the process.   I have met or become reacquainted with local historians and archivists and this will only bode well in the future for the work of the Messiah College History Department and our new and improved Public History concentration.

There is a lot to learn in this class.  We will devote one class to an “Oral History Workshop,” another to a lecture on how to use an archive, and a third class on how to use Omeka software for digital exhibits.

I will try to keep you posted on how things progress.

In Praise of Local Historical Societies

Minutes of the York Springs Mademoiselle Club

One of the great joys of my job is that I get to visit small historical societies.  As a history professor who is trying to figure out what it means to be a public scholar/historian, I get energized by the work going on in places like the Ye Olde Sulphur Spa Historical Society in York Springs, PA.  (I wrote about my work in these kinds of local historical societies here).

My connection to this place comes through my colleague and friend Cathay Snyder, who is part of the team that runs the show at the historical society. The society tells the story of York Springs, a small rural community located between Harrisburg and Gettysburg that is famous for being the site of a very popular nineteenth-century summer resort that attracted visitors as far away as Philadelphia and Baltimore. According to the society website, York Spring’s sulphur spa was known throughout the region for its health-restoring properties.  It drew regular summer visitors until the advent of the railroad made the Atlantic beach resorts a more attractive destination.

Thanks to Cathay’s work, we in the Messiah College History Department have become fascinated by this community.  There are even plans to do an archaeological dig around the site of the resort hotel that once stood in the town.  Stay tuned.

On Tuesday night I braved the extreme cold and snow and took the short trip down to York Springs to do some exploring.  Beginning in February I will be teaching a course on Pennsylvania history and one of the assignments will require students to work in an archive to create an online history exhibit using Omeka software.  I want the students to learn how to use the software, how to work with historical records, and how to gain skills at telling local stories from the past.

With Cathay’s help, I was able to find some really manageable projects that can be accomplished over the course of the semester.  Here are a few:

The York Springs Mademoiselle Club:  This was a reading group started in the 1940s by nine York Springs women.  What attracted me to this club was the record-keeping of its members.  Yearly notebooks trace the activities of the club and the books they were reading.  This will make a nice student project on the reading habits and social history of rural women in the post-war period.

The York Spring Senior Citizens Club:  As I was looking through the extensive records and scrapbooks kept by this organization I began to wonder when the term “Senior Citizen” came into vogue in America.

York Springs High School:  Records are available tracing education in York Springs from the one-room schoolhouse days of the 19th century to the present.  This would make a nice little online exhibit.

There are a few more projects at York Springs that we are trying to firm up.  Other students will be working in the Dauphin County Historical Society, the Brethren in Christ Church Archives, and a few other places.  It should be a fun course.

And if you get a chance, pay a visit to your local historical society.  You may never know what you might find.

Chistopher Graham Reports on the AHA Digital History Workshop

Christopher Graham weighs in on today’s digital history workshop at the AHA. –JF

This imagefrom Stephen Lubar’s title card of his (snow-cancelled) talkaccurately represents where I have been today. I began this morning by attending the pre-conference workshop on “How to Get Started in Digital History,” assembled by Seth Denbo. The three-hour workshop consisted of a plenary session and two breakout sessions. The plenary offered an overview of the broad scope of digital history, featuring personal interaction (social media), project building blocks (Omeka, Zotero, etc.), and problem solving tools (text mining and topic modeling). [See also Claire Potter’s summary of the session.] Seth emphasized that the project building blocks should be employed only as appropriate tools to answer existing questions (and not just for the sake of using them.) Yet it would seem that the problem solving tools can, and should, be used to generate new questions. For instance, they brought up Cameron Blevins’ topic modeling of Martha Ballard’s diary, in which language and word patterns revealed new trends in Ballard’s life that Laurel Ulrich hadn’t seen.
The breakout sessions included an introduction to topic modeling, but I went instead to Jeff McClurken’s introduction to teaching the digital history class. McClurken’s most relieving bit of advice was that the teacher doesn’t necessarily need to be functionally familiar with all the digital tools available. That’s what Google is for. And besides, he claims that he spends far more time managing group dynamics than the technical aspects of the class.
The key to a good class is good planning, and according to McClurken, a digital history class needs to be put together differently from a traditional history class. You need to consider the extent you will utilize digital tools, the nature of the projects (group or individual), the technical skills of students, the digital tools you will use, what qualifies as a potentially good project, a grading rubric (much different than a grading rubric for an essay), and the kinds of collaborators and resources availale from across your campus. Jeff has his students develop a Project Contract, laying out the goals, tasks, and timeline for the digital projects his students will develop.
In the course of all this, Jeff said in passing that a critical concern of class projects is that they will be publicly accessible, so students should consider their public audiences. It occurred to me that concern for an audience is something that is hardly ever emphasized in traditional academic history courses. These digital history classes are not generally pitched (as far as I can tell) as public history classes, but this minor concession to a non-academic audience seems like a backdoor for the introduction of public-historical thinking to a traditionally academic realm.
My next breakout session was Sharon Leon’s basics of project management. Of course, historians are notorious for being solitary workers, directing their own projects in the form of manuscripts and articles. But group and collaborative projects are essential in the public and digital history world so a little training might be useful. Many of the project management items Sharon explained were somewhat familiar to the old exhibit development teams I worked on in another life. Proposals, objectives, budgets, time management, personnel management, milestones, evaluations, and resource appraisals are all necessary to a successful project. What struck me was that Sharon’s Project Charter is essentially the same thing as Jeff McClurken’s Project Contract. So that seems to be a good way of thinking about a digital (or public) history class—as an exercise (for the teachers and the students) in project management.
This slight repositioning of the digital history implicit in McClurken’s and Leon’s breakouts was made explicit in the session “Public Universities and the Need to Re-think Public History.” The individual speakers simply discussed challenges in their work on a variety of public history projects and it didn’t appear, at first, that they would get around to the “re-thinking public history” part of the session title. But the discussion afterward lived up to expectations. The primary problem is the ability of public history programs to survive and thrive in the new public university environment of permanent austerity and the Fortune 500 administrative mindset. This involves, apparently, some repositioning of the public history mission on campus as, potentially, a service learning component, or even more broadly, as a skill-set that should be included in the infamous STEM paradigm. After all, aren’t we teaching project management, and digital technological skills? Further, the broad engagement with collaborators across the university and in non-academic communities will lead to the development of partnerships with commercial and political influencers who will prove beneficial in wider policy-oriented discussions about the future of the university in general and history departments in particular. [NOTE: I sat in the back of this cavernous room and could only hear part of this discussion. Would love to get the input of anyone else in attendance.]
Anyhow, I have to grade a few papers and then head off to the history bloggers reception.

