UWO

Where to begin?

About a year and a half ago, I moved to London.  No, not that London.  The other one.  In Ontario, about a two hour drive south of Toronto.  I was just beginning the Public History MA Program at the University of Western Ontario, and anticipating that I would have to field a lot of inquiries there as I had in Vancouver, where acquaintances, relatives, co-workers, and generally well-meaning people interested in my career goals had inquired what exactly “public history” was.

My answers were usually prefaced by a nervous, apologetic chuckle; they were also often riddled with ellipses:

“Public history…well…hehe…you see…it’s, uh, history…for the public! Ha ha…ahem.”

Of course, I learned to articulate more sophisticated answers before I left — such as “I’m going to study how history has been communicated to the public as well as participate in the communication of history to the public” — but they never deterred the practical listener from asking the typical, and typically dreaded, question:

“Oh.  Well – what are you going to do with that?”

If I felt the listener was at all capable of secret, impractical dreams, I’d share about my interest in history and communication and design, about how I hoped to develop exhibit content one day because I enjoyed research and writing and uncovering the compelling -story part of history – or herstory! – to share with a wide audience.

But if I was tired – and dubious of my listener’s sympathies, I’d simply say “museums.”  Understanding would dawn in my interlocutor’s eyes, followed by a shadow of pity – for the narrow field I’d chosen.

“Vancouver doesn’t have a lot of, uh, museums,” they’d say, after a significant pause.

You can imagine my surprise then, when three of the first handful of people I met in London, outside of my peer group, did not look at me with confusion, pity, or disbelief when they heard about what I was studying and learned that I had flown all the way from Vancouver to study it.

Although these listeners all came from different backgrounds – one was a Master’s student in the Department of Mathematics at Western; the other a PhD candidate in Physics, also at Western; and the third a congenial middle-aged employee from Loblaws – their responses were unified in their recognition of the relevance of such a program – or, rather, the relevance of such a program’s approach.  Both UWO students in fact drew analogies between Public History and — wonder of wonders! — other scientific fields based on the common ground that they were all about communicating specialized knowledge to a general audience in a comprehensible way.

So, I heard for instance about how a friend of the Mathematics student, studying Geography, was enrolled in a course geared towards presenting information about natural disasters and how to prepare for them to an uninitiated audience.  I also learned that the PhD candidate was involved in explaining developments in biophysical engineering to a non-scientific crowd.

As for the friendly Loblaws employee, with whom I had begun a conversation while we were both waiting for the bus, she was eager to hear about the potential of the Web for making history engaging and accessible.  Moreover, she was excited about its educational prospects in a Digital Age and could understand why I had chosen to pursue this field.

“How exciting!” she had repeated, again and again, during the course of our conversation.  (“How odd,” I had thought, again and again, that she could understand my enthusiasm and imagine the work I’d be doing better than some intellectual professionals I had encountered.)

I’ve never forgotten these three Londoners; they gave me hope that perhaps the field I’d entered was not so curious – or impractical – after all.

And hope, I remember, was something I greatly needed as a new student to London at the time who, being a generally risk-adverse-“let’s-weigh-all-the-pros-and-cons-of-a-decision”-type person, had just thrown caution to the wind to move east.  I had left a comfortable position at a local university – you know, one with regular pay and benefits; what aspiring Public History students dare to dream about at night – where I had been working for a solid three years in order to move to (the other) London in pursuit of what seemed a vague dream at best.  To find out that that dream was not so nebulous, not so incomprehensible as feared, when I described it, haltingly, to three strangers, was a thrilling relief.

Since that time, and especially after a most rewarding internship at the fabulous City of Vancouver Archives this past fall (and if you’ve never associated the word “fabulous” with “archives” before, please be forewarned: I fully intend on convincing you of this association in future posts), I’ve learned that the reaction of those three Londoners was not a strange fluke of a sympathetic universe.

The idea that had resonated with them, what I had learned to articulate better by then – the idea of taking specialized knowledge and making it accessible to an uninitiated audience – is one that is not so very impractical at all.  Many, many professionals do it: from doctors and pharmacists who have to communicate important and complex information to those for whom medical language would be gibberish, to programmers and developers who have to work closely with non-technical clients whose vision of a particular application’s functions may not be, let us say, technically sound or practicable.

The ability to translate esoteric knowledge into palatable information – what Public Historians in training must learn to do and do well – is applicable to those fields that deal with the general public.  And, at last count, there are 2, 933 fields that do this.  Alright, I just made up that number, but you know what I mean.  Walk into any bookstore, for instance, and you cannot miss the countless number of books by subject experts written purposely for the layperson.

