From Type to Pixel: JMU Students Digitize Local Press Documents


by Janet Smith


A team of five James Madison University students took one of Webster's definitions of history – "something important enough to be recorded" – to heart and ran with it to make a segment of local history available to the world.

Linn Baumgardt, Ryan Bowen, Jennifer Downey, Paul Faith and Josh Mlynar carefully selected documents recorded by the Henkel Press in New Market, Va., in the 1800s in order to "re-record" the sources and make them available online. Their work is part of the emerging world of digital history, which is generally described as the use of digital media and tools for historical practice, presentation, analysis and research.

Four of the five students (Baumgardt graduated from JMU in May 2011) will present their project, "Digital Approaches to Local History: The Case of JMU's Henkel Papers," at MAD-RUSH 2012, the third annual humanities and social sciences undergraduate research conference sponsored by the College of Arts and Letters. They will join nearly 80 students in presenting research during the all-day event Saturday, Feb. 18, at various locations in Taylor Hall.

In the case of the Henkel Papers, the students digitized, transcribed, translated (in German and English) and presented online six documents from the Henkel Family Papers Collection held in Special Collections in JMU's Carrier Library. The papers were deposited through a 1985 contract with the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society, according to Trevor Alvord, Special Collections librarian who worked with the students.
"Before the students worked with Special Collections on this project, there was only one place in the world where you could see these documents: the second floor of Carrier Library," said Dr. Andrew D. Witmer, assistant professor of history who taught the Race and Religion in the Antebellum South course in which the students completed the Henkel work in spring 2011. "That meant their use was quite limited. Now anyone with a computer and Internet access can view these documents."

In researching the Henkel Collection, the team had to find resources that met the parameters of their course and "lined up with our interests," said Bowen, now a senior. "I chose the Woodstock meeting because I'm a philosopher and it was theological argumentation. Linn (Baumgardt) did the document that was in German because she could translate it. But all of it had a religious undertone to it, which tied it back into the course."

Baumgardt, a native of Frankfurt, not only used her mastery of German and English to translate original manuscripts but learned proper transcription processes to make the team's work searchable and more accessible for regional and national researchers interested in religion, sociology, music and other fields. "We only transcribed a small part of the Henkel documents," she said, "but I believe it was an important start to ensuring that the Henkel's family's views will stay 'alive.'"

Faith, who graduated in December 2011 with a degree in political science, employed his guitar talents to produce an audio recording of an undated "Henkel Press Song Book." The book, printed in German, does not indicate the tempo of the music, so Faith played it at an even tempo, resulting in a 13-minute selection. "It's not a guitar piece, whatever it is. I think it's a voice piece." Faith said, adding that the songbook warrants further study.

Downey, a junior majoring in interdisciplinary liberal studies, was responsible for transcribing and digitizing two documents, a poem about slavery, written by an unknown author, and the "Minutes of the Proceedings of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of the State of Virginia." "I thought that the slave poem that I transcribed was particularly interesting because it was a personal account from an individual that could be used to study larger themes we were learning about in class."

Graduate student Josh Mlynar, who joined the team while he was an undergraduate history major, discovered a great appreciation for digitized sources "because I now know all of the time and effort that is required" as he worked on the Report of the Transaction of the Second Lutheran Evangelical Conference. "As with everyone's sources, this required us to unbind and scan each page onto the computer. This takes longer that you would think!"

Mlynar found the Henkel Papers project valuable because it allowed the team to study and handle primary sources. "The process itself was enlightening because as we move into the 21st century we know digital history will play an increasingly significant role in understanding the past."

The team's teacher is well pleased by their final project, especially because each member brought his or her special language, music and creative talents to the table. "For me, the best undergraduate projects are the kinds that produce real and lasting results," Witmer said. "This group of students has made a permanent contribution to public knowledge of religion in the Shenandoah Valley."

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Published: Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Last Updated: Friday, February 9, 2024

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