Archive for the ‘Presentations’ Category

CollectionsAsDatalogo_720-300x151Stephen Robertson will be speaking about Digital Harlem at Collections as Data: IMPACT symposium at the Library of Congress, on July 25, 2017, in a talk entitled “Data in Place: Using Digital Harlem to map historical sources.”

The event will be live-streamed, and recordings of the presentations will be available on YouTube.


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Cross-posted from drstephenrobertson.com

On March 19, 2016, I participated in the Working Group on Interpreting the History of Race Riots and Racialized Mass Violence in the Context of “Black Lives Matter,” at the National Council on Public History Conference, in Baltimore.

Prior to the meeting, members of the Working Group contributed short posts on their projects to a group blog; my post can be found here. The post is a very preliminary account of my ongoing work mapping the events of March 19 and 20, 1935, in Harlem. Further research in the records of the Mayor’s Commission and the scrapbooks in Mayor LaGuardia’s Papers, and in La Prensa‘s coverage of the riot (kindly shared with me by Lorrin Thomas) has already turned up additional information that I need to add to this map.

The Working Group site also contains blogs on a range of other fascinating projects on the history of radicalized mass violence in the US.

Below is the slide I used in my lightning talk at the Working Group session in Baltimore


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Bryn-Mawr-conference-300x48On May 21, I am presenting a paper entitled “Putting Women on the Map: Gender and Everyday Life in 1920s Harlem” at the Women’s History in the Digital World Conference at Bryn Mawr College


This paper focuses on Digital Harlem, an award winning web-based geospatial digital history project on everyday life in the 1920s, to explore how visualizing evidence can provide a way of making meaning of the often fragmentary sources available to historians of women.

Digital mapping offers a means of visualizing historical sources that highlights the spatial dimensions of the past, and can offer a different perspective on particular places. It is not just that mapped sources are seen in their geographical context. Location provides a basis for integrating material from a wide range of disparate sources, and incorporating and organizing material that historians typically treat as ephemera, or pass over it as too sparse or fragmentary to support an analysis. Layers of different data, and hence large quantities of data, can be combined on a single map, providing an image of the complexity of the past. Examining those maps can reveal spatial relationships that prompt questions and facilitate comparisons that a researcher might otherwise not have considered.

Digital Harlem employs digital mapping to explore everyday life in the 1920s. It incorporates material from almost three thousand felony cases files from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, and hundreds of pages of black newspapers, which were mined for every event or place for which an address was given. Men dominate those sources, but they also contain a rich range of fragmentary material on women. Women are less often accused of crimes, and thus the focus of legal records, than men, but they are present as witnesses and victims of crime. If you look beyond the major news stories and editorial pages, women appear far more often in black newspapers than in legal records: in reports of church and fraternal orders, on social pages, sports pages, and in advertisements.

Mapping these sources goes someway towards makes it possible to see the gendered nature of waged work, business, home life, leisure, and criminal activity and victimization, to juxtapose the experiences of men and women to highlight the distinctive aspects of women’s lives in Harlem.

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Sawyer-300x138On April 24, 2015, I’m presenting a paper entitled “What Was Life Like in 1920s Harlem?” at the Sawyer Seminar on The Ghetto: Concept, Conditions, and Connections in Transnational Historical Perspective, from the 11th Century to the Present, hosted by the Center for African American Urban Studies and the Economy, at Carnegie Mellon University.

A chapter based on this presentation has now been published.

Look out for new blog posts using content from this talk, on topics ranging from childcare in Harlem, to the YMCA and YWCA, to social clubs, and summer camps!


Gilbert Osofsky’s classic study of the early years of African American settlement in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood bears the subtitle, “The Making of a Ghetto.” It offers an unrelentingly negative picture of overcrowded residences that fostered disease, juvenile delinquency and family dissolution, poverty resulting from limited employment opportunities and low wages, and violence and vice encouraged by police neglect. Osofsky views Harlem from a distance, in terms of aggregates and patterns: the average number of lodgers in a household; rates of disease; lists of occupations. By contrast, a subsequent and still growing generation of scholarship focused on the Harlem Renaissance offers portraits of the lives of a small group of writers and intellectuals and the cabarets and parties they frequented. These studies offer rich accounts of Harlem’s high culture, but offer little sense of the lived experience of the mass of residents, or of aspects of the neighborhood, such as streetlife, religion, and sports, that loomed large in their lives.

This paper will use the award-winning web site Digital Harlem to explore the lived experience of the population of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. I will focus in particular on the extent to which residents lives confined to the ghetto, and within its bounds, tracing the rhythms of everyday life on different times of the day, week and year, and examine how those experiences are reshaped the Depression. The map-based interface of Digital Harlem enables a multi-scalar spatial analysis, one which zooms from a citywide perspective into the neighborhood and down to the individual places, to see the relationship between places, and to trace movement through the city.

