Developing a prototype digital history project

Beginning in the late 19th century into the 1920s, Baptists from Latvia emigrated to a number of regions outside of their homeland, including North and South America. The emigration to South America, especially to Brazil, is increasingly well-documented and has received both scholarly and popular attention. This has not been the case for the early Latvian Baptist immigrants to the United States.

The project I am pursuing, as part of a course in digital public history through George Mason University, aims to take a first step in rectifying this omission. Latvian Baptists in North America, 1890-1940, is to be a prototype digital collection and exhibit of several facets of these immigrants’ stories. Initial work is focusing on West Philadelphia, a location that during the period under study became the most significant of their communities in the U.S.

The research is examining why the Latvian Baptists congregated in West Philadelphia and how the nature of the community that developed there influenced their spiritual and cultural expressions. A particular interest of the project is how the community became the base for a series of Latvian Baptist periodicals.

The items to be gathered as part of the project include photographs of community life, reports about the various settlements in the U.S. before the First World War that were published in Baptist periodicals in the homeland, examples of their press in America, and narratives from descendants.

Some work has already been completed on the project in terms of creation of a basic website. However, further development is needed as is testing of engagement with the project’s intended audiences. As I have written earlier, the site also requires creation of easy-to-understand instructions to guarantee that potential contributors are able to submit digital materials that meet acceptable standards.

The digital history project will rely on the Omeka content management system for gathering and publishing items and exhibits related to the Latvian Baptists. The ability for the public to contribute to and comment on the material will be added through plug-ins built by the Omeka community. In addition, the CARTO mapping application — or a similar product — will be used to display a visualization of where the Latvian Baptists lived in the early 20th century in West Philadelphia.

The target audiences for the project in its initial stages will be first and foremost descendants of the Latvian Baptist immigrants who settled in West Philadelphia. It is this audience that will help build the project, providing digital artifacts such as photographs, documents, and narratives. While this is a small number of people, concentrated collections development work with them is essential to uncover the story of the community.

A secondary audience for the project in its initial phase will be persons of Latvian ethnic heritage who have a specific interest in the topic or of the broader history of their culture in the United States. Given that the federal census estimates approximately 85,000 persons in the U.S. reported Latvian ancestry in 20151, this audience may be somewhat sizable.

The project has the potential to provide these audiences, and others that will be addressed later, with a rich examination of an overlooked immigrant community.

1. “Selected Population Profile in the United States: 2015 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates,” U.S Census Bureau, Accessed March 3, 2017,