Review of Digital Harlem

Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915-1930

What makes a digital history project? What things should we look for when reviewing a project like Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915-1930 (DH:EL)? The Digital Humanities community recognises that there is a need for better guidelines in the evaluation of digital scholarship and various attempts have been made to define a set of guidelines for the field. So far, these have mostly focussed on the assessment of digital scholarship for hiring, tenure and promotion processes (AHA; CDRH; MLA).  This blog post takes a slightly different approach by evaluating the quality of a digital history project in its own right. Building on the specifications proposed in this assignment eight criterion are identified upon which DH:EL will be reviewed.

Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915-1930

DH:EL is an award-winning digital history website that was developed at the University of Sydney as part of a project entitled Black Metropolis: Harlem, 1915-1930.  The primary aim is to offer a new perspective on everyday life in Harlem. Unlike most studies of Harlem in the early twentieth century, it focuses not on black artists and the black middle class, but on the lives of ordinary people.

The central component of DH:EL is a map. Using GIS technology, geographic identifiers are assigned to source material, which enables spatial visualization. The project offers a fully-searchable database and a set of pre-defined or ‘featured’ maps, which focus on particular themes (such as ‘Basketball in 1920s Harlem’).

Realisation of objectives

The funding proposal for DH:EL states that the primary aim of the project is to “produce an ethnographic study of everyday life in Harlem as it became the black capital of the world” (Research Data Australia).  The focus is on the ‘everyday’ and the project realises this objective in two ways. Firstly, it identifies and uses primary source material that gives the best ethnographic insight possible (for example newspapers, probation records, district attorney case files and the WPA Writers Program collection). Secondly, it uses GIS technologies to recreate the source material spatially at a very small scale.  By choosing to represent these sources on this scale, the project meets its primary objective.

Evidence of impact on target communities

The target community is not defined in the project but because it is made freely available, it is likely that DH:EL was intended for the general public as well as the academic community. While usage statistics are not available, the primary researcher on the project hints at low levels of usage noting that the “build it and they will come” philosophy is ill-informed (Roberston “ Putting Harlem”).

Nevertheless, DH:EL has generated considerable interest within the academic community as evidenced by various publications, presentations, seminars, reviews and other scholarship produced by the project team and others (Roberston “Blog”).  Another indication of impact is the level of high-profile recognition. In 2010 DH:EL won both the AHA Roy Rosenzweig Fellowship for Innovation in Digital History and the ALA ABS-CLIO Online History Award. 

Contribution to the discipline of Digital Humanities

These awards are indicative of how this project has contributed to the field of Digital Humanities.  As an award-winning example of digital scholarship in the humanities, DH:EL could be seen as a ‘beacon’ or ‘flagship’ project of sorts. It showcases many of the principles to which the DH community aspires, making innovative use of emerging technologies and delivering a ‘new perspective’ to a previously under-represented topic.

Measures to ensure longer-term sustainability

In 2003, DH:EL received considerable funding from the Australian Research Council and the University of Sydney but it is unclear if this funding is ongoing. The project benefits from strong links to the University of Sydney, which assures some measure of longer-term sustainability and technical support (Roberston “Blog”). The DH:EL blog helps to sustain relevancy by posting updates on the project and providing a forum for discussion. There is no technical documentation outlining how the data are being curated so it is unclear how durability has been considered by the project team.

Connections with related digital research projects

DH:EL is collaborative in that it brings together members of the Department of History and the Arts eResearch unit at the University of Sydney. There has been considerable interaction with the academic community on an international level but the website itself offers little contextualisation within the wider historical framework.  There are no links or references to similar or related research (either digital or analogue) and this means that DH:EL fails to benefit from the collaboration or inter-connectedness that digital history has the potential to offer.

Evidence of peer-review

Peer-review is a basic tenet of academic research and scholars who operate in the digital realm must seek to ensure that their work is subject to rigorous evaluation. For a digital history project, this means engaging digital experts and historians in the peer-review process.  DH:EL has successfully engaged various specialists in the academic community but a lack of technical documentation means that the peer-review process has primarily taken place without the input of digital experts.

Availability of documentation

Documentation on the creation of digital tools should be an essential appendix to every digital history project because it enables users to form critical judgements of the project itself. While links to validate CSS/XHTML are given, detailed technical documentation is not provided for DH:EL so it is impossible to review or evaluate the decisions that were made relating to, for example, the treatment of sources, the standards adopted, the methodological approach or the durability of data.

Employment of historical research techniques

Digital history projects must remember the ‘history’ element and continue to focus on traditional, intellectual historical research questions.  DH:EL succeeds in doing this. While the mapping tool is the central component, the project extends itself beyond the ‘digital tool’ to make a real contribution to the social and urban history of Harlem in the early twentieth century. It provides narratives to guide the research and allows individual users to formulate their own research questions and to think analytically and critically.


DH:EL meets most of the criteria identified in this review with the exception of ‘connectedness’ to similar research projects, and ‘availability of documentation’. Failing to provide adequate documentation is a major concern because doing so restricts our ability to critically evaluate the project and excludes the ‘digital expert’ from the peer-review process. It seems, however, that DH:EL is not alone here. Warwick et al. report that Digital Humanities projects are generally not forthcoming with appropriate documentation (Warwick). This must change.  As a meeting point for two convergent practices a digital history project must be made from ‘digital’ best practice as well as ‘history’ best practice.

Works cited
American Historical Association National Council on Public History and Organisation of American Historians Working Group on Evaluating Public History Scholarship. “Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Historian”. Journal of Digital Humanities Online-Only Journal  1.4 (2012) : n. pag. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.

Promotion & Tenure Criteria for Assessing Digital Research in the Humanities.” Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.  University of Nebraska–Lincoln, n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.

Grant, Nicholas.“Digital Harlem: Everyday Life 1915-1930 (review no. 1456).Reviews in History Online-Only Journal (2013) : n. pag. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Modern Language Association. “Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media.Journal of Digital Humanities Online-Only Journal 1.4 (2012) : n. pag. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Black Metropolis: Harlem, 1915-1930.Research Data Australia. Australian National Data Service, n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.

Robertson, Stephen. Digital Harlem Blog. University of Sydney, 2009. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Robertson, Stephen “Putting Harlem on the Map (Spring 2012 version)” Writing History in the Digital Age. A born-digital, open-review volume. Ed. Dougherty, Jack and Kristen Nawrotzki. Web. 20 Oct. 2014

Robertson, Stephen, and Shane White and Stephen Garton “Harlem in Black and White: Mapping Race and Place in the 1920s.”  Journal of Urban History  39.5 (2013): 864–880. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Rockwell, Geoffrey. “Short Guide To Evaluation Of Digital Work.Journal of Digital Humanities Online-Only Journal 1.4 (2007) : n.pag. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Warwick, Claire, and Isabel Galina and Jon Rimmer and Melissa Terras and Ann Blandford and Jeremy Gow and Georgoe Buchanan“Documentation and the users of digital resources in the humanitiesJournal of Documentation  65.1 (2013) : 33-57. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

White, Shane and Stephen Garton and Graham White and Stephen Roberston and Damien Evans and Ian Johnson and Andrew Wilson. Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915 – 1930. University of Sydney, 2007-2010. Web. 20 Oct. 2014. 


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