Genealogy from below

Editor’s note: In “On Genealogy,” a revision of the plenary address delivered in October 2014 at the International Federation for Public History’s conference in Amsterdam, Jerome de Groot argues that widespread popular interest in genealogy, and the availability of mass amounts of information online, challenge established historiography and public history practice. He invites other public historians to contribute to a debate about how we might “investigate, theorize, and interrogate” the implications of this explosion of interest in genealogy. We invited four scholars to contribute to this discussion. Paul Knevel is the second of these scholars.  We hope you will post your comments to add to this discussion. 

The largest family tree in the world, as claimed by the International Family Museum in Eijsden, the Netherlands.  Image credit:

The largest family tree in the world, as claimed by the International Family Museum in Eijsden, the Netherlands. Photo credit:  International Museum for Family History

As could be expected by the author of the broad and lucid Consuming History, Jerome de Groot demonstrates in his article in The Public Historian an amazing ability to discuss thoroughly topics and themes that would for others take book-length or even career-length considerations. “Genealogy and Public History” thus not only deals with the various ways that genealogy and family history could be undertaken and imagined by various people and groups but also with such large and profound issues as the impact and construction of “knowledge infrastructures” in a digital age, the silencing character of the archive, the ethical sides of dealing with the dead, the neo-liberalisation of public space generated by commercial websites, “digital labour,” and many other themes and ideas. The result is a clever, multi-layered, insightful, and thought-provoking essay that challenges public historians to rethink today’s digital historical culture and practices, their own role, and the activities of millions of people (see the stunning figures mentioned by De Groot) who are doing genealogy and family history and thus trying to connect themselves with the past. Consequently, it is impossible to address in this short reaction all the topics and themes raised in De Groot’s article. Continue reading

Remembering David Kyvig

David Kyvig. Image source: The Public Historian

David Kyvig. Photo credit: The Public Historian

He was tall–but not intimidating.

He was funny–sometimes in the “bring down the house” style; sometimes just for chuckles.

He was balding–and joked about it.

He was a hard worker–which prompted others to match the pace.

He was a well-known public historian–with many publications.

He was a well-known constitutional historian–with many publications.

He always provided timely responses–for support letters, papers, committee work, articles, books.

He was a model collaborator.

He had many, many friends.

And in early March 1990 he became “Chair” (later President) of the National Council on Public History for one year, which he continued to remind us was actually 14 months. Continue reading

Project Showcase: Working History podcast

slsa-logoThe Southern Labor Studies Association (SLSA) has launched a new podcast, Working History. Hosted by SLSA President Beth English, Working History spotlights the work of leading labor historians, activists, and practitioners focusing on the U.S. South. The podcast is available for listening on iTunes and SoundCloud.

Working History seeks to inform public debate and dialogue about some of today’s key labor, economic, and political issues, with the benefit of historical context. Through the podcast SLSA is able to bring the research and expertise of its members to bear on an array of topics.

The inaugural episode, posted in June, features an interview with Hood College Assistant Professor Jay Driskell who discusses his book, Schooling Jim Crow, and traces the roots of black protest politics to early 20th century Atlanta and the right for equal education there. The latest episode features Professor Elizabeth Shermer of Loyola University Chicago, who talks about her forthcoming book on the impacts of corporate influence and the politics shaping higher education, past and present.

To keep up to date on future episodes, subscribe to Working History on iTunes or SoundCloud.

The Southern Labor Studies Association promotes the study, teaching, and preservation of southern labor history.  All podcast inquiries should be directed to Beth English at workinghistorypodcast[at]

Considering oral history as scholarship: Comments welcome

By Selena Wilke.  Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Selena Wilke. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 2007, a professor at a Texas university began a thread on H-Oralhist, the oral history listserv.  “I am up for tenure next fall,” she wrote, “and am struggling to prove to my dean that the gathering, transcribing, editing and archiving of oral history is ‘scholarship.’ I am regularly applauded for the fact that I have begun an oral history program, trained forty undergraduate and graduate students in oral history methodology, gathered and processed over eighty-five interviews (in the past three years), and reconnected dozens of former students with our university (I began a ‘former student’ oral history project). Despite all of this, the dean of my college does not seem to recognize this as valuable, original scholarship. She is very supportive and enthusiastic about the oral history program, it just seems I need to help her redefine it.”

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Developing your synthetic powers

Photo credit: Suzanne Fischer.