What perhaps sets a Public Historian’s training apart from, say, that of a doctor or a pharmacist (other than, you know, the fact that we don’t have to deal with cadavers or chemical substances) is that we also learn how to make the knowledge we’re sharing compelling and engaging, not just informative.

Yes, that might mean that we play the entertainer and not just the educator a lot of the time, but we try to be responsible, ethical entertainers.  And also, I think it’s safe to say, (almost) everyone likes to hear a good story – so why not tell one if you can?  History is certainly full of them, just waiting to be told.  How it is told to a general audience – using what words, what images, what methods, what technologies – lies in the province of Public History.

After completing the program at Western and having a chance to translate theory into practice at a local archival institution, I can only say this: I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to venture into the study of Public History as well as to have had the support of family and friends who, if they didn’t altogether understand why I had chosen this particular career path, still cheered me on from a distance – and continue to cheer me on now, as I begin an exciting position as part-time Archivist at the City of Vancouver Archives, responsible for outreach efforts.

And that nervous chuckle that once was a knee-jerk reaction whenever anyone asked me what I was studying?  Gone.  In its place is an enthusiastic determination to get the word out about the value of history to society.  And by the way, I’m fully intent on making history and archives sexy.  But that is for another post altogether.  🙂

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“I hope somehow to be able to speak what Manan Ahmed calls “future-ese,” to be able to learn (some of) the language of the programmer over the course of this year so that I can begin to “re-imagine“, as Ahmed has exhorted, the old in new ways. I’m excited, if duly daunted, by the prospects.” ~ Quoted from my first blog post, 10 September 2008.

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If I ever meet Manan Ahmed, whose Polyglot Manifestos I and II were two of the very first assigned readings for our Digital History class, I would let him know that, like any effective manifesto, his inspired me to take a certain course of action this year – to sign up for the role of Programmer for the digital exhibit that the class would be preparing on the work of Dr. William Harvey.

Incidentally, if I ever did meet Manan Ahmed, I would also casually let him know that I hold him entirely responsible for the sleepless nights I had, agonizing over the code for the program I was attempting to write for an interactive exhibit on Harvey.

I might add here that I knew as much about programming as I did about APIs and mashups prior to this year, which is to say, nada.

(Accusatory) jesting aside, I’ve been reflecting on what it has been like to learn programming from scratch over the course of this school year. I was inspired, as mentioned, by Ahmed’s call for the historian to be more than simply a scholar submerged in past-ese without regard for how their studies might be made relevant to a modern audience (i.e. in present-ese) or how it might be re-imagined in the age of mass-digitization (i.e. in future-ese). How compelling was his call for historians to be “socially-engaged scholar[s],” how apt his challenge for us to become polyglots – master “togglers,” if you will, between past-ese, present-ese, and future-ese – apt especially to those of us with public history ambitions, who had entered the program interested in communicating the past to a general audience in new (i.e. digital) ways. [1]

“All that is required,” Ahmed wrote simply (alas, too simply), as a directive for historians willing to venture into the programmer’s world, “is to expand our reading a bit.” [2]

After my eight-month foray into programming, the words “all” and “a bit” in Ahmed’s above statement strike me as just a tad bit understated. I agree that reading was certainly a major part of my process to learn how to program this year: I pored over, highlighted, marked up, and even wrote conversational notes to the authors of my text (such as the occasional “not clear!”). But I think Ahmed might have also mentioned that not only reading but practicing, experimenting, fumbling, failing, and, yes, even agonizing, are all part of the process of learning how to speak some of the programmer’s language.

Like immersion into any new language, programming has its own set of daunting rules to absorb; break any one of them and you won’t be understood – at all. The program simply won’t run. (I don’t know how many error messages I gnashed my teeth at.) As well, like any language, there is always more than one way to say the same thing – and some of them are more “logical,” “eloquent,” or just plain clearer than others; concision and verbosity, I’ve learned, apply equally in the programmer’s world as they do in the writer’s. (I’ve also observed that my tendency to be wordy applies equally too in the world of code. In fact, I was delighted to learn about the concept of iteration, where lines of repetitive code could be magically – well, okay, mathematically – reduced to a few simple lines, using variables and a certain formula. If only paring down written text were so easy!)

