Digital Summer School: Digitizing Rochester’s Religions

Religion has often been a central force in urban America, particularly in the twentieth century. For example, by 1940 Los Angeles exhibited a “multiplicity and diversity of faiths…that probably cannot be duplicated in any other city on earth,” noted the authors of the WPA guide to Los Angeles. L.A.’s religious diversity included Buddhism, Catholicism, Judaism, mainline Protestantism, the occult, and perhaps most famously evangelicalism. Pentecostalism’s roots sprouted in L.A. as part of the Azusa Street Revival in the first decades of the twentieth century. While Los Angeles helped to popularize the evangelical strain of Christianity, its birthplace, one might argue, began on the opposite side of the country decades earlier. During the nineteenth century upstate New York functioned as the epicenter of the Second Great Awakening, a precursor to the evangelicalism that would become so popular during the twentieth century. Yet, while the Second Great Awakening proved influential, less attention has been paid to the trajectory and diversity of religion in the region since the famed nineteenth century movement, which is where the digital humanities project Digitizing Rochester’s Religions (DRR) stepped into the void (on Twitter, @DigitizingR) . Initially established by University of Rochester professor Margarita Guillory and now run by University of Rochester PhD candidate and Andrew W. Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow, Daniel Gorman Jr., DRR has created an online religious cartography for the city and region.

Digitizing Rochester’s Religions (DRR) grew out of an undergraduate course at the University Rochester and in dialogue with other projects such as Sacred Gotham (about New York City) and “Encountering Old Faiths in New Places” (also about Rochester). How did these three things converge such that you established DRR?

Daniel Gorman Jr. (DG): Well, I didn’t establish DRR. Dr. Margarita Guillory, who taught at Rochester from 2011–18 and now teaches at Boston University, launched the project. DRR was her idea, and she obtained the grant that funded the project. I started working on the project during an independent study (2016) and became a research assistant (2017–18). Five undergraduate researchers — Madeline Blackburn, Sophia McRae, Sarah Ogunji, Seyvion Scott, and Courtney Thomas Jr. — worked on DRR in 2017–18. The staff of UR’s Digital Scholarship Lab, led by Dr. Nora Dimmock and later Dr. Emily Sherwood, and the Rare Books Department, then led by Jessica Lacher-Feldman, provided invaluable support. After Dr. Guillory moved to B.U., the project couldn’t expand further, so Dr. Guillory authorized me to publish the existing content (2018–20). My summer 2019 course on new religious movements produced additional material for the site, thanks to the efforts of undergraduates Adrian Remnant and Cole Summers. DRR in its current form is a pilot project featuring stories from religious sites in the southwest quadrant of Rochester.

Dr. Guillory was interested in digital religion in two senses — religious activity that occurs virtually, but also the potential of digital technology to study lived religious experience. Her course on digital religion explored both of these meanings. Students learned about forms of online religious activity, and they produced digital reports about Rochester-based religious organizations. Dr. Courtney Bender’s Sacred Gotham influenced the reports because Gotham demonstrated the potential of digital technology to map urban religious sites. Using mapping software, scholars can display religious landscapes and demographics in an interactive way. Sacred Gotham also showed how the team-based structure of a classroom — many students canvassing a wide terrain, instead of one researcher toiling away — could yield a collaborative project. Dr. Guillory’s vision for DRR, building on the Gotham model, was to provide a map of Rochester religious sites, historical and ethnographic essays, primary source galleries, and audiovisual materials.

I learned about David H. Day’s “Encountering Old Faiths” late in the project, while assembling the website. Day’s project was much like Sacred Gotham — primarily ethnographic, showcasing the religious diversity of a city and featuring content produced by students. “Encountering Old Faiths” was affiliated with Harvard’s Pluralism Project, which promotes religious literacy. Including “Encountering Old Faiths” in DRR’s introduction mattered for two reasons. First, Day’s students mapped Rochester religious sites a decade before we did. Second, citing “Encountering Old Faiths,” as well as Sacred Gotham, is good scholarly practice. You should cite your antecedents and explain how your work fits into the landscape of existing scholarship. Citing digital projects conveys that these websites are acts of scholarship, not novelty projects. They deserve to be taken seriously and included in academic discussions alongside books and journals.[1]

Though you draw on the above projects, you decided to move away from their more ethnographic approach for a more historical methodology. Why?

DG: As a scholar of material religion, Dr. Guillory wanted to convey the physical presence of religion in Rochester’s history. Ethnography was certainly a part of the project: Researchers went into the Rochester community, visited religious organizations, and learned about their practices. Yet highlighting the importance of religion in Rochester’s development required augmenting ethnography — detailing how religion exists in the present — with history — documenting how religion evolved in Rochester over time. The historical approach allowed the project to publicize church lore and stories, which might not have come through if we focused only on religious practices of the present moment.

