The “new normal”: Is there one?

panel participants

Lee White and Angela Sirna during the “New Normal” panel. Photo credit: Max Van Balgooy

“Sequester” was a dirty word during last year’s conference season. At the March 2013 conference of the George Wright Society in Denver, attendance was down nearly 75 percent because of travel limitations put into place right before the meeting. At the National Council on Public History meeting in Ottawa a few weeks later, I noticed a number of my colleagues were absent. Travel cutbacks were just at the top of a long list of issues caused by the recession and then the across-the-board US federal budget cuts known as sequestration. I was deeply disturbed by what I saw in Denver, and this was before I watched the gates close at Catoctin Mountain Park (where I was working at the time) in October 2013 when the federal government shut down. I hoped that public historians could talk openly at this year’s meeting in Monterey and share responses to their “new normal.” Fortunately the program committee agreed, and on Thursday, March 20, we held an open conversation in a session titled “Situation Normal? Ways Past Sequestrations, Shutdowns, and Budgetary Woes.” Continue reading

What’s your new “Situation Normal”?

protester with sign

US federal government workers at an August 2013 protest of budget sequestration and employee furloughs. Photo credit: American Federation of Government Employees

As I sit down to write this post (and by the way, this is my first “official” history blog post), I am pondering what my “New Situation Normal” is as a public history practitioner for a federal agency. How has my work reality changed, for good and for ill, over the past 16 years? Certainly, technology and social media provide public historians with avenues to new and varied audiences. And with the Internet’s narrowing of time and space, interesting and exciting possibilities now exist for researchers and public historians.

However, there have been less positive workplace changes, namely budgetary and staffing constraints, which have created stresses and reprioritization at work for many American public historians in the public and private sector—as well as in other countries—regardless of agency or organization. Continue reading

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

Bridging the new digital divide: Open records in the age of digital reproduction

deed books

Deed books line the walls of the DeKalb County, Ga., land records research room. Photo credit: David S. Rotenstein.

The depression of 1893 hit the Atlanta Suburban Land Company hard.  The Georgia firm, founded in 1890 to develop residential subdivisions along a new six-mile streetcar line linking downtown Atlanta with Decatur to the east, had bought nearly 2,000 acres in its first two years in business. But by 1896, it was more than $100,000 in debt, and a receiver held its assets. In its fall 1896 term, the Fulton County Superior Court ordered the receiver to sell the remaining real estate to settle the debts.

More than a century later, I requested the case files. The Fulton County Clerk employee who handed them to me once they had been retrieved from offsite storage told me that if I wanted copies of the tri-folded documents, I would have to request them from the service counter, and another staff member would photocopy them on a Xerox-type machine for fifty cents apiece.

My request to take flash-free digital photos was rebuffed despite my explanation that it would be better for the aging documents than forcing them flat against a copier’s glass platen and then closing the machine’s cover. I also questioned whether mandatory third-party intervention for copying records was consistent with Georgia’s Open Records Act (O.C.G.A. §50-18-70), and I was invited to speak with the county clerk. Continue reading

Collegial questioning: A new forum on history in the US National Park Service (Part 3)

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.

fort and ocean

Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park, Key West, Florida. Photo credit: Matthew Paulson.

~ Christine Arato, Chief Historian, National Park Service, Northeast Region

After Imperiled Promise landed with something of a magnificent thud almost two years ago, I liken the NPS response to a progression along the five stages of grief articulated by Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. I’m not sure where the agency is as a whole, though I think that our public conversations at Rutgers-Camden earlier this month intimate that some members of the family are striding towards healing and new life. And while I’m not certain if the grieving metaphor is entirely apt—since the Organization of American Historians (OAH) report suggests that the patient was merely moribund—I do think that the OAH’s rather grave prognosis has helped us to introduce some healthy exercise regimens, including the initiatives described by my colleague Lu Ann Jones, both at Rutgers-Camden and again, here, in this virtual forum, which articulate and embody the assertion that history is at the heart of the NPS and, more importantly, is a pillar of civic life. Continue reading

