Project Reviews

Digital Harlem: Everyday Life 1915-1930
Created and maintained by Professors Shane White, Stephen Garton, Graham White, and Stephen Robertson of the University of Sydney's Department of History

Digital Harlem is an award-winning component of the project Black Metropolis: Harlem, 1915-1930, an ongoing collaborative research project produced by four members of the University of Sydney's Department of History. Professors Shane White, Stephen Garton, Graham White, and Stephen Robertson state that their goal is to "produce an ethnographic study of everyday life in Harlem as it became the black capital of the world." They examined a wide variety of sources, from newspapers and census schedules to prison records and the case files of the Manhattan District Attorney, for evidence of daily "cultural life" in early twentieth century Harlem. This information was then used to create the database for Digital Harlem, which is essentially a tool that allows users to investigate and visualize life in 1915 to 1930 Harlem via interactive maps that were created using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The site is designed with the maps as its focal point.

While most other studies of early twentieth century Harlem focus on black artists or the black middle class, Digital Harlem focuses on average black New Yorkers as a means to understand how Harlem became the "Negro Mecca." Each of the four authors, or "researchers" as they are referred to on the site's blog, specialize in a similar area of history. Shane White studies African American history and the history of New York City. Stephen Robertson also studies the history of New York City, in addition to law and society and the history of sexuality. Graham White studies nineteenth and twentieth century American history, with a focus on the "black experience." Stephen Garton appears to possess the broadest interests of the four, researching nineteenth and twentieth century social and cultural history. The subject matter of the site attests to its researchers' interests: it contains data on a diverse array of topics. This information is utilized to create interactive maps as a means to represent the "spatial dimensions of black urban life" and demonstrate how the daily patterns of life of the past can be recreated with digital technologies. Although criminal records comprise a large portion of the project's source base, the authors assert that hardened criminals are not the primary group represented in their analysis but rather that "most of those who appear in these records are ordinary Harlemites who had been caught once breaking the law, usually acting out of desperation or poverty" (Digital Harlem Blog, "The Sources"). Still, most of the categories that users can employ to generate interactive maps consist of types of criminal offenses, which leaves one to wonder just how representative the visualizations generated with such data are of "everyday life" in early twentieth century Harlem.

The primary value of the site is the ability it grants its users to recognize patterns present in the corpus of data gathered by White, White, Garton, and Robertson. Users can search the site's database and dynamically "create" maps based upon their particular interests. They can then click on these "events" on the map to obtain more detailed information (such as a description of the event, the date and time it occurred, the original location of the source material, persons involved in the event, and more). At times it is even possible to explore other, related events via hyperlinks that have been imbedded within the details for each event mapped-a very useful feature for relating seemingly unconnected events and for recognizing "hot zones" for certain types of events. The site's main page also offers four "featured maps," which are basically "canned" or pre-created maps that highlight certain themes the site's researchers found particularly significant. These featured maps display along with a summary or overview explaining the meaning and context of the map. This is perhaps the best use of dialog boxes to be found on the site; the rest of the time they are used as a means to keep users focused on the map, while still offering necessary information pertaining to the site's purpose, organization, sources, and how to conduct searches and generate maps. The site could benefit from more narrative, although admittedly it would be difficult to add much more than is presently available due to the fact that the main goal of the site is to allow users to generate maps dynamically, according to their own interests, as a means to "recreate" the past. Still, further clarification of the researcher's arguments would only enhance-not jeopardize-the site's value.

Black Metropolis and Digital Harlem were both funded by a Discovery Grant from the Australian Research Council (ARC) and by a Sesqui Research and Development Grant from the University of Sydney (Digital Harlem, "About"). According to the project's creators, the ARC Discovery Grant that was awarded to the project was one of the largest ever awarded in the humanities and was the first awarded for a collaborative project on this scale (Black Metropolis, "Project Details"). The American Historical Association recently announced that Digital Harlem has been awarded the 2010 Roy Rosenzweig Fellowship for Innovation in Digital History. All of this seems to indicate that the academy is moving in the direction of recognizing historians for collaborative work, something that was at one time deemed particularly problematic to do within the humanities. Yet even with this professional and prestigious recognition, Digital Harlem is not well-known-either within academic circles or to the general public. If sites such as Digital Harlem are to truly engage their target audience, and if historians are to assume a role in the increasingly vital public sphere of the web, more scholars need to pay attention to, use, and promote outstanding works of digital scholarship and digital tools.

Michelle Tiedje
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: December 2009