Dr. Guillory designed DRR as a work of community-centered scholarship. We approached religious organizations, got to know their members, and negotiated what materials or stories they were willing to share with the public. Part of the process was helping those religious organizations to preserve their stories and artifacts. This wasn’t going to be a case of scholars dropping in, extracting data, and leaving. St. Monica Roman Catholic Church, for example, received copies of the files we scanned from its archive, and I worked with the Diocese of Rochester to put backup copies on the diocesan server.

There is one caveat to our community work that I want to acknowledge. Since the funded phase of the project ended early, we didn’t get to develop relationships with two congregations we planned to profile — the New Progressive Cathedral and Glory to Glory Christian Fellowship. These congregations are located in former Catholic churches that were already being profiled in DRR. So I wrote the Cathedral and Glory to Glory essays using publicly available documents instead of archival materials or new interviews.

Finally, the DRR website publicizes the archives, architecture, and material culture that local religious organizations have preserved over time. Such cultural heritage objects aren’t typically catalogued in resources like Archive Grid and WorldCat, unless the owner is affiliated with an archive or library. We hope our work will encourage scholars to contact community organizations, whether in Rochester or other cities, and launch their own projects about overlooked archives.

Clearly, Bruce Lincoln’s work, specifically his definition of religion, has served as an influence on DRR. What does Lincoln understand about or the idea of religion that engaged the project?  

DG: Bruce Lincoln’s definition of religion is helpful because it is multi-faceted. Lincoln defines a religion as a discourse, set of practices, community, and institution.[2] This definition combines functional, ideological, and material aspects of religion. It encourages researchers to take an expansive view of what a religion can be, instead of fitting religious data to narrow criteria. Since we structured DRR around a geographic component — how religion is practiced in particular urban locations — we determined that the sites we studied should have at least two of Lincoln’s four criteria. Actually, I think you can observe discourse(s), practices/rituals, communities, and institutional development at every religious site we surveyed.

Has DRR given you any special insight into the role of religion in American life or into that of Western New York particularly after its role in the Second Great Awakening?

Yes. DRR shows that Western New York continued to display remarkable religious diversity and activity after the revivals of the Second Great Awakening (circa 1800–50) ended. The project points toward a more complex story of religion in Western New York, incorporating religions other than Spiritualism, Mormonism, and evangelicalism, which have been the traditional focus of scholars. The website’s essays convey the religious growth of Rochester as it grew into a major manufacturing hub. Once the city began to suffer from deindustrialization and white flight in the 1960s, religious organizations stepped up their social ministries to support urban residents. This thesis is discussed further in the project introduction and is evident in all of the essays that the project researchers wrote.

What role do the home movies play on the site? How do they interact with other aspects of DRR?

DG: Publishing the movies on the website serves two purposes — data preservation and public access. Parishioners had previously transferred the home movies from St. Monica Church, spanning the early 1930s to the mid-1950s, from film reels to VHS and DVD. The closing Masses for St. Augustine Church, Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, and Ss. Peter and Paul had been burned to DVD. Using Handbrake, we copied the DVDs to digital files and compressed them for streaming. DRR’s website preserves the films in case of disc deterioration and makes them available to a wider audience. We didn’t have the budget to conserve the original film reels, but at least we could preserve the information contained in those reels. Additionally, a promotional film for Ss. Peter and Paul was only on VHS, so we used a Blackmagic Intensity Shuttle to convert the analog signals into digital files. I think we copied the tapes at the right moment, before they degraded further.

The software we used — Handbrake for DVD transcoding; FFmpeg for audio processing and compression — is free. The Blackmagic shuttle, the one piece of specialized hardware we used, was available in the Digital Scholarship Lab. It’s also relatively cheap. Audiovisual data migration isn’t prohibitively expensive anymore, so that makes media archaeology accessible to more people.

Putting the films online also preserves the parishioners’ labor that went into making these films. And they’re fun to watch.

Over time, many great digital projects begin to age as the Internet remains eternally spry, a point you indirectly reference in your discussion of “Encountering Old Faiths in New Places,” on the site. How do you think about format, design, and sustainability as a virtual project?

DG: We used for our content management system instead of designing a custom website. WordPress’s regular updates reduce the odds of things breaking on the backend. We chose a simple web template — a static background, a menu at the top of the page — because it was easy to build and is easy to navigate. The site may not provide a fancy user experience, so its visual aesthetic may age quickly, but it works for our purposes. The availability of web templates and CMS platforms like WordPress and Omeka makes web design available to humanities classrooms in a way it wasn’t a decade ago.

Our priority in terms of sustainability was backing up all of the data we produced or acquired. Rebuilding a website is tedious, but it can be done so long as you save the content. We used Box to back up our files in the University’s server space; we gave St. Monica Church, the repository holding most of the files we scanned, an external hard drive; and we put additional backups on the diocesan server.

