Valley of the Shadow… or is it Shadow of the Valley?

The digital project The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the Civil War provides primary sources from a Northern community and a Southern community during the Civil War. The project contains letters, diaries, census records, government records, newspapers, and speeches from the two communities. The project tries to answer questions of what life was like to live in Northern and Southern communities during the Civil War. The archive makes comparing the two much easier since the sources are all in one place. Since it houses completely primary sources, The Valley of Shadow project is an archive. The website is from the 1990’s, so this presents some differences and navigation obstacles as compared to modern projects.

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The above screenshot shows the homepage that acts like a portal into the actual archive. I do not love this set up, but I understand it is old. I also believe that the creators want the project to creatively resemble an actual archive, where you would have to actually enter a first room before going into the archive.

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This screenshot shows the picture you get after they click on “Enter the Valley Archive.” This is pretty unconventional but once again reflects the creator’s theme of an archive with all the different items organized in various sections. You can click on a section and it takes you to a screen with more specific classifications of sources split between the two communities. This makes it easy for users to find similar sources to compare life in each town. The Valley of the Shadow website does not provide specific names of contributors but the project is part of the University of Virginia’s Virginia Center for Digital History.

When compared to the primary source project Making the History of 1989 presented in Miriam Posner’s article “How did They Make That,” 1 The Valley of the Shadow seems pretty outdated and difficult to navigate. The overall design if the website design is less fancy and the copious amounts of contributors in Making the History of 1989 show that a lot of people worked on it. However, the Valley of the Shadow displays how quickly the field of digital humanities changes, as Matthew Gold asserts in his blog post “The Digital Humanities Moment.”2 Because technology is always changing and expanding, many digital humanities projects become old, expired, or inaccessible very quickly. This is obviously represented by comparing the Valley of the Shadow project with Making the History of 1989.

Gold’s article raised the question of who can be considered a digital humanist. Gold quoted University of Nebraska scholar Stephan Ramsay, saying that to be a digital humanist, you have to know how to code.3 You have to create things. However, I wonder whether the anonymous creators of The Valley of the Shadow intend that. I also wonder if generally speaking, do digital humanists intend for their work to be viewed and used specifically by other digital humanists? In a blog post, Matthew Kirschenbaum states that the point and goal of digital humanities is for information to be easily accessed by all – a heavy focus on public use.4 These two ideals set digital humanities in a sort of paradox that is both exclusive yet extremely inclusive. I believe both the Valley of the Shadow project and the Making the History of 1989 both are inclusive and invite non-digital humanists to participate in their academia.

The Valley of the Shadow project showed me the importance of design and easy navigation in a digital humanities project. It is definitely possible to do a project similar to this. The most difficult part would be gathering and citing all of the primary sources to create the archive. However, analyzing all these projects makes creating my own a little less daunting.

http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/VoS/choosepart.html

Notes

1 Miriam Posner, “How Did They Make That?,” August 29, 2013. http://miriamposner.com/blog/how-    did-they-make-that/.

2 Matthew Gold, “The Digital Humanities Moment,” Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2012. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/2.

Ibid.

4 Matthew Kirschenbaum, “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?,” Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2012. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny,edu/debates/text/38

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