Digital History and Houses of Worship

Jonathan Den Hartog

The definite highlight of my summer has been participating in a NEH-sponsored Summer Seminar on "Doing Digital History." It was co-led by Sharon Leon and Sheila Brennan, and RiAH's own Lincoln Mullen came in as a guest lecturer for several days. And, because of the program's commitment to openness, the resources from the seminar are all available.

The program had a number of benefits for me, including learning about many available digital tools and reflecting on the ways I could use them in both my teaching and research. Also, I could potentially show up at a ThatCamp and participate. And, I came to appreciate much more the points Lincoln Mullen was making in his posts from earlier this year (here and here).

The Seminar also exposed me to many types of digital history projects that have been done, as examples of possibilities opened up by digital tools.

To that end, I wanted to point RiAH readers to the "Houses of Worship" project housed at the University of Minnesota and headed by Jeanne H. Kilde. The project seeks to document religious sites in Minneapolis and St. Paul between 1849 and 1924.  For that period, they have identified 250 congregations and 500 sites of religious and ethnic activity, including clubs, hospitals, settlement houses, and schools.

The project does several interesting things. First, it documents the congregations and organizations, providing short descriptions of each item. In this, they make good use of records, including WPA documentation housed at the Minnesota Historical Society. Second, the visual resources are beneficial, as they connect the descriptions of many sites to images of of those sites or of their surroundings. Finally--and what I was most taken by--was the mapping of the locations to show where they were and where they stood in relation to other sites. This mapping grew even more useful as it is connected to a time-slider to demonstrate how locations changed over time.

This project strikes me as of more than just local interest. It is true that the data appealed to me, living in the Twin Cities and driving past some of these locations. But, this project should be of interest to many more people than just Minnesotans. The project helps remind us of the spatial component of lived religion (hence the need for maps!). Obviously, the interior spaces are of most importance to believers, and what counts is the spiritual matters engaged in. Yet, exterior space also matters, as buildings communicate and even bear witness to outsiders. Thus, how buildings exist in community space is an important factor, as well as how those buildings are positioned in relationship to one another.

Further, this project could inspire others to do local histories of congregations in cities and locales and to understand the relationships of congregations and groups to each other.

It's my hope that the project continues and builds out on what it has already done. The data could be expanded to track down other religious sites in the Twin Cities for the period. For instance, I think it may miss some congregations that started in the city limits and then moved to the suburbs. I am sure there are denominational and individual church archives that could help fill in gaps and provide further information. Second, it would be great to see an expansion of this data into the surrounding communities of what would become the Twin Cities to see the growth of religious expressions in the region. Third, within the site itself, it would be great to see more connection of data, to link more easily between parts of the site. Fourth, this data seems to be crying out for some interpretation, to tell a significant story with this information.

Still, I appreciate the way "Houses of Worship" forces us to think about the specificity of religious expression in congregations and organizations and the importance of space and place for religious history.


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