I have saved every website post or page update in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. This way, I can prove that the site existed if this iteration goes offline. The Wayback Machine’s permalinks provide stable citations for scholars. Of course, that only works if the Internet Archive stays in business!

First Universalist Church, South Clinton Avenue & Court Street, Rochester, Monroe County, NY (after 1933). Claude F. Bragdon, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

In an era of pandemic, what do sites like DRR mean to the field? Considering the long discussion in academia regarding the value of the digital humanities toward hiring and tenure, it would seem an increasingly relevant question.

DG: DRR is an example of successful project-based learning in the humanities (specifically, history and religion). A website like DRR, produced by students under faculty supervision, enables students to produce and publish scholarship, even if it is not peer-reviewed. Students learn about project management by keeping track of their data, interviewing community stakeholders, navigating archives, and acquiring the digital skills necessary to complete their projects. I am enthusiastic about the potential of digital and public history courses to give students transferable skills and publications they can list in their CVs. Thanks to the availability of free platforms like WordPress, students and teachers can create meaningful, public-facing projects despite the closure of schools. I would expect an explosion of digital projects over this next year of the pandemic.

As for hiring and tenure, digital humanities scholars have argued for the past decade that digital projects should count toward tenure portfolios. I agree, but I’m not sure that has led to tenure committees crediting digital scholarship. Too often, it seems, committees weigh digital scholarship less than journal articles and books, even though academic publications frequently appear online before they are in print. Perhaps the stigma has less to do with format than the fact that many digital humanities projects do not go through peer review. If that’s the case, then professional associations like the American Historical Association should develop criteria for reviewing digital projects and establish channels through which digital projects can request reviewer feedback.

Do you ever dream of a day a prospective graduate student uses solely digital archives like DRR, to complete their graduate studies? If so what’s the name of said grad student’s dissertation?

Personally, I don’t. Digital archives are important — they publicize archival holdings, they enable public engagement, and they reduce travel costs for researchers, especially early-career and independent scholars. All the humanists I know are relying on remote access to archives during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the librarians and digital specialists I’ve spoken to stress the financial costs of scanning, storing, and preserving electronic files over the long term. Those costs are challenging for large cultural institutions, never mind small ones, and I fear that all cultural institutions are going to cut costs because of COVID-19. Keeping physical files is simply cheaper than keeping a large-scale digital archive.

In a perfect world, cultural institutions would grow their digital footprints as we enter the 2020s and the mobile Internet proliferates. Instead, I worry that COVID-19 will cause cultural institutions to shrink their digital repositories. I think virtual programming and the publication of online teaching modules will continue apace. A one-time stream and a few PDFs don’t require much computer storage. But large virtual archives may become less common if institutions can’t afford the server space and I.T. support. Further advances in digital storage could reverse this trend. If storage costs go down, then digital archival growth could continue.

There’s something to be said for sifting through an archive and putting a sample of files online, instead of dumping everything online. For example, the DRR files from St. Monica represent a portion of that church’s archive. More material — financial documents, photos, unprocessed papers, etc. — is onsite. We could have scanned more files, but that would have required extra labor, and the files would have used more of the DRR website’s data limit. Some of those files aren’t that interesting. I don’t think the average visitor to the site wants to read account books. A graduate student researching church economics might want to see those files, however. So I think visits to analog archives can and should continue. A really good digital archive should make researchers more eager to visit the analog archive.

My last objection to a 100% virtual dissertation or book project comes down to preference. I’m a historian; I like hardcopy books and boxes of paper. There is something unique about visiting an archive and accessing analog files. It’s like shelf browsing in a regular library. You can imitate shelf browsing with the new virtual catalogs, which list the items on either side of the title you’re viewing, but it’s not the same as walking down an aisle and seeing books next to each other. This holds true for archives. Looking at virtual files is not the same as sitting down with a box of folders, reviewing the original documents, and thinking about the arrangement and placement of the files. Material culture scholars often cite Jules Prown’s idea of empathy — the sensory input from handling papers and artifacts. I think Prown was correct to value that process.

Daniel Gorman Jr. is a history PhD candidate and an Andrew W. Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow at the University of Rochester. He received his MA from Villanova University and is an alumnus of the Beinecke Scholarship. His dissertation studies the cultural debates surrounding Spiritualism in the mid-nineteenth century.

Featured image (at top): The Lower Falls of the Genesee River, one of only 33 rivers in the world that flow north, in Rochester, New York. Observers note that these falls would be quite scenic in a rural setting, but their attractiveness is diminished in a busy downtown setting (August 2018). Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

[1] The Arguing with Digital History working group elaborates on this theme in the white paper “Digital History and Argument,” pages 2 and 9 [edited by Stephen Robertson and Lincoln Mullen, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, November 13, 2017,,].

[2] Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 5–7. See page 5 for“discourse,” page 6 for “set of practices” and “community,” and page 7 for the full quote of “an institution…”

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