The Valley of the Shadow

The Story Behind the Valley Project

The Valley Project began with a proposal written by Edward L. Ayers in September 1991. Originally conceived as a traditional book, Ayers wanted to deal with both the North and the South in a comparative story. Intending to examine two places close to the border between the North and the South to see how people in such proximity and similarity went to war, he studied maps and guides to military units and indexes of newspapers to find two areas centrally involved in the Civil War from start to finish. It did not take long to see that two places stood out: Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania.
Computers were not a part of the Valley of the Shadow concept at the very beginning, but it soon became apparent that they offered a powerful new way to approach the project. Ayers planned to weave together the small details of life in the communities during the Civil War using letters, diaries, memoirs, census records, church records, government records, battle reports, speeches, and newspapers. Ayers hoped that piecing together the disparate details of people's everyday experience would reveal the underlying patterns of life during the Civil War era, and computers seemed especially suited for the type of work the Valley Project would require.
The Valley Project became one of two founding projects that established the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH), a center dedicated to using information technology as a tool for humanities research, at the University of Virginia. With IATH, the Valley Project produced a demonstration project for IBM that pitched the project "as a research library in a box, enabling students at places without a large archive to do the same kind of research as a professional historian." IBM donated a number of powerful workstations, a server, and a technical advisor. Just as important, the University of Virginia library donated space to build the institute.
With this "advanced technology," the Valley team began the seemingly endless task of collecting, transcribing, and converting original source material into computer readable files with a few hours of work-study graduate students. In the summer of 1993 Anne Rubin, a graduate student who had arrived at UVa after her studies at Princeton, came on board and soon took the lead in converting the nineteenth-century newspapers into Standard General Markup Language (SGML) on an IBM workstation, as well as directing the efforts of other Valley Project graduate research-assistants.
In the fall of 1993 Thornton Staples, associate director of IATH and the person responsible for building our earliest prototypes, showed us Mosaic, a new tool for viewing something its creator called the World Wide Web. It was immediately apparent that everything had changed for our digital project. Now we could see much more easily how to construct an archive online; our material--images, databases, and all--need not wait for years to be disseminated but could be shared even as we gathered it. The archive could reach anywhere in the world people could tie into the internet, a network expanding exponentially. And, to our great fortune, the World Wide Web was built around something its creator called HTML, Hypertext Markup Language--a subset of the SGML we had already adopted as the basic structure of our work at IATH. We would be able to build a "site," as they called it, for this new web with relative ease.

Page 1 | Page 2

Return to Full Valley Archive