International award for Digital Harlem

25 February 2011

Digital Harlem.
Digital Harlem.

Digital Harlem, a website created by University of Sydney history professors and its Archaeological Computer Laboratory, has been recognised for its world-class innovation with the ABC-CLIO Online History Award.

The award is given by a division of the American Library Association, the world's largest organisation of librarians.

Digital Harlem portrays everyday life in Harlem between 1915 and 1930. Unlike most studies of 20th century Harlem, it focuses on the lives of ordinary African New Yorkers as opposed to the usual emphasis on black artists or the black middle class.

This is possible because the legal records the website was mainly created from encompass first-time offenders alongside hardened criminals and so is able to capture street life, black language, music and family life together with the role of gambling, violence and confidence men in the black community.

The website came about through a collaboration between Associate Professor Stephen Robertson, and his colleagues Professor Stephen Garton and Professor Shane White, all from the Department of History at the University of Sydney.

Professor Stephen Robertson, who worked on developing the site, said, "I had longstanding curiosity about doing something with online mapping, and since we were studying a place, it seemed like an opportunity to see what was possible."

"The technical work was done by the Archaeological Computing Laboratory (ACL) at the University of Sydney. It was only possible to pursue a map-based website because the ACL had expertise in working with Geographical Information Systems.

"Dr Damien Evans from ACL had the idea of overlaying our material and historical maps on the modern Google maps.

"This approach suited the more qualitative (rather than quantitative) reconstruction of the neighbourhood that we are doing and allowed us to make the site much more dynamic.

"There are very few map based historical sites and, none that offer the scale of information or the character of information that we do — they pluck out particular places or events whereas we reconstruct a cross-section of the places and events of ordinary people's lives and allow users the freedom to look at the information in the ways they want to.

"Between 1915 and 1930 was when large black neighbourhoods first became a feature of northern black cities, setting up the communities which would loom large in American life for the rest of the 20th century.

"Digital Harlem makes it possible to examine features of these neighbourhoods that have slipped out of the historical picture, and by mapping them, provide a greater sense of the place, of what it was like to live in the neighbourhood."

"Part of the significance of Digital Harlem is that it allows us to explore topics and questions that are difficult to address or present in printed form, or to come at them from a different angle. It provides an opportunity to visualise the material, which is simply not possible in a book.

"An example of this is how reconstructing the details of the neigbourhood's businesses revealed the continuing prominent role of whites in Harlem life - in a period when people have treated the neighbourhood as a solidly black place," Professor Robertson said.

The website maps everything from street speakers to parades, traffic accidents to basketball games, house fires to arrests for numbers - the form of gambling invented in Harlem - to recreate what it was like to live in the 'black metropolis' in this era.

Last year the website also won the American Historical Association's Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History.

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