Practicum Assignment: The Valley of the Shadow

Hi everybody! I hope that you’re staying safe, staying healthy, and STAYING HOME! Anyway, let’s talk about practicum for this week: the Valley of the Shadow. This research database originally began with one man’s dream of creating a book on the topic of daily life in two places close to the Mason-Dixon Line during the Civil War—Franklin County, PA and Augusta County, VA. Historian Edward Ayers hoped to help Americans piece “together the disparate details of people’s everyday experience [to] reveal the underlying patterns of life during the Civil War era,” but as technology advanced, it became clear that a book might not be the most effective format to engage with this information. When his original research began in 1991, using the web for digital history was still a far-off dream. BUT as primary source research, transcriptions, etc. continued into the 90s and early 2000’s, a digital database became the optimal way to share the historical information collected by his team of researchers at UVA. The many evolutions of the project led to the participation and collaboration of many academics, practitioners, and institutions, including UVA, the Virginia Center for Digital History, and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities.

Home page of the site

Thus, the online website you see here was born. The research itself is available in three groupings: pre-war (“The Eve of War”), wartime (“The War Years”) and post-war (“The Aftermath”). As you click around these areas, you can read about daily life in Franklin/Augusta County during each time period by looking at primary sources filed under themes like “maps and images” or “letters and diaries.” There are transcriptions, statistics, historical interpretation and essays by experts, images, and more. One cool aspect is the ability to trace certain individuals or families throughout the years– you can look at their letters, their registration in the census, etc. by following links on the site. Here’s an example:

After finding this letter within the War era grouping of documents, it shows me other primary sources that have to do with the McCutchan family so that I can better follow their story!

All in all, the site is a wealth of information—almost overwhelming if you don’t have a specific goal in mind when searching for documents or historical essays.  Those of us who are interested in this time period or in community histories will probably be fans of the collection. As a Southern PA gal, it was very cool to learn about local history!

Some nice areas included on the site are a teacher resources page (with lessons, assignments, interpretation and more) and instructional “walking tours”that give broad overviews of how to use each section of the database. These, as well as other helpful tools for understanding the site, can be found here, a page titled “How to Use the Valley Project.”

When in doubt, click the “FULL VALLEY ARCHIVE” button at the bottom of a page to return to the home screen.

“Walking Tour” guide
Teacher resources!

There are, of course, imperfections in a site that has aged so much– from what I can tell, it has not been changed in ~10 years (correct me if I am wrong!) First, there is much to be desired design-wise. You’ll notice that it is pretty basic, which can become a bit boring on the eyes after a long time on the site. Secondly, topics like slavery, gender in the Civil War, and other areas that are less-considered on the site have recently undergone huge upticks in the realm of historical research. These new areas of study are missing from a dated site like this. (This reminds me of our conversation last week about the sustainability of digital resources! Much to think about.) Still, there is so much to learn here, so I encourage you to play around with the three categories.  Overall, the database is a great repository for both community and national histories, and I realize that at the time of its creation, it was absolutely groundbreaking! Check it out, and let me know what you all think!

5 Replies to “Practicum Assignment: The Valley of the Shadow”

  1. Thanks for a great overview of the site and its drawbacks, Sarah! I spent some time poking around to see what all there is, and there truly is a wealth of information that has been collected and displayed. I agree that it is also a hallmark of our earlier discussion about digital resources being sustained, but it is also not that far off from our current time. Many historians are picking up the slack of their predecessors, and a site like this could still be very helpful. Gender historians for example have to read between the lines of what other text isn’t saying to understand what society might have been like for individuals they study. I could see this site still being helpful by tracing a family through its patriarchal members to see just how invisible the women or other family members are– as that still has great historical significance. I do think it is outdated, but it also could still be used for a purpose it is not directly serving in 2020.

  2. What an exciting topic/site! Your post got me thinking about the Brennan reading and a book I’m reading for West Wing about *objectivity*. I think this site is a good early example of helping people ‘get to the stuff’ and seems like a fairly user friendly platform with ‘exhibits’ of sorts that encourage people to use the database. It also helps visitors learn how to use the database, and perhaps think about the collection and organization in a new way.

    The material itself made me think of *objectivity* in modern times. I think we would generally agree that historians are no longer blatantly objective, but I think this database has done a decent job of presenting the material in an objective way. The organization of material into “The Eve” “The War” and “The Aftermath” allows the visitor to draw their own conclusions with some curated guidance. As you and Jess have pointed out, it certainly isn’t a perfect site or example, but it is a good start and something that could easily (maybe) be updated to include other threads/points of view.

  3. Hi Sarah, Thank you for this awesome post! I wrote my senior thesis on the interpretation of John Brown’s Raid, so it was great to see that there is an archive that transcribed newspaper articles about the incident, so people can understand how disparate the nation’s reactions were. I agree with your conclusion that as a result of the age of the archive it does not include recent scholarly work or databases that could expand the scope of the archive. It would be interesting to see if LOC’s Chronicling America digital archive could provide more resources for this project. Since the field of historical memory is becoming so popular within public history I would like to see this archive expand to include newspapers and personal records of people living during the late nineteenth and twentieth century when the history of this era was reinterpreted to defend the construction of Lost Cause monuments and Jim Crow.

  4. Great exploration and discussion of the site. This remains one of the important early leading projects for creating a sort of hybrid between an online digital collection and an interpretive historical narrative. It’s also significant to revisit to think about how these kinds of systems age over time. For anyone interested, there is some good work on what it has required to sustain this resource https://dcs.library.virginia.edu/sustaining-digital-scholarship/valley-of-the-shadow/

    I think this is a good context to also think about some of the points that came through in McGann’s Rationale of Hypertext from a few weeks ago. Specifically in how the site functions in supporting a linear experience through some portions of the narrative but also mirrors and constructs possibilities of visiting different places in a space to explore broader sets of objects and resources.

  5. Great post, Sarah! I really like the ability to track a specific family throughout the years. In undergrad, I did a research project on a soldier from Southwest Virginia who had a complicated relationship with Confederate ideals but fought in a gray uniform regardless. Reading the papers and letters associated with him was one of the most fascinating parts of the project, and having the ability to do that on a larger, digital, scale is really interesting. I wonder if “tweet repositories” about the virus will pop-up in the future….

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