Oral history as public history

Children playing at Euclid Beach, Cleveland, OH. Photo credit:

Euclid Beach Park conjures fond childhood memories for many participants in the Cleveland Regional Oral History Project. Photo credit: Cleveland State University Special Collections

Many of us have discovered what promised to be an exciting oral history project through a Google search, only to be crestfallen when the linked web page was nothing more than a description of a trove of interviews kept in an ivory tower hundreds or thousands of miles away. It’s a given that oral history can’t be public history if it’s a cache of CDs or transcripts squirreled away in a drawer.  Is it any less clear that an interview collection—no matter how voluminous, historically significant, or methodologically rigorous—also falls short of the mark when it rests in a library? A project’s outcomes should be publicly visible and audible. Continue reading

The Master’s Tools, 2.0

Kings College, Cambridge. Photo by Colin Smith, Wikimedia Commons.

King’s College, Cambridge. Photo credit: Colin Smith, Wikimedia Commons

In her thought-provoking post from November 2012, Mary Rizzo opened up a conversation about the relationship between the rapidly growing field of digital humanities and public history. Reflecting on a recent THATcamp meeting, Rizzo concluded that existing divisions between the producers and the critical thinkers of digital humanities projects had the potential to re-inscribe gender and racial hierarchies. I want to take Rizzo’s still-salient concerns as a starting point for a conversation in a slightly different direction, namely the potential for the democratization of historical knowledge made possible by digital tools and the role of public historians in this process. Continue reading

Digital projects showcased in Monterey

shirt pattern

An item from New Mexico State University’s digitized Agricultural Extension Service records. Source: NMSU Library Digital Collections

At the third annual “lightning talks” session highlighting new (and some not so new) digital public history projects at the National Council on Public History conference, a dozen presenters showed off their work to a lunchtime audience.

Project Showcase: Gateway to U.S. Federal Reserve System centennial commemoration

screenshotDec. 23, 2013, marked the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Federal Reserve Act, which established the Federal Reserve as the central bank for the United States. Financial panics and bank runs plagued the nation during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Panic of 1907 prompted many Americans to call for a central bank. In response, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act, which President Woodrow Wilson signed into law to provide our country with a more stable financial system.

The yearlong centennial commemoration is an opportunity for the Federal Reserve System to promote a greater understanding and awareness of the Fed, including its mandate, structure, and functions. To that end, all 12 Federal Reserve districts are represented on a commemorative Gateway website. Brief Fed facts, information about key economic events, details about individuals instrumental in shaping the Fed, and insights into the Fed’s purpose make up the 11,000 artifacts housed on this interactive site.
In addition to the System website, the St. Louis Fed has created its own centennial website where visitors can explore 100 years of historical materials from the Eighth District, including an interactive timeline, photos and audio clips, and historical documents.
Providing public access to economic information and data has long been an important mission for the St. Louis Fed. Anyone interested in learning more or conducting personal research about the Fed is encouraged to explore the FRASER archive, the Fed’s electronic archive, to discover more about 100 years of US central banking.

The St. Louis Fed’s Library has also assembled a Federal Reserve Centennial Information/Display Package for libraries wishing to provide a display or exhibit about the Fed.  All materials are provided free and do not need to be returned. The information/display package contains brochures, posters, CDs, DVDs, teacher lesson plans, a map, bags of shredded currency, and historical postcards of Fed buildings then and now. To request a packet, contact Kathy Cosgrove at Kathy.E.Cosgrove@stls.frb.org.

~ Jane M. Davis, Digital Library Projects Coordinator

Digital Sandbox: Building a community of digital humanists

Each participant in the Digital Sandbox workshop received a flash drive containing supplementary materials for each session. Photo credit: Christine Crosby.

Each participant in the Digital Sandbox workshop received a flash drive containing supplementary materials for each session. Photo credit: Christine Crosby

There is a misconception in our American culture that young professionals are proficient at using technology. However, discussions among historians, humanists, and prospective employers indicate that many public history graduates are entering the field without practical training or consideration of the complex intersection between digital technology and public history.

