The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War – Project Review

The Valley of the Shadow project is a digital archive containing over 12,000 documents used in a comparative historical analysis between Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania before, during and after the U.S. Civil War:  This digital archive contains resources that allow researchers to compare the two agriculturally-based communities that, while physically only two hundred miles apart, were on entirely opposite sides of the war.  Studies generated from this digitally archived database include published books, an audiobook, a CD-ROM, several journal articles and an edited collection of selected resources.  The online component of the project contains the documentation (and links to documentation) from both counties, and makes available a wide variety of research resources – statistics, church records, maps and images, letters and diaries, newspapers, census and tax records, relevant entries from The Official Records, soldiers records, Freedman Bureau Records, among others.

            The project was envisioned by 19th Century America and Civil War historian Edward Ayers, who was assisted by legions of graduate students.  It began in 1992 and was one of the progenitor Digital Humanities projects ever created.  As a professor at the University of Virginia, Ayers was involved in the founding of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, one of the first DH programs ever created, a grant from UVA along with computers and technical help provided by IBM.  The original incarnations of the digital archive could not use large files and complex navigation programs, because people at the time had to wait for several minutes for large files to download using their modems.  The project was soon migrated in 1993 onto a new technology – the World Wide Web.  A research computer was established at the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace and Museum (in Staunton, Augusta County, Virginia), who became a funding partner in the endeavor. A CD-ROM of the project was created in 1994.  As the database was added to and expanded, more funding was needed for the increasing staff and technology needs.  The UVA team applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant in 1995.  Yet, they were turned down, because at that time the NEH did not have a program for funding DH projects.  That changed the following year when the NEH initiated the Teaching with Technology category.  Thus, the Valley of the Shadow became one of the first DH projects ever funded by the NEH, which today is one of the largest funders of DH projects.  This digital archive continued to be refined, grown, and was managed until 2007-09 when it became permanently archived in its present form at the UVA Library’s Digital Collections.

            Professor Ayers went on to become President of the University of Richmond.  Project Manager Anne Rubin went on to become Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland.  Project Director William Thomas went on to become the Director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at UVA and then a professor at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.  There are numerous additional personnel affiliated with the project, many of which earned PhDs at UVA and worked for the VCDH.  Over one hundred people have worked on this project, including graduate and undergraduate students.

            The project is clearly defined as providing research resources for Civil War Era historians.  The Valley of the Shadow provides extensive access to the types of documents and sources that historians of this period would regularly search out and utilize.  Normally, a Civil War historian would have to travel to a series of local, state and national archives and museums in order to assemble such an intensive set of sources.  The project makes this process incredibly easy by assembling the most desired ones altogether in a digital archive.  This advantage also highlights the disadvantage – this archive is specific to only two counties out of the hundreds that were affected by historic events before, during and after the Civil War.  The project appears to be aimed at students and research professionals specific to this field.  However, anyone seeking an almost complete set of representative northern or southern county records should check this site out.  The database is also helpful for anyone doing research on mid-19th Century America as well, as the documents are relevant to economics, ancestry/genealogy, cartography/ historic landscapes use, and a variety of other topics.  Valley of the Shadow is thus largely oriented towards professional historians, but would also prove useful to others specifically interested in historical data about Augusta and Franklin counties.

            The site set-up is simple, easy to use and navigate.  After entering at the introductory page, the user is shown a “floorplan” of an “archive” that is divided into three “floors” – The Eve of War (Fall 1859 to Spring 1861), The War Years (Spring 1861 to Spring 1865) and The Aftermath (Spring 1865 to 1870).  Each of these three floors is divided into “rooms” that house different parts of the resource collections.  For example, there is a room for letters and diaries, another room for newspapers, another for maps, and so on.  The user then clicks on each room to enter it and peruse the resources.  There are search tools built in throughout the digital archive to assist the researcher in finding relevant materials.  I encountered two links that were no longer functioning in the “Using the Valley Project” subheading (the “Two Communities at War” and the “Teaching Resources” links).  However, given that this digital archive has been around for decades and is no longer being actively built and managed, this doesn’t seem that bad.

            It is clear from the descriptions provided in the project history and the list of staff that this was a large-scale project that involved multiple episodes of funding over the fifteen years that this digital archive was built.  Funding included one of the first two hundred thousand dollar digital humanities grants from the NEH, along with a slew of other smaller funding sources which included a national historic site, a major corporation (IBM), and many institutional grants from UVA.  It was a massive digitization and archiving project that made thousands of documents easily accessible in online format.  Additionally, the UVA Library and VCDH are keeping the site accessible by permanently archiving the project.  It has been about fourteen years since the project was completed and the entire set of data is still available for researchers to use!             The site provides users guidance in how to utilize and cite the project.  By clicking on the “Using the Valley Project” banner at the bottom of the page, there are primers about its use and access to some of the major papers and publications generated from the project data.  If one clicks on the “Copyright and Fair Use Statement” tab, there are directions for creating citations.  This archive is largely a self-contained project and does not reference or link to other projects except The Virginia Center for Public History.  In that sense it is connected to other DH projects that have been generated by researchers and students at the University of Virginia.