A Primer on Primary Sources: The Exquisite Collection of the Valley Project

Elizabeth Fealey

During my preliminary research on a potential topic for this project, I stumbled across an amazing resource. While reading the Wikipedia article on “Digital Humanities” I discovered the link to The Valley of the Shadow, a very comprehensive digital resource from the University of Virginia. I had intended to merely browse the site to familiarize myself with the concept of “digital humanities” but could not tear myself away. After ten minutes, I was hooked.
I have reviewed the project, its history, the features that make it unique as well as the technology behind those features. For added perspective, I consulted a couple of reviews of the site to temper my enthusiasm (or, at times, qualify it) and provide a critical lens for potential researchers.

History of The Valley of the Shadow
The Valley of the Shadow (the Valley Project) details life in two American communities during the era of the Civil War—from its early rumblings, to its roaring battles, and through the heartbreak and healing of Reconstruction. The site paints a vivid picture of the lives of everyday citizens through an expansive digital collection of primary resources—from newspaper articles, personal journals, sketches, maps, and even textiles, this site weaves a comprehensive portrait of the past.
The project began as a book idea in 1991. The founder, Edward L. Ayers, wrote a proposal for a project that would deal with both northern and southern communities in a comparative manner. Though computer technology was not initially part of the project proposal, it soon became apparent to Ayers that the power offered by technology would be a boon to his project. Ayers was dealing with so much detailed information—computers would help him compare and combine that information in different ways with relative ease. As one of the two founding projects that established the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH), the Valley Project was able to successfully secure a large donation from IBM in the form of workstations, computers, a server, and a technical advisor.
Shortly after being introduced to the World Wide Web, the Valley Project was moved online in 1993. In the early days, when connections were slow and high quality images difficult to download, the project’s staff were considerate of those navigating the site. The simple navigational graphic, a floor plan created by Thomas Jefferson, provides users a quick way to get from one aspect of the collection to another. The Valley Project was released as a CD ROM in the mid to late-nineties.
With continuous improvements to both the content and the technology that showcased it, the collection was finally completed in 2002. The text had been converted into Extensible Markup Language (XML) and the maps utilize Geographic Information Systems technology (GIS) these aspects will be discussed in detail later in this report. To fully appreciate the conveniences offered by the technology, one must explore the collection details.

Collection Details
As stated in the introduction, users are able to navigate the site using a simple floor plan graphic divided into three levels or “floors”. I have provided the graphic, which has become an iconic symbol of the project, below. Fealey_image_1.png
The three “floors” are titled as follows: The Eve of War ( Fall 1859 to Spring 1861), The War Years (Spring 1861-1865), and The Aftermath (Spring 1865-1870). Each of these sections is subdivided into smaller “rooms”. A smaller version of this graphic appears at the bottom of every page to assist the user in navigation. Clicking on it brings the user back to the homepage.

Maps & Images
Each “floor” contains a collection of images from the period--searchable by keyword and location. The images are sortable by Place or Battlefield, Subject (Women, African Americans, Political Cartoons, etc.), Name of Soldier or Other Person, and the source of the image.

I found the political cartoon pictured by browsing by category. I included it to highlight the quality of these newspaper images—each of them over 100 years old (University of Virginia, 2007).

This section also offers a link to “tips for searching”. This tips page provides the user helpful information about using a wildcard notation within a word. The section provides examples of searching numeric fields, text fields, as well as some basic troubleshooting for potential browser issues.

The image database itself is quite astounding. Each “floor” of the project has its own “room” dedicated to maps and images of the time—organized in similar categories. In the “Eve of War section”, clicking on the Maps & Images room link opens a page that allows the user to view maps of Augusta County, Franklin County, the two in comparison to one another and images of the valley (which includes portraits, drawings, and textiles). These images are searchable by place, subject, source (original photography, Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, Illustrated London News, and Southern Illustrated News). Clicking on the link to browse “images of the valley” allows users to view several collections of images—artists drawings, portraits of well-known residents, and even a selection of mid-1800 century quilts from a 1995 exhibition held at the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace & Museum. The photos of the quilts offer a detailed look at the handicrafts of the past. I have included a photo of one of the quilts to illustrate the overall image quality (University of Virginia, 2007).


