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.
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:
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.
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!