A review of Digitizing Rochester's Religions, a public history project on religious communities in Rochester, New York, directed by Margarita S. Guillory and Daniel Gorman, Jr.
Digitizing Rochester's Religions
Jonathan D. Lawrence, Canisius College
Daniel Gorman, Jr.
Note: This overview is adapted from Margarita S. Guillory and Daniel Gorman, Jr.’s essay “About the Project,” introductory materials on the Digitizing Rochester’s Religions website, and Gorman’s H-Net announcement for the project.
Supervised by Margarita S. Guillory, Digitizing Rochester’s Religions (DDR) sheds light on Rochester, New York’s religious history. We draw on digital humanities technologies to build on the example set by digital religion projects such as Sacred Gotham. DRR covers Rochester’s religious development after the end of the Burned-over era (1800–1850), charting the city’s religious evolution from 1850 to the 2010s. We provide new historical essays written by University of Rochester (UR) undergraduate and graduate students, an archive of digitized primary sources from multiple religious sites in Rochester, and supplementary materials intended for researchers and teachers. DRR further serves as a successful example of project-based learning; students produced the project’s content and developed transferable research skills through independent studies, lecture courses, and paid research assistantships.
As this is a pilot project, DRR does not tell the story of every religion or religious site in Rochester. Instead, it focuses on religious sites from the city’s southwest quadrant. The essays comprising the core of DRR span Rochester’s development as an industrial hub, its increased racial and ethnic diversity in the 1900s, and its decline due to deindustrialization and white flight from the 1960s onward. As the city became impoverished and deeply segregated, Rochester religious organizations became instrumental in providing social services and advocating for change.
The DRR website runs on WordPress 5.0 and is currently stored on Rochester’s Digital Scholar platform. ArcGIS, Box, FFmpeg, Google Drive, Handbrake, Homebrew, ImageMagick, and Omeka were used at different stages of the project. Specialized hardware included a Blackmagic Intensity Shuttle, a Digital Transitions Phase One Camera Set-Up, an Epson Expression 11000XL Photo Scanner, and a Knowledge Imaging Center BookEdge Scanner.
Margarita S. Guillory (now at Boston University) created and supervised the project. UR undergraduates Madeline Blackburn, Sophia McRae, Sarah Ogunji, Seyvion Scott, and Courtney Thomas, Jr., and graduate student Daniel Gorman, Jr. researched and wrote the website’s content. Gorman served as website editor after Guillory left. Undergraduates Adrian Remnant and Cole Summers contributed content to DRR through a 2019 summer history course taught by Gorman.
The UR Digital Scholarship Lab (DSL) provided invaluable technical support. DSL staff who contributed to DRR include Nora Dimmock, Emily Sherwood, Clara Auclair, Jim Barbero, Joe Easterly, Josh Romphf, Blair Tinker, and Lisa Wright. Staff from the UR Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation who contributed to DRR include Miranda Mims, Anna Siebach-Larsen, Jessica Lacher-Feldman, Esther Arnold, Melissa Mead, Melinda Wallington, and Elizabeth Call. We are grateful for the support and input of Rochester community members, notably Walter Cooper; Constance Mitchell; Brother Antonios the Shenoudian; Pastor Ruth Sisson; Minister Kenneth Muhammad, Sr.; Connie Derby, R.S.M.; Fr. Raymond Fleming; and John E. Curran.
DRR is intended as a reference for historians and religionists studying the former Burned-over District. It publicizes and supplements, but does not replace, physical archives held in Rochester. The website’s digitized sources are intended for classroom use, as they showcase written records, material culture, and audiovisual materials produced by urban religious organizations. Project essays were written for a broad public audience, consisting of researchers as well as members of Rochester’s religious congregations. DRR’s Twitter account (@DigitizingR), an H-Net announcement, and an announcement in the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center newsletter helped publicize the project.
A UR PumpPrimer II (PPII) grant, which Guillory received in June 2017, funded DRR for the 2017–18 academic year. The Andrew W. Mellon Digital Humanities Fellowship, which Gorman received in summer 2019, provided financial support and digital humanities training, enabling DRR’s completion in the 2019–20 academic year. DRR was presented at the 2020 Connecticut Digital Humanities conference (CTDH 2020) at Trinity College and the 2020 DHSI Virtual Conference & Colloquium. It was accepted to the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations’ DH 2020 conference but was not presented, due to COVID-19. Additionally, Ryan Reft interviewed Gorman about DRR for the Urban History Association’s blog The Metropole in August 2020.
Jonathan D. Lawrence
Digitizing Rochester’s Religions is a public history project exploring religious communities in the southwestern neighborhoods of the city of Rochester, NY. This project was started by Margarita S. Guillory and Daniel Gorman, Jr. at the University of Rochester. Students in their courses profiled historic religious organizations and provided links to electronic media related to those sites. The current project website serves as a pilot project, demonstrating how faculty and their students could collaborate on digital scholarship about religion.
This project seeks to study urban religious organizations, examine current and historic religious sites, and document the development of religion in the region after the end of the Second Great Awakening (1800-1850). The researchers argue that the early religious diversity of the area continued after the Second Great Awakening and into the 20th century, influenced in part by the city’s racial diversity and the arrival of new groups of immigrants.
One compelling section of the website contains profiles of fourteen religious groups, along with two historical essays about the city and neighborhoods located near the University of Rochester. The profiles include maps of the organization’s location, information about the group’s present situation and their history, and relevant photos. Additional sections provide access to digitized photos from the archives of the various organizations along with videos from some of the organizations. Another engaging section offers an interactive digital map showing the location of the organizations studied on a contemporary map with superimposed historical maps from earlier periods. The website also includes information about the college courses connected to the project, relevant archival materials in the library at the University of Rochester, and suggestions for additional reading.
The website is built in WordPress, with images hosted on the site and videos hosted on YouTube and embedded in the site. The interactive map was built and hosted in ArcGIS. Together, these materials offer a useful glimpse into the history of the different organizations and the broader history of religious groups in Rochester and the surrounding area. After Guillory moved to a new institution, the materials that had previously been collected were prepared for inclusion in the website but the project has not been expanded beyond the initial focus on a single section of the city. However, the project directors offer suggestions for how the project could be expanded to include the entire city and wider region. They also provide examples of projects in Rochester and other locations that served as models for this project.
The project website contains a wide range of materials about religion in Rochester, NY and is easy to navigate. It also contains extensive data about how the project was conducted, how the images and videos were produced, and about the funding and resources that supported the project. Thus, it is not only an excellent source of information about religion and Rochester but also serves as an example of how similar digital humanities projects may be undertaken.