Skip to main content




May 10, 2013
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine

SRU history majors 'pin' photos to Web

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. -If it's true that a picture is worth 1,000 words, Slippery Rock University history majors have silently provided 100,000 words of historical value.

Twenty SRU history majors are finishing up a photo archive project for the Lawrence County Historical Society in New Castle. Students selected and researched historical information for 100 of the society's digital photographs and published them with 200-word captions on is a non-profit organization whose site enables users to link historical images to their original locations via Google Maps. This allows users to see how the streets and landscapes have changed over time.

Students worked with Aaron Cowan, SRU assistant professor of history, on the Digital History Project, which interprets photos from the 1850s to the late 20th century.

Most of the photos included only a date before students began their work.

"This project hopefully provides a major benefit to the historical society, because it would like to draw in larger numbers of patrons, and especially younger audiences," Cowan said. "Like many such institutions, limited staff and resources have kept it from using digital technology to share its archives. This project was a way to provide them a 'jumpstart' into the arena through group service. Students are learning digital publishing skills firsthand, which is crucial because digital technology is transforming the field of history ¬- and the humanities in general - as we speak."

Cowan said the bulk of the photos date from the late 1800s. Students grouped the photos within several categories, including labor and industry, African American history and sports history.

They researched photos such as the Pennsylvania Railroad through New Castle in 1914, McConnell's Mill State Park in 1890, a circus parade in 1925, a 1976 bank robbery in New Castle and "The Cancos Mushball Team of New Castle" in 1931.

The Cancos caption reads: "Mushball is a game very similar to softball with the exception of a larger and softer ball being used. This is a photo of the American Can Company of New Castle's team 'the Cancos.' The Cancos played their home games on a field behind their New Castle can factory. The field, called 'Can Works Field,' experienced its greatest use during the summer of 1931. The Cancos played in a league with other area business and factory teams. They proved to be one of the best teams in the league, making it to the league championship game in 1931 only to lose to the Lockleys in a three game series. 1931 was the first and only year the Mushball league existed, despite its popularity in New Castle."

Cowan said he conceived the project to teach students the importance of local history and community service. Students are enrolled in his "History 343: Public History" class.

"Local history is a really important way to connect people to the communities in which the live," Cowan said.

Cowan said students worked in groups of three and set up in New Castle for a "digital photo workday." The teams selected 15 images as a preliminary collection for their theme. As individuals, they researched and wrote a 150 to 200 word description explaining the subject, context, significance and Chicago-format citations.

"What they are really doing was curation," Cowan said. "They are doing what a museum would do to illustrate photos.

Courtney Ciccarelli, a history major from Butler, said the most exciting part of the project was uncovering the stories of the immigrant community of New Castle and learning about the diverse ways in which they blended their ethnic culture with American traditions.

"It was really interesting to see how the different cultures interacted with each other and the imprint that they left on present day New Castle," Ciccarelli said.

She said the research was "like a dream come true" because she loves getting her hands on actual documents, photographs and stories from the past.

"The project was a great experience because we were able to do hands-on work in the field of public history, as opposed to just studying it in the classroom setting," she said.

Ciccarelli said after graduating from SRU, she plans to attend law school to become a criminal attorney.

Nate Shaffer, a history major from Lancaster, said he enjoyed finding out so much about a town, New Castle, he knew little about.

"We go about our day-to-day lives just taking in our surroundings without really analyzing them," he said. "This project, on the other hand, allowed us to see how New Castle was, and how and why it became what it is today."

Shaffer said he has always enjoyed looking at older photographs, trying to picture what it would have been like to live during that time.

"With this project we were able to analyze the photos, do our research, and then put names, places and events with those particular photos," he said. "It is very gratifying to put the pieces together after the research and it is the reason I enjoy doing it. Overall this project was fun and easy to do. It allowed me to make new friends in my group, strengthen student/faculty relations, and most importantly, give back to our local community."

The SRU historians expect the photo site to be of interest to historians, high school and college students. Click to see students' photo research

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.