History @ Work

History@Work is a multi-authored, multi-interest blog for all those with an interest in the practice and study of history in public. Learn More→

Public history and public libraries: A natural affinity

German coalminer Robert Prager was lynched in Collinsville, IL in 1918.

German coalminer Robert Prager was lynched in Collinsville, IL in 1918.  Photo credit:  St. Louis Post-Dispatch

I’ve always loved a public library. The public library in my hometown was just across the street from my dad’s office. In middle school, I would walk there after school and read books until my dad picked me up at five o’clock. Now that I teach public history classes at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, I have come to see how valuable public libraries are as forums for collaboration between university-based public history programs and local communities. Public history and public libraries have a natural affinity. We should work together more often and speak up about the value of these collaborations.

In 2014, I coordinated two semester-long collaborations between public history students and public libraries near my campus in southwestern Illinois. Students in my upper-division public history class designed a small exhibit on the 1918 lynching of German immigrant Robert Prager in Collinsville, Illinois. I challenged the students to interpret the history of this controversial event for public audiences. They quickly honed in on the idea of a small exhibit to raise awareness of the event, which is rarely taught in the Collinsville schools and has been largely erased from the town’s memory.

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Public history student swaps mobcap for hard hat

Willowbank students squaring and carving stone.  Photo credit: Juliana Glassco

Willowbank students squaring and carving stone. Photo credit: Juliana Glassco

It is often said that everyone should work in the customer service industry at some point in their lives so that they can understand what it’s like to interact with the world from the other side of the cash register. I feel the same way about traditional building trades. Anyone who works with old buildings should spend at least a few days learning about what it takes to be a carpenter, plasterer, mason, or blacksmith. As a student in a course of study in heritage conservation (called historic preservation in the United States) at Willowbank School, a small private college in southern Ontario, that is precisely what I do.

Willowbank’s curriculum blends hands-on experience with design, heritage management, and theory. Professional craftspeople–and architects, historians, planners, conservators, and others–take time away from their jobs to teach a group of students from diverse backgrounds about their profession. Every day is a lesson in humility and patience. At its heart, being a student here is about cultivating respect for the many perspectives, skills, and disciplines that interact with “heritage” in all of its varied forms. In studying these points of intersection, we are unlocking potential for cross-disciplinary creativity, communication, and collaboration. Continue reading

Harvesting the romance of the past

Editor’s note: This post continues a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a past article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance, and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation.

Growing up as an American Indian boy in Oklahoma, I struggled every April 22nd with “89er Day,” an elementary school mini-holiday that celebrated the 1889 opening of central Oklahoma to white settlement. We school kids were expected to dash across the playground and stake out “homesteads,” being careful to watch out for “wild Indians.” As the day wore on, we had “chuck wagon” lunches, sing-alongs, and square dances. The Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 marked the formal end of tribal reservations in Oklahoma, itself a Choctaw word meaning “[place of the] red people.” This was the romance of the past as it played out across innumerable schools in the Oklahoma of the mid-1950s.

This 1899 poster for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show suggests that Cody also “harnessed the romance of the past” throughout his career. Courtesy LOC

This 1899 poster for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show suggests that Cody also “harnessed the romance of the past” throughout his career. Photo credit:  Library of Congress

Patricia Mooney-Melvin, in her 1991 article on “Harnessing the Romance of the Past: Preservation, Tourism, and History,” writes about a different sort of historical romance, using another kind of misremembered history as an example. As she describes, an elderly woman and young girl visit the Buffalo Bill Cody museum where the woman confuses Cody and Theodore Roosevelt. Taking place at a historic site, this story emphasizes both the enthusiasm of the heritage tourist and the need for a high level of historical accuracy at those sites. Continue reading

“First-in-Class Acquisition Challenges”

Editor’s Note: This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s awards for the best new work in the field. Today’s post is by Justin L.C. Eldridge, a government historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command, whose monograph First in Class Acquisition Challenges received Honorable Mention for the Michael C. Robinson Prize for Historical Analysis.

