Stephanie McGavin

HST 303

When my history professor went through the syllabus on the first day of class, his brief explanation of our “digital research project” (which was worth a pretty hefty percentage of our final grade) didn’t make too much sense.

But he didn’t just expect us to put the project due date in our planners and turn it in at the end of the semester. He actually took us to the LEADR Lab every few weeks to figure out exactly what we were doing, and more importantly, why digital archiving is so important.

There were a few key elements we needed to make this a good research project -- and a couple more to make it a digital one. The first: Primary sources. The first thing we learned in the LEADR Lab, other than the staff’s names, was how to track primary documents and sources down in the library, which has become an online search.

As a journalism major, this is where I translated my history class into journalism themes to better understand it.

The importance of using a primary source in research is the equivalent of using an affected source in journalism. People who are affected by an event can share their opinions or feelings on it. It’s important for readers to be able to relate to the story. It’s especially important in giving a story (or research paper) some color.

Along with these sources, however, it’s important to have subject experts who won’t interject an opinion into articles. They know the facts alone and that’s what makes them credible. This translated to my research project as using other professional research journals or articles.

After documents came pictures. A woman from the museum came to the LEADR Lab to talk to us about the importance of visual aides in reading. The way people and places were portrayed in art conveys attitudes of the time. It also is more stimulating to break up text with interesting images that help put the reader in the time period. In journalism, this is pretty much summed up as, “People hardly read anymore. Always put pictures in your articles. Always.”

Finally, I had to decide what I wanted to do my project on. One of the things I loved most here was the ability to research whatever I was interested in, as long as it fit in the timeframe we were studying. I’m a little bit of an economics fanatic, and I wanted to track the move of the Unites States from an agrarian society to an industrialized one, because what follows is a new kind of economy. And I found that transition fascinating.

I decided to study the impacts of the Erie Canal on changing the U.S. economy, and from that, the tensions it created between a manufacturing North and a plantation South.

After months of research came the actual digital part of the project. The staff at the LEADR Lab worked with students on how they wanted to present their research: timelines, maps or photo- or text-based websites.

What truly made this a “digital” research project was the fact that we needed to think deeper and more creatively than in writing a five-page paper. We also had to actually interact with our research by formatting and designing it in our online programs, and we knew that it would be permanently archived.

On our final day of class, we took the time to present all of our projects -- and I don’t know if everyone happened to be a technology wizard, but the projects looked spectacular. The best part is nearly everyone genuinely cared, and could explain in-depth, what they had been working on over the course of the semester.

History is interesting to everyone if they can take from it what interests them. The fact that I studied the cultural and economic impacts of a transportation system, and managed to created my own website for it, doesn’t sound like a history class. But that’s exactly what it is -- an independent history lesson in the modern age.

Check out our class projects at: http://leadr.msu.edu/projects/spring-2015/union-to-disunion/