Leapfrogging over politics with a mobile historical app?

The Southern landscape and many other parts of the United States remain pockmarked with state historical markers that demand reinterpretation or removal.  One state historical marker noting the failure of New Orleans’ 17th Street Canal in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina demonstrates that Louisiana has landed on the right side of this history.  Efforts to erect a similar federal marker have twice been stymied, however, as the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the land in question, has not yet commented on a National Register nomination approved two years ago by the state historic preservation officer.  The corps argues that it cannot comment upon the application while litigation over its role in the 2005 flooding of the city remains in process.

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Work in Progress: Public History Career Resource

web site screen shotI am always happy to discover how often new media scholarship benefits traditional research as well as public history practice. My recent experience with one particular online project using Zotero demonstrates how new media innovation can invigorate our classroom instruction in unexpected ways. My students and I are engaged in a Zotero-based public history project that balances traditional research and new media savvy in unique ways.

Practical Concerns regarding New Media Scholarship

As my tenure-track process neared its successful completion, I considered not pursuing an ambitious, online database project based upon Zotero. I had already been engaged in one online collecting project, and, early on, I often had to explain to some colleagues it was more than a mere website.  I wondered if my traditional publication work and teaching load could withstand another new media project in a period of increasing class enrollments and decreasing budgets.

My commitment to practicing an engaged form of scholarship won out. I joined Emory University’s Leslie Harris and Connie Moon Sehat in working on the New Orleans Research Collaborative. That decision proved fortuitous.  Scholars throughout the world typically use Zotero to manage their own research or to share sources with small groups of scholars and students. The New Orleans Research Collaborative seeks to assemble bibliography teams that will create an ever-deepening reservoir of scholarship and primary sources regarding the city.

More than most other new media projects, this one, I believed, would benefit the students’ individual scholarship, because we work at a state-funded university that cannot afford  commercial research management systems, such as Endnote or RefWorks.  Individual use of the latter costs $100.00 per year for a subscription while the former varies in price, costing students $115.95. Zotero is free. A few other faculty colleagues embraced the software, and most of our graduate students and many of our undergraduates now use Zotero for their own research and assignments in other courses as well as for public history projects.

Public History Scholarship and Service

Zotero has provided me with a platform from which to demonstrate that public history is a field of scholarly inquiry and an arena for service to the profession. Each fall semester, as do many public history faculty, I assign Essays from the Field, and students choose readings and careers to investigate in-depth. Given the years that have passed since publication of the guide, I require students to “cyberstalk” the public historians whose essays they choose to read. Students must then assemble a Zotero folder regarding the public history profession they found engaging enough to select for the writing assignment. As the folders began to fill up with interesting links and journal article citations, I realized this provided an opportunity to employ the same sort of process from my digital scholarship. What began as an academic exercise in exploring the field of public history has become a public service, a project that can benefit students and practitioners from around the world.

This semester, graduate students enrolled in UNO’s New Media and History course are working to assemble the first draft of an online resource for public historians at every stage of their career.  Assembling Zotero folders regarding practitioners and public history methods and scholarship, we hope to work to develop categories based on directions from public historians throughout the world.

The present, rough draft version of the Public History Career Resource is available as a group collection via the web-based version of Zotero. UNO public history students are developing this rough draft version in preparation for their poster session in Milwaukee. The categories and sub-categories are left underdeveloped because we hope to benefit from the insight of public historians before proceeding much further.

Large and small changes in nomenclature and organizational structure are still anticipated. The students already have decided that the resource should apply to public history careers in all senses of the word. We hope that those new to the concept of public history and its various fields will find it a useful starting point. We also seek to develop a web portal for the various state and museum and archive job sites as well as a way to keep track of ongoing debates and professional chatter among public historians from throughout the world.

A section on the history of the NCPH and the origins of public history as a field obviously requires input from some of the longest serving members of the public history community. Those may also be the least likely to work with Zotero, but they can advise us by keeping abreast of progress via Zotero’s website and then providing feedback via email. This has worked very well in the Nola Research Collaborative.  A group of culinary bibliographers whose years of work started in the 1990s with the concept of a scholarly publication now exists as an online resource.

We hope that the project might become connected to the Public History Commons, especially since long-term maintenance remains the unsolved problem of digital projects. If that is not possible, the students and I can maintain it as a resource published using WordPress and Zotpress.  To envision how a published version of the Public History Career Resource (working title) might appear, have a look at the main page for the bibliographies/online finding aids for the New Orleans Research Collaborative project.

Students studying in public history programs throughout the world might be able to collaborate with one another in order to knit together the diverse local variations and accomplishments. One unique quality of every NCPH conference is the mentorship program and the energetic buzz of public historians at various stages in their careers. Maybe the construction of this online platform might allow students to collaborate with others who offer specific content expertise.

UNO students would appreciate hearing from some of the pioneers in the profession regarding journal articles, unpublished lectures, in-house training guides, insightful blog postings: all sorts of material that should be more readily available for practicing public historians and students. While this resource might be limitless in terms of data, to function well it would require teams of professionals who can help newcomers to discern essential from nonessential sources.

A recent H-public request underscores the value of a broad-based public history resource:  “I am trying to jazz up the syllabus for a course that introduces undergraduates to the various fields that comprise public history (archives, museums, historic preservation, historic sites, oral history, film, documentary editing, etc.). I’m looking for videos that would fit into a 50-minute class. I’ve tried ‘Slow Fires,’ both the ‘paper’ version and the ‘digital’ version and have found them both too dated. Is there an inventory to such films?”

Not yet, but maybe soon.

UNO graduate student Kyle Willshire is the lead bibliographer and organizer on this project, and he can be contacted via the following address: kwillshi@my.uno.edu

My address is mmizelln@uno.edu.

~ Michael Mizell-Nelson