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

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

A culinary school model for public history programs

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the number of academic public history programs, the saturation of the job market, and concern about the training students are receiving (see Robert Weyeneth’s article “A Perfect Storm”).  Curtailing the number of public history programs, growing the public history market, and accrediting programs are all big challenges. I’d like to propose a small change: that potential students gain work experience BEFORE they enter an academic program.

Does the culinary school model hold promise for public history education?  Photo credit: Bill Way, HPRMan on Flickr

What would happen if public history programs demanded that applicants worked in the public history field before they could apply to an academic program? Culinary schools have long used this model and have required that applicants have kitchen experience before they apply to a program. In fact, there are lots of similarities between culinary arts degree programs and public history programs. Continue reading

The lay of the land: Researching a national park’s administrative history

Mallard Island

Zenzen stayed on this island to learn about the Minnesota lake culture. Photo courtesy of Joan Zenzen.

I spent two weeks in July immersing myself in the life and feel of northern Minnesota, all in service of an administrative history I am writing of Voyageurs National Park.  I consider such experiential learning as another primary source that I can call upon when writing.  Public historians have the flexibility but also the challenge of identifying the needed resources for their topics.  What types of sources do I find most useful when writing about the establishment, preservation, and management of national parks?

Taking a tour and watching other visitors interact with features in the park are my entry to investigating the history of a park.  First, I need a sense of the geography so that when I write, I understand the lay of the land, beyond what I see on the park maps.  Second, I need that visceral experience, that “ooh-ahh” that explains why people fought to have the park established.  I need to feel that connection to the scenery and other features.  Third, I want to see how others react to the park’s beauty and mystery.  What grabs their attention?  What do they comment upon?  How do they move through the landscape?  I am not taking an official survey of visitors, but I am watching, learning, and mentally noting visitor reactions versus my own. Continue reading

Reading the artifact: A stove from a transitional moment

small stove

The authors chose this enigmatic little stove for their week-long exploration. (Source: Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, No. 1981.0040)

In August 2012, a group of 26 doctoral students and museum professionals from different disciplines and multiple countries gathered at the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) in Ottawa, Canada, for the fourth annual Reading Artifacts Summer Institute (RASI). The one-week program, guided by staff and volunteers from the museum with guest scholar Dr. Allison Marsh, a historian of technology from the University of South Carolina, offered participants three avenues to investigate the role of artifacts in society:

  1. as historical sources with multiple cultural meanings that shift over time,
  2. as teaching tools in museum environments, and
  3. as three-dimensional objects whose preservation and storage present additional information–and challenges–to the work of curators, conservators, historians, and educators.

In the CSTM’s cavern-like storage warehouses, where artifacts range from delicate light bulbs to a massive mid-nineteenth-century steam engine, it became immediately apparent how much effort–intellectual, physical, and fiscal–is needed to maintain collections. This is not a new story for the curatorial world, but, in the midst of the Digital Revolution, where more and more objects, people, and places exist as digital representations and relationships, the week offered an opportunity to rethink how and in what ways our work with artifacts contributes to the construction of meaning in a pluralistic society. Continue reading

Teaching tough issues: online vs. in-person?

At the NCPH annual meeting in Ottawa, Margo Shea and Will Walker, along with other public history educators interested in online teaching and learning, began a conversation about the challenges, risks, and opportunities of having civil and productive conversations about tough questions related to public history (i.e. class, race, gender, and sexuality issues) in an online class setting. Here they reflect on the differences between bricks-and-mortar and online classrooms, online facilitation issues, potential obstacles, and ingredients for transformative conversation and discourse. Continue reading