The sources for this project include more than four thousand cases from the files of the District Attorney and Probation Department, and hundreds of pages of black newspapers, supplemented with a range of other published and archival material, including the records of the anti-prostitution organization the Committee of Fourteen, the Bedford Hills prison for women, the WPA Writers’ Program, and census schedules. Working with a geospatial database makes it possible to include and organize material from these sources that historians typically pass over it as too sparse or fragmentary to support an analysis: material from newspapers such society columns, sports reports, news from churches and fraternal organizations, and advertisements; and every offense, not just a particular crime or group of crimes, from the legal records, and information on victims and witnesses as well as offenders, on the nature of the crime’s location, and on the circumstances in which it occurred, which ranged from card games to shopping trips.

With my collaborators Shane White and Stephen Garton, I have been analyzing interwar Harlem for almost a decade, producing, in addition to Digital Harlem, a book, four articles, three book chapters and thirty-seven presentations on life in the neighborhood. That scholarship focuses on particular aspects of everyday life – numbers gambling, interactions with whites, privacy, family life, and confidence tricks. This paper will weave those threads together with topics such as work, public transport, shopping, sports, parades and fraternal lodges, to highlight the movement of residents within and beyond Harlem, and to reconsider the relationship between residence and daily life in understanding lived experience in the ghetto.

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UHA Logo

I’ll be discussing Digital Harlem as part of my contribution to this roundtable:

Roundtable at the Urban History Association Biennial Conference, Philadelphia, October 10, 2014

Chair and Moderator: LaDale Winling, Virginia Tech


  • Colin Gordon, University of Iowa
  • Susan Lawrence, Ohio State University
  • Stephen Robertson, George Mason University, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media
  • J. Mark Souther, Cleveland State University, Center for Public History and Digital Humanities

Since the 2008 publication of the Journal of American History’s Interchange “The Promise of Digital History,” the landscapes of print publishing, research methods, teaching resources, funding streams, and expectations of how to communicate digitally have changed dramatically.  Scholars have developed a robust ecosystem of digital history projects, especially in urban history, while digital methods and tools continue to gain traction within the profession.  Digital research and communication opportunities increasingly inform scholars’ interpretive frameworks, which reflects back on demand for digital tools, beginning to form an iterative feedback process between digital methods and scholarly inquiry in may seem an accelerating process.

Several urban historians, however, have been involved in the digital realm for significant portions of their careers.  This roundtable will draw upon the insights of some of the most experienced digital urban historians in discussion about digital topics increasingly central to the profession.   These will include the life cycles of digital projects, the changing value of tools and platforms, the role of digital skills and tools in training undergraduate and graduate students for research, and the value of digital work in building a career as a historian.

By offering the long view of the digital turn, this roundtable seeks to distinguish the signal from the noise, in the words of a recent work on data-driven analysis. What are the enduring values of digital research and publishing for historians, what are the greatest advantages and pitfalls of digital history for scholars of the urban realm?  What remains of the promise of digital history?

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On April 1, I’ll be giving two talks on Digital Harlem at the University of Pennsylvania.


Behind the Scenes at Digital Harlem

Tools-and-Techniques in the Digital Humanities, Digital Humanities Forum
TIME: 12:30-2:00pm
LOCATION: Penn Library

Digital Harlem is one of the earliest digital history projects to use Google Maps to visualize a range of historical sources, with the particular goal of exploring everyday life in the most famous black neighborhood of the 1920s. In this talk Stephen Robertson will discuss the process that produced the site, highlighting the contingencies, choices and failures that shaped the project, as well as the ways that Digital Harlem does not conform to the commonly held picture of large digital humanities projects.


The Differences Digital Mapping Made: Thinking Spatially about Race and Sexuality in 1920s Harlem

Richard Shryock Lecture in American History
TIME: 4:30pm
LOCATION: 209 College Hall

Digital Mapping, like the use of other digital tools, raises questions rather than provides answers. In the case of Digital Harlem, some of those questions concern the character of the neighborhood’s nightlife and residences, and where individuals spent their time. The answers to those questions reveal that homes provided more privacy than reformers recognized, allowing residents to engage in a wide range of sexualities. At the same time, outside the home, black residents regularly encountered whites, whose presence throughout the neighborhood made interracial encounters and conflicts an everyday feature of life in the nation’s most famous ‘black metropolis.’

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Digital Harlem Talks

In December 2012 & January 2013, I will be giving a series of talks on Digital Harlem in the US & UK:



“Digital Harlem,” Center for Cultural Analysis, Rutgers University,  December 11, 2012



“Mapping Everyday Life: Digital Harlem, 1915-1930,” Digital History Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, January 8, 2013


Royal Holloway

“Digital Harlem: Researching and Mapping Everyday Life in 1920s Harlem,” Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London, January 9, 2013



“Harlem in Black and White: Mapping Race and Place in the 1920s,” Department of American and Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham, January 14, 2013



“Joining the Crowd: Connecting a Digital History Project to the Web,”  Data – Asset – Method Network Workshop – So you think you’re an expert?, University of Nottingham, January 15, 2013


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