Category Archives: Public History Course

Reading Response: Narrative Interpretation

The readings from the last two modules have definitely shaped my thinking about my project. I kind of talked about some of this in my posts about personas and module 4 readings. To summarize those: Sherratt and Whitelaw have really neat ideas, and I wish I could incorporate their ideas about destabilizing institutions, interfaces, linear narratives, etc. I do think that user contributions do this to some extent, because they do not necessarily originate in some sort of institutional archive and they embody particularity and specificity and thereby disrupt the abstraction of linear historical narratives. For my project, the interface is limited to one of the Omeka themes, but as Steve Lubar points out, curation “rules” are not necessarily bad; they just need to be understood as constructed and not used uncritically.

Spichiger et al., Rabinowicz, and Sanabria et al. all discuss the tension between what Rabinowicz calls overviews and immersions, and this has been extremely helpful for me in conceptualizing my project. The partial exhibit I created for this module is more or less “the overview.” It’s meant to provide a big picture sense of how and why Detroit changed so dramatically after 1945. It’s intentionally written in “museum voice,” but I did tried to avoid constructing a linear narrative about how and why the geography of Detroit changed. User contributions – texts, stories, oral histories, images, photos, etc. – should complicate and add complexity to the exhibition. They are immersive, the puncta, the particles. Hopefully, some would be from groups who are often absent from institutional collections, marginalized, or otherwise silenced. These are the elements that challenge Lubar’s rules, even if the exhibition piece of my project tends to follow them. My project will end up ultimately end up speaking with multiple voices, albeit not to the extent of the Raid on Deerfield site. It is interesting to think what a similar site dealing with Detroit history would look like (and a friend pointed me to this excellent blog post that deals with similar conflicts in Detroit).

More than anything else, the readings, especially Rabinowicz and Spichiger et al., this week emphasized how much thought and labor go into exhibitions, both physical and digital. I had no idea there were so many guidelines, best practices, and so on for writing labels (I mean, I shouldn’t be too surprised, given how many parallel documents there are in libraryland). Exhibitions often appear natural or obvious, so Rabinowicz’s thorough unpacking and description of creating an exhibition was illuminating. Of course, when I began writing captions for my tiny little online exhibit, this all registered at a much more visceral level.

Public History Project Proposal: Old Redford History

For this course, I will develop a digital public history site tentatively titled “Old Redford History.” Old Redford is a neighborhood in northwest Detroit that, like the rest of Detroit, has seen massive demographic, economic, and social changes since 1950. The site will have three components:

  • An exhibition describing the these changes within the broader context of Detroit and U.S. history
  • A list of open resources: websites, digital collections, etc.
  • User-contributed items that specifically relate to the history of Old Redford. These could be images, photographs, texts, oral histories, audio recordings, moving images, and possibly stories. Users will also be able to geographically locate these items when they upload them.

This project is primarily focused on this last component and takes its inspiration from other digital public history projects such as the Blackout History Project, the Bracero Archive, and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. Because residents and former residents of Old Redford are dispersed, this sort of project is the best way to collect and make searchable items that relate to Old Redford History. Although the Detroit Public Library and Wayne State University (and possibly other local colleges and universities) collect materials relating to the history of Detroit, none of these institutions focus specifically on this neighborhood. This makes a project such as this one an ideal way of collecting and allowing others to see and use these materials.

Although user-submitted materials will be the focus of the site, other materials from collections such as Wayne State University’s Virtual Motor City, the Internet Archive, Flickr Commons, and DPLA might be included. The site will link to these digital collections as well as those of the Detroit Public Library and Detroit Historical Society. This project seeks to explore how residents and former residents of Old Redford remember and understand their time and experiences in Old Redford? How do they make sense of those experiences within the broader context of Detroit history? Within the context of dominant narratives about Detroit history? Within the context of discussions about Detroit’s future? How do residents and former residents make sense of the neighborhood as it currently exists? These questions and this history are racialized, even if that racialization is often coded, and this site is interested in working with this tension.

The site will be created using Omeka and its suite of plug-ins (e.g. for user accounts, user contributions, mapping items). There is already an audience for this site, as there is a Facebook called “Growing Up in Old Redford,” members of which currently post photos (both their own and those from websites/digital collections). Members of this group tend to be middle-aged whites who moved out of Detroit before the 1990s, but there are also members who are younger, African American, and current residents of the neighborhood. These members, however, tend to be less active, so while the project will target active members of the current Facebook group, it will also seek to reach non- or low-participating members from these demographic groups. The list of resources is meant as supplemental information, and to make users aware of the sorts of digital collections silos that exist. The exhibition is meant to provide context for their own submissions and memories.

