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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

August 3, 2021: AmericanStudies Websites: The Valley of the Shadow

[On August 6, 1991, World Wide Web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee publicly announced his WWW software for the first time. So for the 30th anniversary of the occasion that brought us all here, this week I’ll highlight just a handful of the many wonderful AmericanStudies websites. Share your favs for a crowd-sourced post, please!]

On a few key things that we can still learn from a groundbreaking early site.

I’m not sure exactly when it was, but it couldn’t have been more than a year or two after that 1991 WWW origin point that my Dad brought me to a presentation by University of Virginia History Professor Ed Ayers (he has since moved to the University of Richmond, at which he is now Emeritus, and where he co-created and co-hosted the innovative and vital radio program BackStory) on a new online project he was launching. That project, which formally debuted in 1993, was and remains The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War. Valley focuses on residents of Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania, located at opposite ends of the Shenandoah Valley, using countless historical documents and sources to frame their individual and collective voices and experiences between the late 1850s and the era of Reconstruction.

Both the digitization and presentation of those primary sources are one of the project’s essential elements from which we can still learn a great deal. I’m not sure “digitization” was even a concept when Valley was launched (it probably was within archival conversations, but not in our broader public ones at least), but I’ve never encountered an online resource that models both the work and the value of digitizing primary sources (in so many different categories, from more obvious ones like letters/diaries and newspapers to complementary ones like church records and census & tax records) better than this one. And they’re so navigable and searchable—from the perfect graphic design of the main page to the multiple, eminently searchable sub-categories that come up when you click on any one of that page’s sections. Of course public scholarly websites can do all sorts of important things, but digitizing and presenting sources (especially harder to find, or at least gather together, ones) has always been and to my mind will always stay at the top of the list, and again I don’t know a better model for that goal, process, and result than Valley.

Any web project, like any other scholarly project, also features its own interpretative and analytical lenses on such sources, of course, and in the case of Valley its comparative lens also remains a powerful takeaway. Linking a Northern and a Southern community might seem obvious in hindsight, but I would argue that at the time it was anything but—especially because of the digitization/archive angle, which might have made it seem logical to focus on working with documents from only one such community. Of course that would have had value too, and it is possible to work with the site’s materials through a more singular focus (which is as it should be, as web projects are more interactive than written/textual ones). But the comparative lens offers such a potent mechanism for comparison and contrast, within particular categories of sources and across them, in one of site’s three time periods and across them, for specific racial and ethnic communities and between them, and so on. That’s a really meaningful resource for thinking about the Civil War era, and it’s also an implicit but crucial model for how we think about America, an additive vision rather than a divided or entirely localized one. Just one more reason to remember and learn from The Valley of the Shadow.

Next AMST site tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Favorite websites, past or present, you’d share for the crowd-sourced post?

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