The Valley of the Shadow Project
The Valley of the Shadow project depicts the daily life of two American communities – one in the north (Franklin County, Pennsylvania) and one in the south (Augusta County, Virginia) – before, during and after the Civil War. The project was developed by the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia, and dates all the way back to 1991, although the webpage itself went online in 1993.
The Valley of the Shadow project digitized a great number of sources and data to shed light into the day-to-day lives of the inhabitants of Franklin and Augusta from the time of John Brown’s raid (1859) through the era of Reconstruction (1865-1877). The primary research question is, as stated on the project’s webpage, to tell the forgotten stories of life during the Civil War era by giving voice to hundreds of individual people.
The project has had an immense significance for the humanities, and particularly, for the digital humanities. Not only has it received numerous endowments, grants, and awards, but it is also considered a pioneer in the early digital history. It is important to keep in mind that webpages did not exist until August 1991. The Valley of Shadow is then quite a long-lived project, and very few webpages can claim to have such a long history behind them. Its role as a pioneer in the areas of history and digital humanities opened the path for new projects and influenced and gave credibility to the digital history field. It is not in vain that Reviews in American History called the project a “milestone in American historiography.” The project’s pioneer status, however, comes with a price: the site looks and feels very outdated. In fact, the webpage seems to have been last updated in 2007 – exactly a decade ago. This lack of modern features and user-friendliness might dissuade users from exploring the incredible and unique resources the site offers.
In terms of information and sources, the Valley of the Shadow did an outstanding job. It allows users to study the Civil War, the events leading to it, and its aftermath, from a completely new perspective. The majority of times, history focuses on the big events, but ignores the impacts of these events on individual, average lives. This project, on the other hand, contains thousands of digitized primary source materials that enable users to get immersed into the daily life of Augusta and Franklin Counties’ inhabitants, and to have a palpable sense of how they lived, what they thought, and how the war affected their lives. Moreover, the statistics, maps, diaries, newspapers, official records, letters, and many other primary sources, show the immense differences that already existed between the north and the south, and can be used to study and analyze the causes and aftermath of the war at a micro-level.
The design of this project, although arguably impressive for its time, is laughably bad when compared to the sleek, minimalistic style of Web 2.0. The website does not seem to take full advantage of the visual medium and seems to fail with the visual analogy of a “digital library.” We can find written letters and diary records in the digital library presented as plain text. Clicking on any section, such as images, does not lead directly to those images but to hyperlinks to those images, with some descriptive text provided underneath. This is counterproductive as the entire point of having images is to present them, being a great detriment to the overall user experience.
Navigation can be described as nothing but unintuitive. The presence of a tutorial section for how to navigate the site and use its search engine is indicative of the site’s poor visual design, as the design of the user interface should provide all the answers for users. Although the site does have a metadata search option, its design is aesthetically unappealing, detracting from the overall user experience. Again, this can be justified when put into the context of its publication and hey-day, but remains as a point of critique from the modern view-point.
Nonetheless, the site is very accessible. The link to the project as well as its wikipedia page are the first two results of a Google search for “the Valley of the Shadow”. There are no restrictions on the viewing and use of the materials in this project, as the site itself gives credit to other projects that have used the information stored in their digital library.
Clicking the animated theater map while running an up-to-date version of the Chrome web browser downloads an html file containing lines of machine code; code that is literally meant for machines to “read”. These animated theater maps were no doubt very impressive for their time, potentially providing a major locus for user interaction, however, because we could not experience these maps, we are forced to say that the site does not have any direct user interactivity, beyond allowing users access to a library of data they can freely download and use. However, compared to other projects, such as the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, the Valley Project has no options for users to directly upload files that could be of use to the digital library.
Being one of the first digital humanities project to be put on the World Wide Web, The Valley of the Shadow project has pioneered many successful qualities that influence the field today. Entering the archive, the user is met with three interactive diagrams formatted to enhance the project’s goal of comparing a county in the north to one in the south before, during, and after the civil war. The project is labeled as an “archive database”, and rightly so. The site contains an immense amount of primary information from 1859 to 1870. The information ranges from local statistics to church and tax records to letters and diaries to maps, with everything in between. The information is connected well through extensive cataloging, which allows the multiple search functions embedded in a few of the website’s many tabs to work efficient and fast. However, the project has a few shortcomings as well. While the search engines embedded into the website work like a well oiled machine, it can take up to ten clicks from the title page to find them. The archive is almost so vast and well categorized that it begins to disinterest the user trying to sift through the various links in order to get to the actual primary content. Also, while the site only has a small percentage broken features, the overall design could use some work, but there will be more on that later.
Edward Ayers, the project’s director, decided he wanted to have an in-depth look at the north and south before, during, and after the civil war. While he had the original idea and may have been a great manager, much of the groundbreaking work attributed to this project is a result of others who worked on the project with him. Ayers and his team constructs their idea of comparing the two counties well, but leaves the argument up to the user to create. This does not necessarily mean the argument is weak. The user just needs to do more work to create and support it. The only piece of bias is their decision to choose Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania.
While the project does not have a step-by-step process of how the site was created, as a whole it is transparent like tap water. Although it takes three clicks to find the about page, it clearly displays who worked on the project and when. The page also gives a fairly in-depth overview of who helped the project by giving them space, funding, and even tech support.