More Than Just Web Sites A Look at Selected Interactive Resources

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

When I went to library school in the early 1970s, I took a course called “Mechanized Information Retrieval.” Later, as a public librarian, I experienced the growth of online resources, watching them progress from text-based-only information to “graphical interfaces” that provided a richness to available information and a rapid increase in accessibility to original record images. Today, many interactive sites exist providing important intersections of history, genealogy, and technology. Here is a brief overview of four such sites.

  • One of the first really exciting sites I encountered was Historic Alexandria Imaged Databases. This site is a project of the Special Collections Division of the Alexandria Public Library, funded by a 1996 grant from the Historic Alexandria Foundation, and was created to bring together materials from several collections that form part of the Lloyd House “collection of books, clipping files, photographs, insurance policies, blueprints, building permits and original manuscript materials about historic structures in Old Town Alexandria.” The site is organized into five major areas: buildings associated with George Washington; buildings associated with the slave trade; flounders, an eighteenth-century type of structure unique to the Chesapeake Bay region; selected extant eighteenth-century buildings; and selected nineteenth-century public buildings.

Included within the eighteenth-century buildings category are the Carlyle House, the Fawcett House, Gadsby’s Tavern, Lloyd House, and Ramsay House. The documents linked together for Gadsby’s Tavern include a photograph of its ballroom; a map from an 1867 property book showing water service provided to Gadsby’s and the adjacent City Hotel by the Virginia-American Water Company; floor plans; a chain of title from 1749 to 1799; a postage stamp image from 1949; a Mutual Assurance Policy dated 1796; and a multi-page Historic American Buildings Survey document.

The nineteenth century buildings category includes the city hall, the nineteen-century courthouse (now demolished), the customs house, Jones Point Lighthouse, and the Lyceum; buildings associated with George Washington include Alexandria Academy, Arell’s Tavern (now demolished), the Bank of Alexandria, Christ Church, Friendship Firehouse, and George Washington’s Townhouse.