Collegial questioning: A new forum on history in the US National Park Service (Part 2)

fence with sign

Signs at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, Colorado. Photo credit:

Continued from Part 1

~ Seth Bruggeman, Associate Professor of History and Director, Center for Public History, Temple University

I’ve been fortunate to have had several points of contact with the Imperiled Promise report since its release, from attending early conference sessions with its authors to being a conversation facilitator myself and, most recently, speaking about where it may lead the NPS’s history program.  From the outset, I’ve worried that the report, like so much grey literature commissioned by the agency, would languish on some forgotten shelf.  So far, at least, that is not the case, thanks largely to the authors—especially Marla Miller and Ann Mitchell Whisnant—and others who’ve played a critical role in ensuring an audience for the report.

Who that audience is, however, and how it discusses the report, raises another set of questions. Continue reading

Collegial questioning: A new forum on history in the US National Park Service (Part 1)

Editor’s Note:  On November 6, 2013, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH) at Rutgers University-Camden convened a public forum to explore the changing presentation of history in US national parks.  The gathering took as its starting point the 2011 report “Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Parks,” which has sparked other similar conversations over the past year and a half (for example, this one a year ago in Boston).

In this three-part series, some of the participants in the event reflect on the state of the conversation about history in the Park Service and their personal and professional takeaways from the gathering.


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Outline of Benjamin Franklin’s house, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Shana L. McDanold.

Charlene Mires, Director, Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities

At the forum at Rutgers-Camden, the Imperiled Promise report framed the conversation, but it was clear that we had turned a corner from reviewing its findings to thinking about its implications for our work.  The event created time and space for discussion and reflection on individual practice. Whatever may occur at the level of agency reform, change will require action on the ground by individuals such as those who participated.  I hope that ways will be found to highlight their transformative work as models for the future.  While I was glad to see how the conversation is evolving, I also came away from the forum concerned about the need to widen the circle of participation.  Nearly all of the university-based scholars who attended were faculty in public history programs — what will it take to interest more of our colleagues?  If the state of history in the national parks cannot muster greater attention within the profession, what are the chances of building public and political support for the resources that the Imperiled Promise report identifies as essential? Continue reading

Race, politics, and property: Two cases of gentrification (Part 2)

city and ocean

View of Muizenberg from Buoys Drive.  Photo credit:  Flickr user André van Rooyen

Continued from Part 1

Shortly after it was established in 2005, the Muizenberg Municipal Improvement District (MID) Board went to work to eliminate the refugee/renter population.  This was obviously not how things were described, but the intention was unmistakable.  Moreover, MID insiders were quite prepared to admit this to residents – as long as they were white and middle class – on the assumption that those qualities guaranteed agreement with the board’s course of action.  I was one of those regularly taken into confidence by my MID-leaning neighbours because of my skin colour.

Two initiatives stand out.  First, the MID filed a flurry of code complaints against the absentee owners of the multiunit structures, as well as some of the row houses in the central village area.  Crucially, they were unable to bring action directly against the landlords but rather had to file complaints with the City of Cape Town calling for enforcement of by-laws against crowding, dilapidation, and so on.   Unfortunately for the MID crowd, the City of Cape Town had reverted to control by the African National Congress in the municipal elections of 2006.  Because of this, the City dragged its feet in responding to these complaints, mainly because the Muizenberg City Council seat was held by the opposition Democratic Party and therefore considered low priority. Continue reading

Race, politics, and property: Two cases of gentrification (Part 1)

aerial view of city

Aerial view of Muizenberg, Cape Town, South Africa (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I moved to Decatur, Georgia, six years ago, after 25 years living in a small neighbourhood of Cape Town, South Africa, called Muizenberg.  David Rotenstein’s recent blog posts  about his experience in Decatur – which led to his abandoning the suburb – struck me as an interesting opportunity to compare and contrast the politics of gentrification in the two places.

Muizenberg and Decatur are similar in many ways.  Both are small, well-defined enclaves of a larger metropolitan area.  Both have a history of decline, followed by rapid gentrification.  Both communities are riven by disagreements over the nature and desirability of that process. Continue reading