Needless to say, I found the immersion into the programmer’s language very challenging. It was challenging (and, I will admit, even harrowing at times) because not only was I trying to accumulate basic knowledge of the new language, I was also brainstorming ideas for an interactive exhibit on Harvey at the same time. In some ways, it felt like I was trying to devise a Shakespearean sonnet in Chinese or with the vocabulary of a second grader (which is pretty much the extent of my vocabulary in Chinese). All I could envision was something rudimentary at best.

It was challenging to design an exhibit as I was learning the new language simply because I did not know if the ideas that I or others had were actually possible, or, more precisely, would be actually possible for me to learn how to do within the time limit. (I also discovered a humorous difference between the kinds of ideas thrown out by those in Programming versus those in non-Programming roles; the “anything is possible” optimism that technology seems to inspire was not so readily exhibited by those of us who had confronted, and would still have to confront, the befuddling intricacies of code.)

Despite all the challenges, uncertainties, and yes, even secret fears that the particular interactive exhibit I was working on might not come to fruition, things worked out. We hosted our Digital Exhibit on Harvey in early April; all programs functioned; no computers crashed (thank goodness). Looking back to September and my reasons for deciding to learn how to program, I think I am glad, after all, that Ahmed had made it sound so simple. With just a bit of reading, he had written coaxingly, the socially-conscious scholar will be well on his or her way to programming, to filling that gap between the public and the past, and between computer scientists and the future of history. If he had spelled out all the emotions one was apt to go through when learning how to program, I’d probably not have taken it on and thus have missed out on learning to speak a new language, on learning to speak in code.

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[1] Manan Ahmed, “The Polyglot Manifesto I,” Chapati Mystery, http://www.chapatimystery.com/archives/univercity/the_polyglot_manifesto_i.html.

[2] Manan Ahmed, “The Polyglot Manifesto II,” Chapati Mystery, http://www.chapatimystery.com/archives/univercity/the_polyglot_manifesto_ii.html.

This week’s Public History readings examine the relationship between history and the environment. Both Rebecca Conard’s and David Glassberg’s articles mention a key idea that environmental historians take for granted: that there is nothing natural about “nature”, nothing inevitable about the way that physical landscapes have evolved over time. The presupposed dichotomy between the urban and the “wild”, between human beings, on the one hand, and the “natural” environment, on the other, is not so clear cut at all. Rather, as Glassberg and Conard show, individuals, communities, organizations, and governments have played an important (if at times unnoticed or unemphasized) role in shaping the physical landscape. [1]

Both authors point out how the environment has often reflected the heavy hand of human agency in order to make it conform to certain ideas about desirable landscapes. Their discussions of national parks, in particular, suggest that what a landscape does not show is just as important – or even more so – than what it does show. Speaking of national parks in the western United States, Glassberg writes that “the landscapes tourists encountered in these parts, seemingly inhabited only by elk and buffalo, would not have existed if the native peoples had not first been defeated and removed to reservations, and the wildlife populations carefully managed to encourage picturesque megafauna and discourage pesky wolves.” [2] Similarly, Conard mentions how the desire of the US National Park Service to present parks as “pristine” and “uninhabited” spaces were influenced by ideas about the “romantic wilderness”; such an approach to national parks meant that visitors would not see that “these landscapes were ‘uninhabited’ only because U.S. Indian removal policies either had killed the former inhabitants or had relocated them to reservations” [3].

What’s missing from the physical landscape, then, is as instructive as what is apparent to the naked eye. How to convey a landscape’s significance and complexity to a general (and often uninformed) audience, in terms of its cultivated image as well as the absence or removal of elements of its historical development, remains an important task for the public historian. It’s a task that, as Conard strongly suggests, would benefit from discussion and collaboration among those who are intimately involved in preserving and presenting the history of the environment: historic preservationists, environmentalists, and land managers. [4]

In essence, Glassberg’s and Conard’s articles remind me that the landscape is also a source of historical information. It can be “read” as a historical text for insights into the changing values of a community, region, or nation over time. “Landscapes,” as Glassberg writes, “are not simply an arrangement of natural features, they are a language through which humans communicate with one another.” [5] Of course, as the author shows, this language is a complex one, reflecting conflicting interpretations and understandings of the environment. These conflicts also raise important questions about how one conception of the landscape comes to dominate others (and thus to shape its preservation and development in specific ways), requiring us to ask, as Glassberg does, “whose side won out and why?” [6]

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[1] Rebecca Conard, “Spading Common Ground” in Public History and the Environment, edited by Ed. Martin V. Melosi and Philip V. Scarpino, (Florida: Krieger, 2004) 3-22. David Glassberg, “Interpreting Landscapes,” in ibid., 23-36.