Public History Project Personas

These are the two personas I created for my public history project. I actually didn’t revise them because I felt pretty confident with them the first time (I had been observing/participating in the group for over a year and I’m familiar with persona construction through library usability testing/coursework).

Based on the Brennan and Kelly article, though, I want to think about adding the ability for contributors to remain anonymous, for contributions to not be publicly visible, and for contributors to map their contributions. I also might want to include a way to tag contributions, since LCSH aren’t specific enough for this project (extremely local history) and not all of the items I’ve uploaded even include LCSH. The Kalfatovic et al. article made me more convinced than ever that a lot of this work shouldn’t be done on commercial platforms. I use Flickr Commons all of the time and really appreciate all of the images it makes available, but it recently started forcing you to log in with a Yahoo account in order to download images, and that makes me a bit uncomfortable. I do appreciate that it is now connected to Internet Archive book images, because as Kalfatovic et al. point out, silos predominate. Because of this, if my project were more than a prototype, I would want to connect it with DPLA.

The other readings mostly made me feel bad about how much technical stuff I can’t do. I really appreciated Sherratt’s and Whitelaw’s arguments and think that type of work is so valuable and interesting and then have no way of doing it myself.

Name: Carol Iverson
Demographic: white, middle-class, suburban, college, 40-65
Descriptive Title: The Nostalgic
Quote: “Does anyone remember….?”
A Day in a Life Narrative: Like Marty, Carol grew up in Old Redford and later moved to the suburbs. Unlike Marty, she hasn’t been back to the neighborhood she grew up in, but she does remember her childhood friends and neighbors and sometimes wonders what happened to them. She’s a big user of Facebook and often comments on posts.
End Goals: Carol would like to be able to reminisce and reconnect with friends and neighbors from Old Redford. She likes to look at the pictures that other people post and comment on them, but probably wouldn’t drive into Detroit to take any herself. She does have a scanning app on her phone and wouldn’t mind being about to scan and post some of her print pictures.

Reading Response: Collections

I now have a new installation of Omeka, with a very basic digital collection (that is, items with metadata – items are not grouped into collections and there is no narrative accompanying the items). While I do think that having some sort of narrative will better engage my audience in thinking about the past, there are some activities this basic digital collection can enable. The first thing is that users might get a sense of what sorts of digitized materials are available. Most of the collection is from Wayne State University’s Virtual Motor City, but I have also included a film from the Internet Archive, and I could include more materials from the Internet Archive, DPLA, Flickr Commons, and others. Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out which repositories to search, and sometimes Google doesn’t do the best job of searching those repositories, so the basic digital collection I’ve created might help my target audience with this. Having a basic digital collection with metadata also allows users to search for items and discover basic information (e.g. date) about the items. Sherratt’s article also revealed that it’s not always possible to predict what users will do with digital items; obviously, he and his research partner are doing pretty advanced scholarly work with digital collections, but I do think it’s important to keep in mind that even when designing for an audience you know a fair amount about, it’s not possible to predict all of the possible uses and interests.

As for how I might use my Omeka items to engage my target audience, I’m guessing that this section of my project will be the 1.0 section, as described by Brennan and Kelly. That is, after finishing the next module, it will provide a sort of broad narrative about the history of Detroit after 1945. This will provide the broader context for user submissions of materials related to the history of Old Redford (a neighborhood in Detroit), which is the 1.5 section of my project. After reading Sherratt and Whitelaw, I am much more aware of the drawbacks of a basic digital collection set up like this – it doesn’t allow browsing beyond a list of the items, it doesn’t allow for horizontal and vertical engagement across multiple axes of metadata categories, it privileges some materials, collections, epistemologies, etc. over others – but I hope the collection of materials from users complicates both my narrative and the items from institutional collections.   

Reading Response: Audience, Dialogue, Co-Creation

I unintentionally anticipated this post in my previous post (I should read ahead, but it’s hard to do that when you already feel/actually are behind).