Teaching History in a Digital Age

If I knew about this book sooner and it wasn’t so outrageously priced ($70.00) I would have assigned it in my “Teaching History” class this semester. Thanks to Lincoln Mullen’s review at ProfHacker I now have Mills Kelly’s Teaching History in a Digital Age on my radar screen.  Here is a taste of Mullen’s review:

The question of how to teach history in a digital age is often contentious. On the one side, the old guard thinks the professional standards history is in mortal danger from flash-in-the-pan challenges by the digital that are all show and no substance. On the other side, the self-styled “disruptors” offer over-blown rhetoric about how digital technology has changed everything while the moribund profession obstructs all progress in the name of outdated ideals. At least, that’s a parody (maybe not much of one) of how the debate proceeds. I suspect that both supporters and opponents of the digital share more disciplinary common ground than either admits. Kelly is certainly no stranger to the controversy, having provoked a lot of ire, some reasoned discourse, and, judging by student evaluations, some learning with his courses on “Lying About the Past.” But this book is a demonstration that both sides share the same historian’s concern about sources and the past. Kelly tells an anecdote about a student who re-scored 1940s news reels with Mozart’s Requiem and the music from Jaws and how difficult it was to persuade students why historians could not consider such a re-mixed source “better” than the original. Nor does this book promise a technological utopia, since Kelly writes that “technology is never the answer to a teaching problem.” 

Gender in the Stacks: On Managing a Small Digital History Project

This was the title of a digital history project recently completed at Loyola-Chicago as part of Kyle Robert’s Digital History class.  The manager of the project, graduate student Aaron Brunmeier (who also happens to be a Springsteen fan), describes his experience working on this project at his blog “thought-monopoly.”  Here is a taste:

This post is a reflection on my experience managing a digital history project. Much like most projects I encounter in grad school, the beginnings are hazy, ill defined, and subject to change, sometimes so immensely that you cannot even recognize the final product from its original conception. Originally, I wanted to do a spatial analysis of the NYSL circulation records (1789-1792) to see where borrowed books were ending up in the city. I even had a 1786 city directory that I thought I could use to correlate patrons with their residences, but my group and I soon changed our focus to a much narrower, albeit intriguing and rewarding, topic. We decided to look at the eleven women found in the borrowing records to see what they were reading and what books that linked these women together. We wanted to test Cathy Davidson’s notion that the early American novel was a subversive tool with which to challenge the political and patriarchal status quos in a very restrictive post-Revolutionary society. 

For this project, I worked with two hardworking and thoughtful undergrads, and it was their effort that made this project what it is. What I realized along the way, though, is that we sometimes were working on different planes – and again, I want to stress that I am not criticizing my outstanding group members. I am speaking more to my own shortcoming. In the history world, especially within the graduate history world, we often “talk shop” with big words and think everyone naturally understands us. “How does Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto problematize or reify Sugrue’s ‘urban crisis’ thesis?” “Tell me more about the role of agency in Foucault’s conception of governmentality….” And so on. We get so caught up in our profession-specific rhetorical world that we sometimes forget that we often talk in code. Thus, when I set out to explain to my group about gender in the early Republic, I found myself on several occasions tripping over my own words. I had a tough time explaining something that, in reality, is not that complicated, but often becomes that way once an eager grad student varnishes his sentences with the biggest buzzwords he or she can muster. So the first thing I learned was that I didn’t have to try and talk in such a way that I would when I wanted a professor to know I read the book for that week’s class.

I am impressed that such a project could be accomplished over the span of semester-long course.  Nice work.

Geneva College Digital History

Greg Jones and his digital history course at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA has put together a nice digital archive related to the history of the college.  This course and website serves as a nice model for introducing the digital humanities in a small college setting.

Here is  description of the project:

The Geneva College Digital Archive is part of a semester-long course at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA.  The staff of the project includes seven undergraduate students and one facilitating instructor.  Utilizing local primary sources, the group organized an archive of the 1920s that serves as a functioning research archive for higher education, college sports, western Pennsylvania history, and the 1920s in the broadest sense.

The course design is a part of an emerging applied history pedagogy intended to give students hands-on experience in the field of history, while also providing a service to the local Geneva community.

To contact us please email:

What Does a Class in Public Humanities Look Like?

Steven Lubar, the director of the public humanities program at Brown, discusses the final revisions to the syllabus for his AMST1550, “Methods in Public Humanities.”  Here are some of the things his students will be learning this semester:

  • Public humanities should be “half digital, half real-world.”
  • How to work with a host of community partners, from local museums to public art projects
  • How to write memos and reports
  • How to write exhibit labels
  • How to critique each other’s work