[2] Glassberg, 25.

[3] Conard, 6.

[4] Ibid., 4-5, 8.

[5] Glassberg, 29.

[6] Ibid.

When I was studying history as an undergraduate student, I was particularly fascinated by discussions about historiography. Perhaps it was the influence of my English Lit background, but I tended to do close readings of historical accounts, approaching them almost as literary texts that reflected much about the assumptions and attitudes, biases and values of the writer. It was therefore interesting to be asked in certain history classes to analyse the works of historians not primarily for what they revealed about the past, but for what insights they provided about the particular way of doing history that was “in vogue” at the time.

Over the course of this year, I’ve seen how the idea of the present’s imposition on the past is as applicable to public history as it is to traditional, scholarly history. History in the public realm is certainly as much (or perhaps even more) about the present — that is, the “present” of whoever is, or was, writing the history, composing the plaque text, or curating the exhibit, for instance — as it is about the past.

Museums, for example, as Helen Knibb’s article, “ ‘Present but not Visible’: Searching for Women’s History in Museum Collections,” suggests, do not necessarily present information, in the context of women’s history, about the actual lives and experiences of women from a particular time period. Instead, the artifacts may reveal more about the preoccupations and personal tastes of curators, or about the collecting or donating impulses of those whose items are on display. With regards to the latter, Knibb suggests that women may have simply donated items they thought were important from the standpoint of the museum or of society, rather than in relation to their own experiences. She raises the interesting question of whether “museum collections tell us more about how women collect than how they lived their lives.” [1] Knibb’s article reminds me that museums themselves are constructed sites that are very much influenced by contemporary concerns.

The idea that public history is as much about the time period of the people presenting the history as it is about the history being presented is, I’m sure, hardly startling. But it does remind me of the need which underlies the rationale for these blogs – the need for self-reflexivity. As history students, my peers and I have been trained to read historical accounts critically, with an eye open to its constructed nature, to the ways in which the account reflects the biases of the historian and the preoccupations of his or her time. As public history practitioners, we will have to direct that critical gaze inwards, to assess how our own assumptions and biases are shaping the histories we will help to produce. Moreover, we will also have to negotiate our way through the assumptions and biases of others, who, in the collaborative realm of public history, will also have a stake – sometimes a very substantial one – in the history-making process. Given how contentious history in the public realm can be, not only the need for critical self-reflection but also the ability to practice what Rebecca Conard has called the “art of mediation” [2] are crucial requirements for the practicing public historian.

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[1] Helen Knibb, “‘Present But Not Visible’: Searching For Women’s History in Museum Collections,” Gender & History 6 (1994): 355, 361-362. The quote is from page 362.

[2] Rebecca Conard, “Facepaint History in the Season of Introspection,” The Public Historian 25, no. 4 (2003): 16. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/.

I like words. I like their abundance. Their variety. The different nuances that they contain. I like how a word like “melancholy,” for example, has a slightly different flavour than “forlorn,” or how the word “myth” conveys something deeper – more emotional, more enduring, more fluid – than its neutral variant, “story.”

Now, most of my Public History peers would probably say that I don’t just like words – I like polysyllabic words. I’ll be the first to admit that long-ish and rather atypical words have a tendency to come to me, unbidden, and that I have an equal tendency to utter them aloud, without thinking. This penchant for the polysyllabic has sometimes even gotten me into trouble, won me unintended notoriety among my peers. 😉

As someone studying in the field of Public History, I realize that I have to think especially carefully about the words that I use, not only because using the “wrong” word can alienate a general audience but also because choosing the “right” word involves weighing various needs, such as those of the client and of the audience, as well as my own for precise language and “good” history. So, while I might immediately prefer the word “auspicious” over “lucky” or feel that “appropriated” explains a situation more clearly than “took,” I’m learning to pause and reconsider the effects of my instinctive word choices, and I’m learning to negotiate the sometimes conflicting needs and desires that exist at the micro-level of diction.