In many ways, I feel like the process and vision for public history/humanities articulated by Tchen is and should be the gold standard. The chapter even concludes by invoking Freire. What is also apparent from Tchen’s essay is the enormous and ongoing amount of thinking, discussion, reflection, and work that goes into creating a truly dialogic museum or exhibition. If Tchen’s piece felt more like it laid out the overarching philosophy and goals of public history, Corbett and Miller’s essay, with its abundance of examples from the Missouri Historical Society, worked to ground this philosophy and these goals in real-life projects. Despite focusing on exhibitions created by the MHS, Corbett and Miller reject the theory vs. practice divide and foreground the ideals espoused by Tchen in their discussion of the MHS projects. This essay really stuck with me, as I think my proposed project sort of centers on the tension they identify: “The stories public historians want to tell are sometimes not the stories the public wants to hear” (p. 22).They note that “Community history thrives in situations where people feel comfortable enough to confront their own pasts and share with others” (p. 24), but what happens when that comfort doesn’t exist?

Corbett and Miller describe a series of projects and point out where they felt each project was successful and not so successful, for both the public and the historian. This is valuable because it really demonstrates how one exhibition cannot be all the things to all the people, and that that is fine. Their discussion of Through the Eyes of a Child was empowering for the African American community, but not as critical as they desired: “The choices of theme, and the primary sources themselves, worked against critical class and gender analysis because the interviewers elicited memories of childhood, recollections always prone to nostalgia” (p. 30). Their final example, of the World’s Fair exhibition, also points out how the public can, ultimately, choose not to meaningfully engage.

My proposed project seeks to foster audience engagement by asking the community of users to create a collection of items related to the history of Old Redford. Due to massive demographic changes between 1950 and the present, users are dispersed, although current residents of the neighborhood are also potential (and perhaps current users). This collection also needs to be built by the former community because it is one of many neighborhoods in Detroit, which is very large in terms of area and used to be very large in terms of population. While institutions such as Wayne State University and the Detroit Historical Society do collect materials about the history of Detroit, including Old Redford, they do not focus on it. And there is clearly interest in it – the Facebook group has about 3,300 members and steady activity within it everyday. Members take photos, find images online, create movies and slideshows, conduct research, scan books, relate stories, and look for former friends and neighbors. My proposed project wants to help organize all of this effort into an organized and searchable collection so that other users can search or browse for materials they’re interested in.

The infrastructure for that collection will be my creation, but I also want to bring the “broader story” that encompasses the many smaller stories told by users to the site somehow. This is where Corbett and Miller’s essay particularly speaks to me, since many residents of Detroit and its suburbs already have a broader story, and often that broader story is not just uncritical but racist. How does the public historian negotiate, reflexively engage, and co-create in this sort of context? This broader story is deeply believed and widely held; I’ve encountered it in my own family and acquaintances. To some extent, as a working-class white person, I get why it is deeply believed and widely held, but if historians are to some extent responsible for “accuracy,” how can I responsibly ignore it? The current Facebook group users are not particularly interested in accuracy (some are, this is a generalization) and often reiterate this dominant story in their posts. In many ways, this story prevents or inhibits connections to current residents and like Frisch, I do think that face-to-face dialogue is valuable and should be encouraged if there is interest.

I don’t want this project to be entirely “raw” in Frisch’s metaphor, but I do need to think more on how to incorporate something cooked, that broader story, responsibility if not authority. My initial thought was some sort of resource list so that users could seek out other resources if they chose to, but I am open to suggestions.

User Research Findings for Course Project

My project is inspired by the Facebook group “Growing Up in Old Redford.” Old Redford is a neighborhood in northwest Detroit and since I did, in fact, grow up there, I have been a member of this group for over a year. I don’t participate, but over the past year, I have noticed some drawbacks to hosting such a group on Facebook. The project for this class seeks to address some of these drawbacks. In my proposal, I envisioned a website to which users could submit photos and images; in the submission process, they could tag these with locations, dates, people, etc. so that other users could find and use them as well. Because I am a librarian, I also envisioned the site including links to related websites, digital collections, books, and articles.

Having done user research for library projects before, I have to note that this user research felt a bit constrained due to the deadline (and the awful work week I had last week). Generally I would want to conduct more, and more in-depth interviews and observations. Given the size of the current Facebook group (about 3,300 people), I would also consider doing a survey.

In some ways, my user research showed that my project ideas and plans were right on. My interviewee did not like the lack of contextual information (date, location, names) for photos and images. This was confirmed by my observation that users often ask for this sort of information when other users post pictures and images. One user, who frequently takes and posts photographs of the neighborhood, has even started to add some of this information to his posts in response to questions from other users. My observation also indicated that photos and images are the most common and also the most popular posts and that some users use these to create movies or slideshows.

