Digital resources bring history to the computer screen.
Photo by Tom Cogill.
In the summer of 1608, the English explorer John Smith led two expeditions from the fort at Jamestown to map the Chesapeake Bay region. He sailed down the James River, which he called the Powhatan Flu, and then up the bay, nosing into its many creeks and rivers. Around the start of July, on the first voyage, he ventured up a river called the Patawomack Flu beyond the Indian town of Nacotchank. Where in the world was he?
As quickly as you can tap your finger, you learn that he had reached what would one day be Washington, D.C. Four hundred years after Captain Smith’s adventures, you are exploring with him from “Virtual Jamestown.” An interactive map loaded with 17th-century and 21st-century details that traces the voyages day by day is only one of the many innovative features of this major Jamestown Web archive based at the Virginia Center for Digital History (VCDH).
One of the most popular history sites on the Web, the award-winning “Virtual Jamestown” project features rarely seen documents and images, recently discovered artifacts, scholarly essays, virtual re-creations and extensive research information, as well as many suggestions for teaching about Jamestown for students at all levels. It will soon include a searchable version of Smith’s multivolume “General History of Virginia.”
The project aims to offer new ways to understand the founding of the first permanent English settlement in North America by following the action from points of view of the Europeans, Africans and Indians involved in it, according to Crandall Shifflett (MA, History ’71, PhD ’75), creator of “Virtual Jamestown.”
A Virginia Tech historian, he visited U.Va. this past academic year to add to the Jamestown archive and serve as interim director of the Virginia Center for Digital History, which is the home base for almost a dozen other innovative American history projects. Scot A. French (MA, History ’90, PhD ’00), project director for the “Race and Place” digital archive and former associate director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, became director this past summer.
With next year’s 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding approaching and archaeologists making almost daily new discoveries about the settlement, Shifflett and a group of undergraduate and graduate students are continuing to add new features to the only scholarly site devoted to Jamestown on the Web. The project logged some 325,000 individual visitors last year, many from schools and colleges. “It’s exciting,” Shifflett says. “It is a way of seeing the past that can’t be done solely with print.”
Aiming to provide access to original sources and scholarly materials for anyone with a computer, as well as to make history exciting for younger students by encouraging them to explore with their detective instincts, VCDH’s digital archives include such projects as “The Geography of Slavery in Virginia,” a database of thousands of advertisements from 18th-century newspapers dealing with runaway slaves; “The Roots of Lewis and Clark,” a collection of resources on the origins of America’s western expansion; “Race and Place: An African American Community in the Jim Crow South,” an examination of the segregation era in Charlottesville; and “The Valley of the Shadow,” a digital archive with materials from Augusta County, Va., and Franklin County, Pa., that offers the experiences of two communities, one Southern and one Northern, during the Civil War.
The “Valley” project, which has won countless honors, including the prestigious e-Lincoln Prize for its contributions to history and the J. Franklin Jameson Prize from the American Historical Association for the best aid to the teaching of history, was created by historian Edward L. Ayers, now dean of Arts & Sciences.
Ayers co-founded the Virginia Center for Digital History with William G. Thomas, now the Angle Professor of the Humanities at the University of Nebraska, in 1998. With much inaccurate history on the Web, the center has as its mission to develop high-quality, reliable history resources in digital format and deliver them to schools, colleges, libraries, historical societies and the general public via the Internet.
The author of highly praised books, Ayers has long been a pioneering advocate of using technology to advance ways history is learned and understood. Because history includes so much raw material that can be approached from so many angles, “history may be better suited to digital technology than any other humanistic discipline,” he suggests.
Graduate and undergraduate students working with historians at the center in Alderman Library help gather documents, including letters, diaries, official records, photos, maps and newspapers, from U.Va. and other archives and digitize them for online availability. For a project to be developed at the center, it must have strong national interest, scholarly significance and technical sophistication as well as the likelihood of being self-sustaining with outside funding, Shifflett says.
Shifflett emphasizes the collaborative nature of the center’s work. “We’re not constructing something for individual recognition” but to bring about new ways of teaching and learning, he says.
