Digital projects showcased in Monterey

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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years of historical materials from the Eighth District, including an interactive timeline, photos and audio clips, and historical documents.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

~ 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

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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

The Guantánamo Public Memory Project travelling exhibit and national dialogue

Editor’s Note: This piece continues a series of posts related to the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, a collaboration of public history programs across the country to raise awareness of the long history of the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay and foster dialogue on its future.  For an introduction to the series, please see this piece by the Project’s director, Liz Ševčenko.

Kevin Murphy and Jean O'Brien standing beside the GPMP exhibit panel that resulted from their 2012 class. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy)

Kevin Murphy and Jean O’Brien standing beside the GPMP exhibit panel that resulted from their 2012 class. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy)

In the past few months, the US Naval Station at Guantánamo has received increased coverage in the mainstream media due to news of a widespread hunger strike among those who remain detained there and grueling accounts of the invasive practice of force-feeding.  This kind of media scrutiny was absent in the summer of 2012 as we prepared to involve University of Minnesota undergraduate students in an innovative public history project:  The Guantánamo Public Memory Project Travelling Exhibit and National Dialogue (GPMP).  Indeed, when we first met with the students who signed on to the project, a good number of them believed, like many Americans, that the prison had, or would soon be, closed.  They shared negative perceptions of the site – seeing it as a place of harsh detention and as a problem for the United States’ international image – but few understood how Guantánamo came to occupy this place in the American past and present.  Teaching a public history class on Guantánamo, then, meant engaging students in a very difficult and challenging set of issues that they felt was already being relegated to the past.  As such, it served as an excellent site for promoting a broader conception of history as productive of and relevant to the politics of the present, and for inspiring public history students to see historical knowledge as absolutely essential to understanding – and changing – the world they live in. Continue reading

Preserve historic properties by selling them

We’ve all no doubt heard the line thrown back at us: “If you preservationists don’t want this building torn down, then why aren’t you putting your own money into it? How dare you tell a private owner that he can’t tear it down?” A quick keyword search for “preservationists” in my local newspaper provides examples aplenty of variants on these questions.

While they are ultimately wrong-headed, these questions point to some basic truths. First, taking appropriate steps before a proposed demolition enters the planning phase will have a better chance of success than trying to halt a demolition once the permit has been issued. As preservationists, we need to look forward, to help individuals, businesses, and municipalities find ways to protect historically significant buildings. Second, individuals and groups with “skin in the game” are more likely to maintain a building, even if not always in adherence to the standards of historical integrity, and thus prevent the deterioration that often prompts calls for demolition in the first place. Successful preservation requires working collaboratively to identify potential stewards of historic properties and then providing them with the tools and incentives to act on behalf of preservation.

Burritt Mansion. Photo courtesy Bruce Harvey

As a historian and photographer, my capacity to lend brick-and-mortar advice is decidedly limited. I can change light bulbs reasonably well, and I know the difference between 1890s and 1990s window types, but beyond that, I’m not really to be trusted on rehabilitation issues. However, I’ve recently had the chance to become involved in efforts to find good stewards of historic properties from a source that I hadn’t anticipated: the real estate industry. This collaboration has the potential to be a fruitful one for both the cause of preservation of historic buildings and my consulting practice. Continue reading