What I didn’t expect was to have to consider the machine as an audience as well. And yet that is what Dan Cohen’s blog post has drawn to my attention. In “When Machines are the Audience,” Cohen suggests that the age of machine-readable text means that we’ll need to write a little differently – or at least with the awareness that what we write can be more, or less, visible in a digital environment depending on the words that we use. The implication is that because text can be read by machines and mined using keyword searches, it is better to use precise and even unique terms or tags in related documents, so that the writing can be more easily searched, grouped, or retrieved. Cohen mentions, for example, how coming up with a unique string of words to identify related history websites can facilitate the process of narrowing searches to these sites only, so that relevant research information can be found. He also cites the example of a legitimate, history-related email being marked as spam, because of its unfortunate use of certain words that are high on the list of favorites for spammers. [1]

Looking over the words I used in a recent email to a friend, I’ll confess that terms ranging from “usurp” and “misnomer” to “vignette” and “quadratic” (yes, as in the quadratic equation) made their way in. (You are probably feeling some pity for my friend right now.) However, I’m consoled, and slightly amused, by the fact that what stands out as atypical word usage is precisely what spam filters ignore. At least, in this area, my penchant for the polysyllabic – for what’s seen as the atypical – has some redemptive purpose. 🙂
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[1] Daniel J. Cohen, “When Machines are the Audience,” Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog, http://www.dancohen.org/blog/posts/when_machines_are_the_audience.

Intricacy

In my archives class this past term, I had the opportunity to learn more about the possibility and potential of the Web for the promotion of history. Throughout the course, our professor, Dr. Don Spanner, introduced us to many interesting archival and historical resources freely available online, such as a database that provides access to late-19th century Canadian county atlases, so useful for genealogical research, as well as a terrific “meta” site that sums up the “Best of the Web” in terms of heritage-related web design.

As well, each student in the class was required to analyze an effective website created by, or exhibiting a collection from, an archival institution and prepare a 20-minute presentation on it, discussing such aspects as design, usability, content, and intended audience. I have to confess that although I have known, in an ideas-sense, that the Web offers new and exciting possibilities for the presentation of the past, I have not, in fact, plumbed its depths. I’ve only really skimmed its virtual surface, having been inclined to delve into history books more often than the History Web. Consequently, listening to the presentations of my peers, as well as learning about new sites from Don’s lectures, was a truly eye-opening experience.

* * * * *

I did not know, for example, that humour was something that archives preserve. Yet Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a unique collection entitled The Weird and Wacky in their wonderful online photography exhibit, Framing Canada, which Dave presented on. The collection certainly captures, as LAC’s introduction points out, some of the more quirky and humorous moments in history. (I particularly liked the rather incongruent photo of a very young boy posing with his rooster while smoking a cigarette!)

Not only the whimsical quality, but the richness and abundance of historical images, photographs, and artwork available on the Web are also astonishing. Sophie introduced us to a fascinating and colourful website created by La Bibliothèque nationale de France that delves into the allegorical world of medieval bestiaries. At this site, explanatory text is kept to a minimum. What takes centre stage are the colourful, interpretive images of animals as conceived of, and understood by, those living in the medieval age. In a pre-literate society, images must have played an important didactic role and I think such medieval artwork lend themselves perfectly to the environment of the Web, where the visual requires more emphasis than the textual. (We’ve all groaned, I’m sure, at text-heavy sites which show little regard for the audience’s needs and expectations.) Also, as Sophie discussed, this digital exhibit presents a completely different side to medieval history – it is history realized through pictures, one that is much more palatable and compelling to a general audience.

Melissa too selected an interesting website focusing on images. She presented on the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery, an extensive and searchable online resource that contains an astonishing number of freely accessible images – more than 640,000, all of which have been digitized from the library’s vast and diverse collections. As Don had commented, such abundance and access could not even have been dreamed of a short time ago. As part of her presentation, Melissa showed us the photographs taken by Lewis Hine, a late-19th/early 20th-century American photographer, available on the NYPL’s Digital Gallery. Having just discovered Hine’s work myself in connection with the website I presented on, I was thrilled to see more of his captivating photographs, poignant picture-stories that revealed the starkness of child labour (such as this unforgettable image of a young girl in a factory).

In addition to the plethora of images available online, databases containing all sorts of interesting historical information abound on the Web. Suppose you would like to look at service records of those who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in World War One – LAC, as I’ve learned from one of my archives reference assignments, has already anticipated this interest and created a searchable database providing access to these records as well as scanned images of actual Attestation papers of CEF soldiers. Or suppose you are interested in the grittiness of social history, say, the history of crime – several universities in the UK have joined forces to develop a website that provides access to the court proceedings of men and women who were tried in London’s central criminal court, the Old Bailey. This website, presented by Angela, contains records for close to 200,000 criminal trials held between 1674 all the way to 1913. Such easy access to such interesting and extensive records of everyday history hardly seems possible without the age of digitized and networked data.