“Virtual Jamestown,” which aims to play a key part in a national dialogue about Jamestown’s significance, is an example of the collaborative nature of the center’s projects. In addition to Virginia Tech and U.Va., scholars contribute from William and Mary, Colonial Williamsburg and the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project, among other groups.
Like Ayers, with long interest in using technology in the humanities, Shifflett conceived “Virtual Jamestown” a decade ago as a way to bring the era to life for today’s students. He was familiar with what Ayers was developing with Civil War history in “The Valley of the Shadow” and talked to him and others for ideas.
But there was a problem. In an era before cameras and with few images available, Jamestown was “visually anemic.” There were court records, labor contracts, firsthand accounts, newspapers and more that provided raw material for research, but little to show what things looked like.
Under a $220,000 planning grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Shifflett worked with associate professor of architecture Earl Mark and William Kelso, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities’ chief archaeologist at Jamestown, to come up with some innovative ways to create visual understanding, including interactive maps, three-dimensional rotating views of the fort, landscapes and an Indian village, and a re-creation of Jamestown’s statehouse and other buildings, all based on documentation. “Virtual Jamestown” also provides a database and images of the many artifacts still being discovered at sites around the settlement.
Other rich visual material on the website includes work by the artists John White and Theodor De Bry. White made drawings of Indians, villages, animals and plants at Roanoke Island in 1585. De Bry made later engravings of the drawings that embellished them less accurately. Shifflett arranged for the rare materials to be viewed side by side for better understanding of how early America has been visualized.
“It has been a building process,” he says. With a $200,000 initial award from the National Endowment for the Humanities, “Virtual Jamestown” continues to develop and was selected as one of NEH’s best-of-the-humanities sites on the Web.
Part of the Center for Digital History’s mission is to educate students, already tech-savvy, in ways to use technology in understanding history. Shifflett taught an undergraduate course at the center on African-American experiences in the Jamestown era. Students worked with original 17th-century manuscripts in Alderman Library to explore the origins of slavery in Jamestown. The first thing they had to do was learn to decipher and read 17th-century handwriting.
Kathleen Kiernan (American Studies ’07) explains that she and fellow students hunted for references in letters to determine the point at which Jamestown “moved from being a society which practiced slavery to a society economically and socially dependent upon slavery.”
“The class is a fantastic opportunity,” she says. “I am being given the chance to do graduate-level research on a topic that is still undergoing intense debate. I love feeling like my work in class may actually have an effect on something other than my GPA.” The results of their research will be incorporated into “Virtual Jamestown.”
Numerous teaching resources and materials make “Virtual Jamestown” and the center’s other archives especially useful for middle- and high-school teachers. Part of the center’s mission is to help the teaching of American history and to bring real excitement into the classroom by allowing students to explore raw material from the past and engage actively in their own interpretation of history, according to Andy Mink (History ’90), the center’s director of outreach and education. A former middle-school history teacher, he travels the state working with teachers to make the best use of digital resources. The center also holds seminars and workshops that bring historians and K-12 teachers together at U.Va.
Chosen as a K-12 Leader of the Year by the National Society of Experiential Education for his work as a teacher, Mink believes digital history can significantly change the way history is taught and learned.
In particular, he looks for ways that teachers can use the center’s primary resources with their students, whether or not the students themselves have access to computers. When students are presented with raw material such as letters, diaries and maps, “they can learn by exploring, uncovering and drawing their own conclusions,” he says. It creates an experience that textbooks alone cannot.
“Technology is only valuable to a classroom teacher if it enables them to do something they couldn’t otherwise do,” Mink says. “It’s not about machines. It’s to help get kids engaged and give them a sense of active authorship.”
If students can find a research question that captures their imagination, learning history and even memorizing facts becomes easier, he says. For example, in one new Center for Digital History project in collaboration with U.Va.’s Curry School of Education, teachers and students in the Roanoke area are exploring archives of historic local-television news clips made during the civil rights era. Students ultimately will create their own digital history projects about civil rights, complete with maps and images. In addition to reading and writing, Mink said, they will be deeply immersed in learning history “in a way that appeals to the human spirit.”