The maps are quite detailed and organized by geography(elevation, location of streams and rivers), infrastructure (rail lines, towns), agriculture (soil types, average farm value), slavery (number of slaves per household, residences with slavery), politics (party affiliation, presidential voting by precinct), and religion (church locations, distribution of churches, density of churches and schools). These themes are repeated through each “floor” of the collection. There is one distinction; I would like to point out, however.

Battle Maps
“The War Years” room contains an additional interactive battlefield maps. Using this feature, the user may track selected regiments through the two states using an animated timeline. Battles and Engagements are tracked over the period 1862 to 1865—movements are tracked using a red arrow, engagements signified with small yellow star burst, and battles with large yellow star bursts. Clicking on the star bursts connects the user with information about the battle, including a summary of events, the weather conditions, and a link to the official record. In viewing the map, the user may select to show modern day or historical cities, towns, and transportation systems.

One can browse the newspaper collection by date, see the articles indexed by topic, or perform a full text search. Clicking on the browse link allows you to select newspaper by city. For Augusta, VA, the following papers are represented: The Republican Vindicator, Staunton Spectator, and Valley Virginian. For Franklin, PA: Franklin Reporter, Semi-Weekly Dispatch, Valley Spirit, and Village Record.
Searching the database can be done by keyword and sorted by date range. The user may select multiple papers from both locations. Browsing the newspapers by topic allows the user to see what the database has to offer. The overarching structure remains—the subjects are sorted by Eve of War, The War Years, and Aftermath.
In a section labeled “About the Valley Newspapers”, readers can research the individual papers. Clicking on each link leads the reader to an opportunity to observe the typical layout of each publication. There are scanned copies of the pages of an issue. First, the front page, then a detail of the page, followed by description.

Technologies Utilized
In the lengthy section titled “The Story Behind the Valley Project”, the authors mention the use of developing technologies during the process of putting the project together. From the early stages of HTML to more advanced coding, the organization of the site has become more advanced as the years progressed.
The site uses Adobe Macromedia Shockwave to animate its battle maps and Apache Open Source Software for its coding and indexing needs. To perform a full-text search on this site, researchers need to painstakingly update the coding to improve the searching capabilities.
During the move from an online resource to an official source on the library’s page, the staff undertook the research and updating of collection materials, including the re-digitizing of the images in the collection. Assuming that many of these images had to be processed by hand, one can imagine this took a great deal of man power. According to the Full Valley Archive, some 12,000 files were processed. The collection now exists within the Library’s web accessible database as of the spring of 2009.

Reviews of the Site
The site was reviewed in a book titled: The Civil War on the Web: A Guide to the Very Best by Alice Carter, Richard Jensen, and Thomas William. Though the review is overall very positive, the reviewers state one drawback. Because the site contains so many documents and not much explanatory material it “may be overwhelming to those entirely unfamiliar with the Civil War or 19th century American life”. The authors go on to state, however, that “no Civil War site matches the Valley of the Shadow for its depth, its scholarly focus, and its emphasis on the experiences of everyday people” (Carter, Jensen, & Thomas, 2003).
Another review of the Valley Project, authored by Carol Hannaford and published on the Public History Resource Center’s page, offered constructive criticism. Carol Hannaford, a technical editor for a survey research firm in Rockville, MD, provided practical feedback and recommendations for future improvements to the overall usability of the site. The comments she made focused mainly on the uneven and, at times, unclear writing style of the original material. She also mentioned that the page could benefit greatly by allowing community involvement using a comments page or a listserv. She also mentioned some navigational issues citing that there were no options available to backtrack.
A review of the specific comments and the current state of the site proved interesting: though some of the issues were addressed (navigation, project context), the page retains some of the mentioned flaws (noted mostly in the writing style of the individual biographies, as well as the background information on the project).

Given its impressive scope and vast number of high quality primary sources, this site is a magnet to any student of the Civil War—willing or no. Though some of the written information is wordy and, as Hannaford pointed out, could use some editing, this site’s strength ultimately lies within the searchable databases of images and newspaper articles as well as its unique battle ground map collection.


Carter, A. E., Jensen, R. J., & Thomas, W. G. (2003). The Civil War on the Web: A Guide to the Very Best Sites. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, Inc.
Hannaford, C. (2001, July 1). Review of Valley of Shadow. Retrieved October 19, 2011, from Public History Resource Center: http://www.publichistory.org/reviews/view_review.asp?DBID=32
University of Virginia. (2007). The Valley of the Shadow. Retrieved October 19, 2011, from Univeristy of Virginia Library: http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/