Continuing the conversation about preservation and climate change

waves and shore

Aftermath of Hurricane Ernesto near Newport, Rhode Island, 2006. Photo credit: duluoz cats on Flickr

Newporters like to boast that their city is home to the largest concentration of American buildings pre-dating 1800. It’s a hard claim to verify, but tallies aside, the City-by-the-Sea in Rhode Island is undoubtedly a patchwork of architectural delights reflecting its history as a powerful colonial entrepôt, a Gilded Age resort, a naval base, and currently a vibrant tourist destination. The streets along the waterfront are a charming jumble of historic wharves, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century homes, commercial spaces, and houses of worship that are as active today as at any point in the past. Newport has always drawn its vitality from the sea, and this same element now poses a serious threat to the city’s heritage. That threat–and possible responses to it–will be the focus of an upcoming conference called Keeping History Above Water. Continue reading

International collaboration and comparative research

Image credit: Courtesy of William F. Willingham. Undertaking international projects presents challenges beyond the normal routine of archival and secondary research, oral interviews, writing, and revising. There are new issues, such as what language will the work ultimately be published in? What time frame will accommodate the needed international travel? What added expenses will be encountered that are not part of the consideration for work confined to historical research within one country? Who will be chiefly responsible for coordinating the work occurring on different continents and seeing all the elements of the work through to the end? Even such minor questions as map scales, monetary systems, and how measurements and distances will be presented–English or metric–have to be resolved for consistency’s sake. Continue reading

Public history and policy: A synergy

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in 1951. Photo credit: Wikicommons.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in 1951. Photo credit: Wikicommons

As policy makers and politicians debate and make important policy decisions, they are constantly dealing with the past. They must consider what has been tried and failed, and what options were overlooked and why. These are questions that require an understanding of history. Without the benefit of a historian’s expertise, it’s hard to know what may be misremembered and whether we are repeating the mistakes of the past. Institutional memory can be unreliable or even absent. By analyzing policy history, professionally trained historians provide essential context that explains why certain things were done and enables policy makers to make better decisions in the present. Continue reading

Plugging back in to the sustainability conversation (and ungating our digital publication)

report coverConference-goers at the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting in Monterey, California, last March were given an advance look at a digital anthology compiled to complement the conference theme of “Sustainable Public History.”  Containing some materials from this blog, some from previous conference working groups focusing on environmental issues, and some new materials, the anthology, called “Public History in a Changing Climate,” was an effort to gather together some of the threads of what is still an emergent discussion within the field. Continue reading

Project Showcase: From Chautauqua to Ricketts


Edward F. Ricketts in 1939. Photo credit: The Pat Hathaway Photo Collection, California Views Historical Photo Collection, via Wikimedia

Donald Kohrs is Branch Library Specialist at the Miller Library of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. For his  presentation at the National Council on Public History conference last week in Monterey, California, Don shared his recent findings associated with summer gatherings of the Pacific Coast Assembly of the Chautauqua Literary and Science Circle (1880-1926) in Pacific Grove. The founders of the assembly placed strong emphasis on instruction in the natural sciences, romantic literature, and the arts.  During the Digital Project Showcase, Don also told the story of finding the original books that composed the scientific library of Edward F. Ricketts (a collection that the marine biologist had left to the seaside laboratory upon his untimely death in 1948) and his efforts to identify the original contents of Ricketts’ library.

Don has degrees in biology and library science.  In addition to his Chautauqua project, he is exploring the history of the Hopkins Seaside Laboratory (1892-1925), and the early years of the Hopkins Marine Station (1917-1950).

“Sustainable public history” means action in Monterey

protest banner

Public history? A Pennsylvania action by the group Marcellus Protest invokes the state’s constitution. Photo credit: Marcellus Protest

After an incredibly engaging and well-attended American Society for Environmental History conference in San Francisco last week, I arrived in Monterey excited to extend the conversation about the connections among environmental history, sustainability, and public history. I did not expect, however, that the term “sustainability” could rouse the activist roots of our profession.  “What to do?”, as one of the discussants in the ASEH panel I chaired on “Perspectives on Environmental History” asked in ending his presentation, seemed to be the question for Thursday. Continue reading

A good-enough platform for change

report cover

Today’s post is also the introduction to the born-digital publication “Public History in a Changing Climate,” available now to NCPH conference registrants and to other readers by summer 2014.

In a television interview last year, American writer and neo-agrarian icon Wendell Berry spoke about the “dreadful situation” facing young people who are grappling with the cascading environmental, economic, and social challenges linked with runaway capitalism and anthropogenic climate change.  Berry noted that the recognition of our big problems creates an expectation of equally big solutions, but added that our own answers and fixes have too often been part and parcel of those problems, because we’ve tended to impose them in a way that ignores the limitations and needs of the environments we inhabit.  Real change, he said, means learning to listen in new ways to the non-human world and refusing to be rushed or impatient even while acknowledging the urgent need for action.  “I think of them,” Berry said of younger people entering this arena, “and I say well, the situation you’re in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience.  And to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial.”

The idea of being patient in an emergency strikes me as useful for public historians to think about but from the opposite direction.  Rather than being impatient activists who need to be convinced of the value of patience, we tend to be inherently deliberate practitioners who haven’t collectively acknowledged that we are in fact in the midst of an emergency. Continue reading