020628-N-3228G-001 Pearl Harbor, HI (Jun. 28, 2002) -- Amphibious warfare ship USS Tarawa (LHA 1) leaves Pearl Harbor to participate in exercise "Rim of the Pacific" (RIMPAC) 2002.  The purpose of RIMPAC 2002 is to enhance the tactical proficiency of the participating units in a wide array of combined operations at sea among the seven participating countries. The exercises also help build cooperation and foster mutual understanding between the participating nations. Among the countries participating this year are: Australia, Canada, Chile, Peru, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the United States.  U.S. Navy photo credit: Photographer's Mate 1st Class William R. Goodwin.

020628-N-3228G-001
Pearl Harbor, HI (Jun. 28, 2002)–Amphibious warfare ship USS Tarawa (LHA 1) leaves Pearl Harbor to participate in exercise “Rim of the Pacific” (RIMPAC) 2002. The purpose of RIMPAC 2002 is to enhance the tactical proficiency of the participating units in a wide array of combined operations at sea among the seven participating countries. The exercises also help build cooperation and foster mutual understanding between the participating nations. Among the countries participating this year are: Australia, Canada, Chile, Peru, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States. Photo credit: Photographer’s Mate 1st Class William R. Goodwin

One task among many for government historians is to create a policy narrative in their particular field, often in an environment where it is not clear how or even whether the narrative will find favor with or influence the officials for whom they work. To most historians, the end-use of their work by decision makers does not matter, so long as the narrative is historically accurate, the historian has properly used primary source material (critical for credibility), and their work finds peer acceptance as a well-reasoned and reliable intellectual product.

Finding success-influencing policy makers comes with a different set of challenges and pitfalls. Policy development is the art of compromise, and officials may not always have the luxury of time to fully consider, let alone accept, suggestions based on historical research. They can also carelessly use or, even worse, misuse a narrative in the pursuit of political objectives. Though the responsibility for such embellishment remains with the policy maker, the historian can endure harsh criticism as a result, despite strict adherence to historiographical standards. With collaboration come both condemnation and approbation. Continue reading

Report from the task force on public history education and employment

Graphic from public history employers' survey showing skills in demand for entry-level employees. Image credit: Public History Education and Employment Task Force

Graphic from public history employers’ survey, showing skills in demand for entry-level employees. Image credit: Public History Education and Employment Task Force

Are there too many public history programs? Where is the field going, and what can professional organizations do to ensure that it remains vital in the years to come? For the past year, a task force organized by the National Council on Public History (NCPH), the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the American Association for State and Local History has investigated questions about the current landscape of public history training and employment. Inspired in part by Robert Weyeneth’s essay “A Perfect Storm?,” the task force is charged with gathering data on several key questions. We want to know what skills and abilities employers look for when hiring professionals in the early stages of their careers, where they see the field of public history going, and what skills and expertise will be more highly valued in the future. We want to know if training, particularly at the graduate level, is preparing students for professional employment and long-term career growth. Finally, we want to know what professional organizations can do to ensure production of well-trained public historians and ensure the general health of the field. At a time when concerns about the number of graduate public history programs and possible “overproduction” have become common, we need reliable information about these concerns. Continue reading

Can public history play? A conference pop-up preview

swirls of light

Photo credit: Rick Harrison

It’s the week of the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting, and you’re getting ready to jet off to the Volunteer State.

You’ve watched the requisite Tennessee-based movies: The Thing Called Love, Inherit the Wind, and The Blind Side.

You’ve got your must-do list all set–a visit to the Grand Ole Opry (wait, since when is that in a suburban shopping center?), a night out at the Blue Bird Café, and a lunch date with your college roommate at The Wild Cow.

Now, like all good public historians, you pull up the program and begin to map out your conference schedule.

  • THATCamp NCPH Boot Camp on Wednesday afternoon? Check.
  • “History on the Cutting Edge” on Saturday and the Nashville Crime Walking Tour Friday? Add those to the list.
  • And speed networking on Thursday morning? You definitely want to make time for that.

But wait. You have a free two hours on Thursday afternoon. How will you ever fill the time? Continue reading