Some other websites that my peers presented on have also convinced me that there has likely been no better time to be a History or Social Studies teacher than the present. The kinds of resources that have been made available online for elementary and secondary teachers in the humanities are remarkable. Once again LAC’s efforts are to be commended: as Sarah has shown, LAC has created an online Learning Centre geared for teachers and students, complete with educational resources and tools, like lesson plans, activities, quizzes, games, and research skills development guides, as well as providing access to primary source documents reflecting Canadian history and culture.

Tom also explored the potential of the Web for educational purposes by examining the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History website, a creative site that connects history with detective work. Its creators have identified various mysteries in Canadian History that were never resolved, have pulled together primary source documents about these cases, and urge the user to come up with his or her own conclusions in a “who dunnit?” fashion. The motivation behind the site is the perceptive idea, as stated on their “About Us” page, that “students can be drawn into Canadian history and archival research through the enticement of solving historical cold crimes.”

What is particularly wonderful about such educational websites like the Learning Centre and the Unsolved Mysteries site is the ways in which they are teaching students not only certain aspects of Canadian History but also about how good history is done.

“Original documents,” states the “Introduction” page on the Learning Centre, “bring Canadian history and culture directly to students, allowing them to examine evidence from the past and decide for themselves what really happened.”

In a similar vein, the creators of the Unsolved Mysteries site, in upbeat language addressed directly to the student-user, introduce the idea of doing history, right from the outset. They state on the homepage:

Please check your preconceptions about “History” at the door. “Doing History” is not memorizing dates, politicians and wars. That is all just context. “Doing History” is the work of the detective, the gumshoe, the private eye — and we need you to take on this job. All we are left with are traces, artifacts, clues, hints and allegations. Putting those together, weighing the evidence, assessing the credibility of witness accounts, sorting out contradictions, and showing how your solution to the mysteries is the best of all the alternatives — that is “Doing History”.

As someone whose interest in the past arose only in university, after I learned that there was more to history than just the straightforward, textbook versions offered in highschool (which reduced the past to dry summaries of factual information, devoid of the colour, controversy, and contestation that are the stuff of history), I am amazed at the sophistication of current educational websites that seek to teach students early on how to think critically about the past. The potential of the Web for the promotion not only of history – i.e. the details about past events, people, ideas, etc. – but of historiography – i.e. the ways in which histories are constructed and contested; the process of how we come to understand and re-construct a past that is only ever available to us in fragments – is truly exciting.

In learning about the different sites available on the web, I’ve seen firsthand how effective design – one which attracts the user; presents information in a colourful, consistent, and accessible way; is easy to navigate; and includes interactive elements – is crucial in enticing the visitor to explore and to return to the site. In the virtual world, form is certainly just as crucial as content. Links to the many colourful and effective sites that Don introduced us to can be found on his course website (under “Calendar of Topics”, then “Lecture Outline” for whichever topic chosen). In particular, Don’s lecture on Digital Outreach contains links to exhibits that display the ingenuity and creativity flourishing on the web. The Digital Vaults website, created by National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), especially had all of the students exclaiming over its attractive and interactive Flash component.

Primary source documents, removed from their traditional archival setting and reconfigured in a slick digital environment, have never appeared more compelling.

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For my own presentation, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a terrific digital exhibit, also created by NARA (in conjunction with the Foundation for the National Archives), entitled “Eyewitness: American Originals from the National Archives.” This online exhibit presents twenty-six first-hand accounts of dramatic moments in history, from 1775 to 1979, that were in some way connected to Americans, usually notable ones like Thomas Jefferson, Lady Bird Johnson, and President John F. Kennedy. The exhibit features diverse archival materials held by NARA and its Presidential Libraries, ranging from diaries, letters, memos, and transcripts to photographs and audio and visual recordings. Developed as an extension of a physical exhibit that was on display in the National Archives library in June 2006, the digital exhibit exists in both Flash and HTML formats.

The Flash version of the website, upon which I based my presentation, is very compelling. Before I even read the accompanying text, I was drawn to its visual design. The creators of the site have selected excellent photographs and artwork for the Introduction page and for each of the eyewitness accounts. They have also taken care to integrate explanatory text with the images in a way that does not detract from the picture on display (see, for example, the John Lewis account). From the modern colour scheme with its use of negative (in this case, black) space to the simple navigation and self-explanatory icons to the consistent and balanced layout of visual and textual items, the design makes the exploration of the website’s content irresistible. Add to that the ability to zoom in on primary source documents for enhanced clarity, to read transcriptions of audio and visual recordings as they play, and to access the site in HTML (for older browser formats), and we have a site that is accessible to a very wide audience.

