Digital Public History Week 1

Roy Rosenzweig & David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (1998). For me, one of the most important pieces of information to take away from this work is that people, in general, approach the past in relation to themselves and their families, not from a class, gender, or ethic standpoint. Americans can and do relate to major events in national history, but often through the access point of a family member or personal connection. In the afterthoughts, Thelen notes that respondents liked history museums because they could approach the content on their own terms and create their own narratives (195). My question is how one goes from encouraging people to see the connection between their personal history and, say, the WPA to understanding the connection between their history, the WPA, and the history of the stranger standing next to them in the museum. Is it even possible?

AASLH Professional Standards and Ethics, NCPH Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, and SAA Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics. First, a mea culpa. I am a member of the NCPH and have been a member of the AASLH and I’d never read these statements before. What struck me about all three of these statements was the impression of historian or archivist as a welcoming steward of historical resources. The AASLH states that offering “non-discriminatory access to historical resources” is an essential part of the work of its members. The first item in the NCPH’s list of responsibilities of a public historian to the public is to “serve as advocates for the preservation, care, and accessibility of historical records and resources of all kinds, including intangible cultural resources.” Finally, the SAA Code of Ethics states that “use is the fundamental reason for keeping archives.” Archivists especially have to be aware of the needs of the artifact in balance with the needs of the users, but the point is to find a way to preserve a delicate book while still providing access, not to bar anyone from ever reading it.

Jon Voss, “Radically Open Cultural Heritage Data on the Web,”Museums and the Web 2012 and the LODLAM site. I admit, I’m taken with the possibilities of linked open data from cultural heritage sites and institutions. One phrase which jumped out at me was that “metadata can be licensed separately from data or assets.” Cultural institutions have such varied licensing and permissions rules that it can be a nightmare trying to bring together data for a single project. If you can license the metadata and make that open, without violating license agreements for images of a particular French Chair or manuscript letter, you can share so much of your findings! It’s not perfect, but if more institutions had linked open metadata, the remix possibilites, and thereby the possibilities for data-based discovery, seem wide open. It’s like being a NASA engineer in the 1950s, looking at the moon and thinking “We might actually get there.”

National Park Service/OAH report, “Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service.” The recommendation made by the authors of this report to the National Park Service would no doubt serve many historic sites and history museums very well. Make history a conversation, not a lecture. Stop presenting history as something static and done, but rather as a series of decisions and as something we’re constantly working to understand. Engage the local story as well as the national or trans-national one. Acknowledge that the government, people in leadership, even previous park historians have made mistakes. If all the highest priority recommendations are put into practice, the National Parks could be even more amazing places to discovery history than they already are. Given the impact of bureaucratic systems on the pace of change, it may be some time before all such changes are implemented. If nothing else, they would do well to make use of new media to increase the accessibility of some of their administrative histories, as the report recommends.

I came to these readings after January’s DCHDC Meetup, where I heard Sarah Werner, Undergraduate Program Director at the Folger Shakespeare Library and Michael Edson, Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian Institution, give short talks (no slides!) about the possibilities and perils of museums. I came away thinking about the role that public historians as individuals and cultural heritage institutions play, particularly about their responsibilities to the public. There is sometimes a tendency among experts, of any kind, to distrust the public’s ability to understand one’s area of study, and from this arises a desire to highly mediate the interaction between the public and history, or science, or literature, or what have you. The idea which started percolating at the DCHDC meetup has, if not fully brewed, at least started to go somewhere thanks to these readings.

History should be like a modern public library, not like a public library of the late 19th century. As public historians, we shouldn’t be separating people from history by keeping all the “books” behind a desk and telling them what they can and cannot borrow. We should encourage them to browse the stacks, make connections. We are stewards of history, providing access, and not Grand High Guardians of Culture deciding who gets to know what.

Given the above paragraph, it should come as no surprise that I’m looking forward to the readings on participatory public history.