Indeed, one study found that only 36% of public history programs are actively “preparing their students to create or author digital history or new media resources.” In a recent History@Work post, Robert Weyeneth expounded upon this lack of digital literacy among graduate students as just one part of a “perfect storm” that threatens the field of public history. The concerns he expresses are legitimate. As graduate students, we understand that we are emerging as public history professionals in the midst of a remarkable digital transformation. If we do not commit to attaining at least a basic level of technological proficiency, we will be left behind. Continue reading

Help us build a bibliography on public history and climate change

book cover

In many ways, environmental public history is still a very new field, with just one major title devoted directly to the subject.

Google “public history” and “climate change” and you’ll quickly realize that public historians are only just beginning to talk about how their work relates to the increasingly urgent questions posed by the earth’s rapidly changing climate.  You could make a case that environmental public history is itself still in its infancy, even though it’s been more than two decades since Martin Melosi, in his President’s Annual Address to the National Council on Public History, issued a call for “environmental history [to] be a means to make the value of history better understood to the public.”[1]  As Melosi pointed out, the combination is a natural one in many ways, yet there are also challenges to pursuing it–for example, the highly political nature of many environmental issues and historians’ caution about crossing the line into advocacy.  In the print realm, a single, now-decade-old collection, Public History and the Environment (co-edited by Melosi and Phil Scarpino and published by Krieger in 2004), has been devoted to the subject, and “global warming” makes only two brief appearances in its pages.  As the global atmosphere continues to warm and its effects are felt more and more widely, how should public historians respond? Continue reading

Project Showcase: Newruskinarchives

group of men 1906

The back of this postcard reads “Engineers at Ruskin College Oxford, 1906, sent and supported by their fellow trade unionists at a cost of 1d each.” Photo source: Hilda Kean

The newruskinarchives database website has recently been launched in response to the destruction last year of most of the archive of student records at Ruskin College, the historic trade union and labour movement college in Oxford.

There was much press coverage of the scandal and widespread criticism of the actions of the (now former) Principal, Audrey Mullender. The international petition drew over 7,500 signatories including those of many public historians. However the vast bulk of the student records, as well as dissertations, were unnecessarily destroyed. Continue reading

Tools for digital history: Google Map Engine Lite

Google mapThe turn to spatial history has been aided by the explosion of digital mapping tools. While there are many options for mapping out there (including HistoryPin as described by Aaron Cowan in a History@Work post earlier this year), one look at the projects being completed by leaders in the field like the Stanford Visualization Lab is both inspiring and terrifying. How did they do that? Could I do that?

If you’re me, the answer is “not yet” (and not without a team and funding). But I’m increasingly interested in learning to make maps as part of my professional and scholarly work and wanted to stretch my digital muscles in some new ways. I just needed some data and a story that would be best told through a map. Continue reading

Digital history for undergraduates….without the coding

Slippery Rock University students selecting images for History Pin at the Lawrence County Historical Society. Photo courtesy Aaron Cowan.

Slippery Rock University students selecting images for HistoryPin at the Lawrence County Historical Society. Photo credit: Aaron Cowan.

The digital humanities are rapidly transforming both the discipline of history and the pedagogy of public history.  When I taught my first Introduction to Public History course six years ago, my course schedule had two weeks devoted to digital history; today it occupies more than half of the semester.

Digital history presents several obstacles for introductory-level students, though.  For all the claims about the millennial generation’s tech literacy, they are more adept as consumers than creators.  This is perhaps even more true at institutions like my own – a mid-size state university with a student body drawn largely from the suburban and rural counties in a 100-mile radius.  More than half of them are first-generation college students.  These supposed “digital natives” use smartphones and Twitter with relative ease but rarely have had access to the educational enrichment programs or expensive technology that might give them familiarity with computer programming.  Within the confines of a 15-week academic term, learning the intricacies of Javascript or Google Earth databases from scratch AND deploying those for a digital history project seemed unrealistic.

And yet, just telling students about all the possibilities of digital history and demonstrating some tools on a classroom screen seemed flat and sterile.  I wanted more experiential learning and some way to allow undergraduates to understand the potential of digital history and create a presentable public history project, without the technical skills proving an insurmountable barrier.

Continue reading