If the website is visually compelling, it is also textually so. The introduction to each of the eyewitness accounts is very well-written, at times including the kind of vivid, sensory details that one might find in a work of fiction. The quotes that are excerpted, often appearing on the left hand panel within each account, are also well-selected, often dramatic, exciting, or tense in tone. They compel the visitor to explore the archival materials further, to read the document containing the quoted words in full. The explanatory captions are also well-composed, informative without ever descending into the “dry-history-textbook” tone.

In revisiting the Eyewitness site, it strikes me how much the development of history-related websites requires a truly conceptual, non-linear approach. Unlike an article or a book, a documentary or a film, the content on history websites can be viewed in countless configurations. This means that every section of the site – perhaps even every page – needs to be self-explanatory and self-contained to a certain extent. It also means that editing online content cannot simply consist of moving orderly through the site to make sure the information makes sense in a linear fashion. Although creators of a site may have a certain order in mind, there is no guarantee that it will be adhered to by postmodern users (with our compulsive clicking/browsing habits and short attention span!). Also writing history for an online environment poses new challenges, especially if text is overlaid on images to create visual interest (as it is in the Eyewitness site) or if it is limited to the size of the screen (for instance, there is no need to scroll in the Eyewitness site, which is a great design feature but poses stricter limits to how much can be written in the introduction to each account).

The need to consider a multitude of factors in website development – such as the choice of colours, fonts, and layout, the selection of archival materials that must be not only historically but also visually compelling, the requirement to write in an engaging manner within the limits of the design, the recognition that users do not acquire content in a linear fashion – makes the presentation of history on the Web extremely challenging. Yet, its multifaceted character is also what makes it so very interesting – and reminds me about why I decided to pursue Public History in the first place.

Courtyard of Glendon College

During the last weekend in September, I had the good fortune to be able to attend my first – I hesitate to call it this, for reasons that should become apparent – academic conference hosted at the Glendon College campus of York University in Toronto.

It’s true that academics organized this conference – several energetic PhD students from York & University of Toronto spent over a year putting it together. It’s also true that a good number of academics attended it – there were scholars from universities across Canada and even in the States. And, in terms of organization, scholarship, presentation, and professionalism, I am sure the conference rivalled any others that are set within the academy. But to call this particular gathering an academic conference is to undercut somewhat its very reason for being, which was to consider history – and how history is done – beyond the walls of the university, at the level of community.

The organizers named this conference “Active History: History for the Future” and their welcome statement in the conference booklet summarizes well its non-academic spirit: “The conference themes…address the ways in which historians and other scholars must do more than produce knowledge for peer-reviewed journals and academic monographs, must do more than present at academic conferences, must do more than require oral interviewees to sign ethics forms and read over transcripts.”

Having read, and lamented with my peers, about the gaping divide between public history and academic history, having wondered myself whether the history that I might participate in producing as a public historian will ever be, or be considered, as “valid” as the histories generated by those within academia, attending this conference felt a little bit like coming home.

Public history is not, of course, exactly identical to active history – the latter, as I understand it, is an approach to history that self-consciously attempts to understand the past in order to change the present and shape the future. But if the field of public history itself does not seem to me to be quite as socially and politically driven in its usual incarnations (which is not to say that it can’t be), in many ways, these two kinds of approaches to doing history overlap. I noticed this just in the vocabulary of the conference, in the key words and concepts that were articulated again and again, words like:

community; stories; narrative; engagement; accessibility; dialogue; communication; digitization; interactivity; teaching; multimedia; creativity; audience; collaboration; negotiation; inclusivity; participatory; partnerships; networks; reflexivity; and material culture – just to name some.

Most of these are not words that typically describe academic history, but they’re words that I get excited about. And it was heartening to see that there is a large network of researchers, both university-based and community-based, just as excited too.

So, what did I take home from the conference? The following were some of my observations, in no particular order.

Creativity counts.

Actually, it doesn’t only count; it seems crucial in any project geared towards presenting the past to the public. The good news is, there seems to be countless ways to be creative.

One engaging way is through food. Karim Tiro, from Xavier University, shared about an exhibit on the history of sugar that he’s planning. The twist? It’s going to be set in a public food market – a civic space, he said, where the community gathers and makes itself visible – instead of within a traditional museum setting with its oftentimes authoritative curatorial voice, which can be distancing. Such markets, he said, are great spaces to share history because people are naturally interested in food. His project strikes me as an innovative way to approach important historical issues – like slavery, like politics – through something people are intimately familiar with. And Karim is turning that on its head too. His goal: to make the familiar unfamiliar, and thus to hopefully engage.

