“Digitizing Rochester’s Religions Piloting a Community–University Partnership in the Digital Humanities.”

1. Abstract

Launched by Dr. Margarita Guillory at the University of Rochester in fall 2016, Digitizing Rochester’s Religions documents the evolution of religion in Western New York after the Second Great Awakening (1800–1850) ended. Western New York and the city of Rochester were renowned for revivals and new religious movements during the Second Great Awakening, so that the region became known as the “Burned-over District.” However, Western New York’s religious history after 1850 has not received equal scholarly attention. Dr. Guillory and the graduate and undergraduate students who worked on DRR sought to fill this gap. (I served as the lead graduate student researcher.) The team wrote essays about past and present religious sites, visited religious sites and archives, and digitized sources from community archives. We sought to collaborate with local religious communities, so that DRR would build a meaningful relationship between the University and surrounding neighborhoods.

Bruce Lincoln’s definition of religion, namely that a religion consists of a “discourse,” a “set of practices,” a “community,” and “an institution,” guides DRR. [Source: Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 5–7; see 5 for “discourse,” 6 for “set of practices” and “community,” and 7 for the full quote of “an institution.”] In its attention to religious spaces and its collaborative approach to scholarship, DRR draws inspiration from Dr. Courtney Bender’s Sacred Gotham, which tasked students with mapping religious spaces in New York City. It also builds on Dr. David H. Day’s 2003 web project “Encountering Old Faiths in New Places: Mapping Religious Diversity in the Rochester, New York Area,” based at Monroe Community College (https://web.archive.org/web/20071102133941/http://www.monroecc.edu/depts/sociology/pluralism/overview.htm). “Encountering Old Faiths” featured students’ ethnographic observations of current religious sites. DRR, by contrast, profiles past as well as present religious sites, so that it is more historical than anthropological in its orientation. Overall, DRR contributes to a growing field of public-facing projects about lived religion in U.S. cities; notable examples include Boston’s Hidden Sacred Spaces (http://www.hiddensacredspaces.org/) and the American Religious Sounds Project (https://religioussounds.osu.edu/).

When Dr. Guillory moved to Boston University in 2018, I took over DRR and completed it as a pilot project, documenting religious communities in Rochester’s southwester quadrant, instead of the whole city as originally planned. The website (http://digrocreligions.org/) provides a template for historians, religionists, and students to pursue this work on a larger scale. Taken together, the essays featured on DRR detail how, beginning in the 1960s, the loss of Rochester’s industrial base exacerbated racial and economic segregation. Religious organizations in the economically distressed southwestern neighborhoods filled the gap left by the withdrawal of tax dollars and government services. By launching job programs, soup kitchens, and clinics, religious groups in southwest Rochester tried to meet the physical and material as well as spiritual needs of residents.

Had COVID-19 not required the cancellation of DH2020, my lightning talk would have reviewed DRR’s public and digital history aspects and provided a tour of the website. I would have discussed the importance of developing reciprocal relationships with community partners (in our case, religious congregations), although we were not fully successful. After I took over the project, the priority became finishing it, so that I only used publicly available documents instead of archival sources to finish several essays. As for digital humanities technology, I would have discussed the workflow of scanning, formatting, cataloguing, and compressing 80 gigabytes’ worth of primary sources for the website. Finally, I would have presented DRR as an example of successful project-based learning, since the students who worked on DRR gained hands-on archival, ethnographic, and digital humanities experience.

Daniel James Gorman Jr. (dgormanj@ur.rochester.edu), University of Rochester, United States of America

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