Photo credit: Suzanne Fischer

Doing public history, in all its diverse manifestations, requires certain specialized habits of mind. One of the most vital but also the most mysterious is synthesis.

When I begin work on an exhibition, such as the one I’ve been developing for the past two years, I read as many books and talk to as many people as I can, and then–I wait. I wait to wake up at 5 am with an exhibit concept plan fully formed in my head. I wait to discover an important idea by talking it out with a friend over coffee. I wait to be suddenly struck in the middle of a meeting with the solution to a convoluted conceptual problem that I immediately scribble down as if I’m taking notes on whatever the meeting is actually about. I wait–and I trust the process because I know it works and because I have developed and exercised my synthetic powers before and I know that they require patience. In comes 100 scholarly monographs, out comes 30 accessible fifty-word labels, without fail.

Though it can feel magical, especially once you’ve internalized the work it takes, synthesis is a creative skill that public historians can learn and teach. Continue reading

Top Gun “Introduction to Public History” for general education?

By Kucingbiru13 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A ‘top gun’ introduction to public history course for general education might be simpler than you’d think.

In 2006, when I arrived as “the public history hire” at DePaul University, in Chicago, my charge was to create an undergraduate public history concentration for history majors. At the time, the only public history course actively being taught was “Introduction to Public History,” a lower division course that served the university’s general education requirements. I decided that this course should stay on the books and that it would be one of two required courses (along with the internship) for would-be public history concentrators.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure my decision to keep this course on the books was a result of my being a bit overwhelmed. Not being native to Chicago and as a new tenure-line Assistant Professor with this public history charge, much of my time was absorbed with the business of forging new community connections while also designing (and getting approval for) an entirely new repertoire of public history courses. What? The “Introduction to Public History” has already been approved? Great! More time to develop internship prospects!

Within a few quarters, I resurrected the public history internship and developed a bevy of other courses: “Doing Local and Community History;” “Oral History Project;” “Women, Gender, and Public History;” “Living History and Historical Interpretation: American Historical Memory” (among others)–all courses for history majors and minors. Evaluations tended to be strong, but the “Introduction to Public History” course? I just couldn’t seem to ever get it quite right. Continue reading

Revealing slavery’s legacy at a public university in the South (Part 1)

This 1820 watercolor shows an early view of the campus.  Image:  South Caroliniana Library

This 1820 watercolor shows an early view of the campus. Photo credit: South Caroliniana Library of the University of South Carolina

Written on the landscape of the University of South Carolina is an untold yet well-documented story of slavery. Enslaved people constructed the buildings of the university’s antebellum predecessor, South Carolina College, attended to the wants of white students and faculty, and performed countless tasks essential to running the college. This story is not unique in the history of American colleges and universities. Even in places where slavery was not widespread, the profits from slavery helped fund institutions of higher learning. Scholars have been slow to examine American universities’ historical association with slavery, and universities have been even slower to acknowledge it. The current momentum, however, favors expanding the discussion of these complicated topics.  Continue reading

What good is theory in public history?

Photo credit:  mlcastle

Photo credit: mlcastle

Prompted by Suse Cairn’s June musings on whether museum professionals need theory in their working lives, we posed the same question via social media about public historians and gathered a handful of responses:

I think theory and reflexive thought is fascinating and, ideally, useful for planning project goals and critiquing ourselves as authors. In grad school, though, it seemed easier to discuss both theory and practice because we had down time together in work-like spaces of computer labs and student lounges, and, with similar classes, we were coming to the discussion with similar background information. Those factors seem harder to find or create in work situations. ~ Elizabeth Almlie (Historic Preservation Specialist, South Dakota State Historical Society)
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A monograph goes public

Screenshot of companion website for monograph.I remember well the day that I received my first copy of my first book, Independence Hall in American Memory. I picked it up in person from the offices of the University of Pennsylvania Press and could barely manage the walk home because of the temptation to stop, admire the beautiful dust jacket, open those pages, smell that new-book smell, and read. Every page contained memories of places, people, and experiences of piecing together a history that spanned more than two hundred years in a building’s life and nearly a decade of mine.

With that book, first published in 2002, I achieved tenure and promotion, and I was pleased to generate some new conversation about the long history of a landmark most commonly associated with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But while the monograph opened some doors (and perhaps some minds), it also carried with it some inherent limitations. Continue reading