Outside the box is the place to be.

Conference attendees were keen to think beyond the boundaries of traditional history, whether it was ivory tower history, glass-encased history (i.e. in museums), or mainstream history. The desire is to move away from only producing manuscripts sprawling with footnotes, or only accessing traditional archives that are silent when it comes to the histories of those who didn’t leave written records, to recognizing the importance of oral histories, personal stories, and other ways of understanding the past, especially as it relates to marginalized groups. This desire was interestingly expressed in the very methods of some of the presenters themselves.

Eva Marie Garroutte of Boston College illustrated how one could craft a research methodology based on a particular cultural practice within a community, and, in so doing, to include the research subjects in the history-making process. This meant that we had a chance to learn about the Cherokee Stomp Dance and to hear about how methods of research could incorporate structural elements from this cultural practice. Mary Breen of the Second Wave Archival Project presented on feminist history and allotted some of her presentation time to reading directly from excerpts of oral history transcripts. The result? We got to hear stories in the voices, cadences, tones of the female participants themselves (including the humorous story of one woman who, throughout her marriage, always kept some “running away” money on her – just in case).

Community research = respectful research.

Lillian Petroff of the Multicultural Historical Society, who conducts oral histories of members from various communities, expressed the stakes so well: “When people agree to be interviewed,” she said, “they are putting the meaning of their lives in your hands.” So she’s careful to approach her interviewees with respect, always as subjects, never as objects, and the result is that she often ends up forming lifelong friendships. Her goal is to build relationships and engage in dialogue. Lillian made an interesting point that because oral history has often attempted to mirror written history, it has often not been about conversation. And I won’t readily forget her provocative admonition not to “pimp” as a researcher: using your subjects, getting what you need, and then exiting.

Audience matters.

Indeed it does. Speakers and participants talked spiritedly about making history accessible, interactive, and engaging. Creative ways for drawing an audience, especially one that might not be interested in history at the outset, were discussed, from holding meetings in museum spaces (which is far less intimidating than being asked to go visit a museum) to bringing history out onto the streets (using posters, for example) to hosting community events that spark interest in the histories of one’s own neighbours (like holding “antique roadshows” where members can bring items for “show and tell” and, possibly, donate them!).

Two is better than one.

Active history, public history, is not isolated history. Collaboration – not only with academics, but with community members, community-based researchers, members of historical societies and of other relevant organizations – is crucial. Heather George, a fellow UWO Public History student, (bravely) stated the need for us to realize that academic historians have one way of approaching history, community members have another, equally valid, way, and that we must work at incorporating both in any historical narrative. Lisa Helps, one of the organizers from U of T, articulated this as the need for collaborative methodologies. We left thinking about the importance of developing networks and partnerships with diverse people and groups, and of the need to share resources, knowledge, and expertise. The resounding idea is that good history in the public realm will always be collaborative – and transformative too, for both participants and researchers, as Lisa expressed.

Technology is your friend.

Not surprisingly, digitization was mentioned over the course of the conference. So were websites, GIS mapping, and even YouTube. Perhaps the only key word of the digital age I expected to hear but didn’t was Wikipedia!

Lorraine O’Donnell, an independent historian, put it nicely when she referred to the web as a “repository for personal and community memory and history,” and stressed it as a resource that we should all work towards using. And James Cullingham, owner of Tamarack Productions, in his “how-to-make-a-living” advice to us Public History students in particular, threw out the word “multiplatform”: can the project, he asked, be conceived as something that can be watched on a cell phone, on the web, or on television? (The answer should be yes.)

Reflexivity is always important.

Craig Heron of York University emphasized the need for us to think more about how people learn. Beyond just slapping text on an exhibit panel or on a website, he said that we need to consider how information is created and what message people leave with. Being aware of one’s practice, of how one communicates, even of power imbalances, were important themes that resurfaced throughout the conference.

And, finally, not to forget that history in the public realm can be contentious:

Politics happens.

Rhonda Hinther from the Canadian Museum of Civilization talked about the challenges of producing history in museums. Certain histories are seen as just too controversial or too political for museum settings. Or they’re simply not the kinds of history that attracts a crowd. Thus, “doing history in a federally-funded setting,” she said, “can be uncomfortable.” One has to be pretty creative to slip in “other” histories and to be prepared – for clashes with administration. But it can also be very rewarding. For Rhonda, I think, part of the reward is to be called a “subversive curator” at the end of the day.