  • Valley of the Shadow chronicles the lives of individuals in Augusta County, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and Franklin County, in the Cumberland Valley of south central Pennsylvania, during the Civil War period through searchable digital archives of primary sources. The Valley Project began in 1993 with support from the University of Virginia, and later, the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace in Staunton, Virginia. It is now part of the Virginia Center for Digital History located at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The site is divided into three sections, “The Eve of War” (Fall 1859 to Spring 1861); “The War Years” (Spring 1861 to Spring 1865); and “The Aftermath” (Spring 1865 to Fall 1879). Each section is presented visually as an octagon shaped building with individual rooms representing specific types of records, similar to a library. A reference center, newspapers, letters and diaries and some type of map and image room are standard in each section. For example, the reference center in “The Eve of War” area provides access to valley timelines, valley databases, and a Valley Project bibliography. The timelines are very informative, showing not only what was happening in Augusta and Franklin Counties individually, but also what was occurring in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the nation as a whole. Some of the timeline events are linked to digital images of newspaper accounts of the specific event. Other “rooms” in the “Eve of War” section include 1860 statistics for the two localities, some of them comparative; church records; maps and images; letters and diaries; newspapers; and census and census and tax records. “The War Years” includes images, official records, battle maps, and soldier’s records. “The Aftermath” includes Freedmen’s Bureau Records; census and veterans records; and a section entitled “Memory of the War” which includes information about Southern Claims Commission Records, as well as published reminiscences of the war and articles on popular culture. Anyone researching in these time frames will benefit from the concatenation of images, articles and themes. As we begin our observances of the Civil War sesquicentennial, Valley of the Shadow offers an important look at the life, culture and opinions in two communities.
  • Mapping Revolutionary Boston chronicles Boston in the 1760s and 1770s just prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution and is a joint project of The Bostonian Society and the New England Arts and Architecture Program at Wellesley College (my alma mater). Begun in 2008, further work was completed in 2009 including additional historical information that was provided by history students at Wellesley and Harvard. The focal point of this site is the 1769 map of Boston drawn by William Price, entitled “A New Plan of Ye Great Town of Boston in New England and American, with the Many Additional Buildings, and New Streets…” A digitized version of this map is marked with virtual push pins. When a visitor to the site clicks on one of the pins, a vignette of life in the period appears. For example, one push pin is for the Bunch of Grapes Tavern, a popular meeting place at which were founded many organizations such as the first Freemason’s lodge in North America and the Suffolk County Bar Association. Another push pin provides information on Lydia Gregory, an orphan, who in 1767, after five years in the almshouse, entered domestic service in the home of Benjamin Austin. Mapping Revolutionary Boston provides insight into pre-Revolutionary Boston and offers teachers detailed lessons plans concerning this time period, such as navigating pre-Revolutionary Boston; taxation by the British; debate points for issues leading up to the Revolution; and daily life in colonial America.
  • Complementing Mapping Revolutionary Boston is Tories, Timid or True Blue? This site, at first glance, concerns the Old North Church (Christ Church in the City of Boston) More precisely, however, it is about the serious choices individuals faced concerning their loyalties either to the American rebels or to the British. Although developed for use with students, the site is of interest both to historians and to genealogists. Old North Church, built in 1723, was Boston’s second Anglican Church and the site of Paul Revere’s famous “one if by land, and two if by sea” warning on April 18, 1775. Although Revere was not a member of the church, he had been a bell-ringer there and was familiar with the belfry area. Revere’s selection of the church was both symbolic as it had strong ties to the British Crown, but was also pragmatic as he was conscious of the commanding views from the steeple as well as its visibility to those on the ground. The archives of Old North Church, located at the Massachusetts Historical Society, include a history of the congregation, construction documents, minutes of the vestry, proprietors’ and wardens’ meetings, vital records (baptism, marriage, and burial) and the pew rents which members of the church paid, the location of a pew indicating a family’s status in society. Tories, Timid or True Blue? portrays the dilemmas facing four members of the congregation on the eve of the Revolution, when you click on a pew highlighted in a floor plan of the church. Elizabeth Humphries, with a pew in the very last row, was head of a free black family and had been a member of the Old North Church for thirty years. Her dilemma is how to decide which side in the coming conflict – British or American – will best provide liberty and freedom to Boston’s African-American families of her era. Her decision might determine if she stayed in Boston or left the colonies for a location such as Nova Scotia. Selecting the “explore” option at the bottom of her dilemma page produces digitized images of church membership records, pew rent records and other original documents, as well as periodical articles pertaining to the Humphries family. The same page also poses questions for discussion. A second dilemma is presented by Margaret Kemble Gage, the wife of British General Thomas Gage, commander of the British forces in North America. Her pew was located in the very front of the church. On the afternoon of April 18, 1776, Margaret was aware that her husband was planning a secret raid into the Massachusetts countryside to confiscate arms from the rebels. If she were to share this information with the rebels, however, war might be avoided – but at what personal cost?  Another dilemma is represented by Mather Byles Jr., the church rector. He had been in a long correspondence with St. John’s Anglican Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to become their rector. An avowed supporter of the Crown in his sermons at Old North Church, Byles had alienated members of the church who were tilting toward the American cause following the British closure of the port of Boston has hurt their livelihoods. While tempted to make the move to Portsmouth, Byles has long ties to the church in Boston and is being pressured to make a decision.

This site explores issues affecting individuals on April 18, 1775 in a very unique manner, bringing together original documents and scholarly research to provoke thought and analysis. Lesson plans are available for teachers to download and detailed instructions for use of the site are available.

Each of the four sites outlined in this article brings historical sources and technology together in a visual and interesting manner. The ability to contrast, compare, analyze and discuss these resources, taken as a whole, provides a rich opportunity for new understanding.

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