In other ways, my user research suggested other roles my project could fulfill. My interviewee talked about how she liked to see things that she remembered from when she lived in the neighborhood. While posts with photos and images are the most popular, posts sharing memories of the neighborhood are also quite popular and garner a lot of responses. This suggests that perhaps my project should incorporate some element of collecting oral histories. I really like how the Bracero History Archive and Blackout History Project do this, and think the history of Old Redford would work well. Participants are dispersed and there is no larger institution collecting oral histories. Additionally, Detroit saw sweeping demographic and economic changes between 1950 and 2010 and I do think that would make these oral histories particularly interesting and valuable (John Hartigan does similar work in his book Racial Situations, but focuses on different neighborhoods).

If my project were more than a prototype, I would like to partner with the Detroit Public Library, which has a branch in Old Redford, similar to what Michael Frisch describes in “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back.” My observation showed that some of the most popular posts were recent photographs taken by a user and that representatives of neighborhood non-profit/activist groups have started participating in the group as well. My interviewee talked about “possibilities for the future” and I do get the sense that there is an interest in connecting with current residents and institutions, which could be done through the face-to-face dialogues Frisch describes. Alas, user research in this case points to really meaningful connections that are out-of-scope for a class project.

Finally, this is an issue that my user research revealed and the course readings touched on that I think is worthy of discussion but personally have no answers to. A lot of posts in the current Facebook group have a somewhat nostalgic approach to the history of Old Redford. This approach cannot really grapple with the neighborhood as it is currently, and so resorts to narratives that are locally popular but frankly inaccurate. Corbett and Miller’s article, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry” talks the tension between history and heritage, between how the public sees the past and how historians do, and gives examples of how specific projects negotiated (or did not negotiate) that tension. User research tells us what users want and are interested in, but how does that function with the (constantly negotiated and reflexive but still present) educational element of public history? I like Linda Shopes’s emphasis on integrating the local story with the broader story (quoted in Corbett and Miller) and would like to explore ways of doing that in my project. Even if users aren’t asking for it.

Comparative Review of “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000”

This is a comparative review of the physical and digital versions of the National Museum of American History’s exhibition, “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000.” There are some photographs of the physical space here and the digital exhibition is here.

The physical exhibit occupies a U-shaped spaced. There are two entrances: one is through the Julia Child’s kitchen exhibit, but the other entrance is where the FOOD sign is located. There are four segments to the physical FOOD exhibit: Julia Child’s Kitchen, New and Improved!, Resetting the Table, and Wine for the Table. The exhibit is fairly small and was easy to navigate. It seemed to encourage two different flows of traffic, beginning at either of the entrances, flowing around the U and then out. There is a very long table running the length of the U that you have to walk around, so cutting across the U is not really possible.

It interesting to think about who the primary audience for this work is, since it is run by the federal government and is a major tourist attraction. I would probably contend that its intended audience, unlike most museums, is actually the broadest definition of “the public.” When I visited the exhibit on a weekday morning, the visitors were primarily tourist families (I got there before the museum and waited outside with many of them. From their conversations, it was clear they were visiting D.C. from elsewhere). There were some adults without children and what looked like a high school class as well. There were no curators, interpreters, or docents in the space, but a tour briefly came through and only looked at Julia Child’s kitchen.

The exhibit seeks to represent the chronological history of food in the United States between 1950 and 2000 along four different axes: technological innovation, social and cultural change, wine production in California, and the career of Julia Child. Each of the four sections, which are physically separated, moves in a more or less chronological, but also thematic, fashion. Each of the four sections is broken into more specific topics. The exhibit spaces consist of glass cases that contain artifacts (machinery, clothing, etc.), photographs, and print materials (magazines, instructions, etc.). Beneath the cases are panels that include narrative summaries of that particular topic, captions for the items in the cases, and reproductions of photos, ads, and articles. As you walk through the exhibit’s sections, you move forward through time, and eventually end up in the present. The captions and narrative are written in objective, authoritative, textbook voice, although this is countered by the types of items that are included in the exhibit. Most of the items are ephemera or would even have been seen as garbage: a tortilla bag, a Chianti wine bottle turned into a candleholder, a styrofoam Big Mac container, a lap mat from In-and-Out Burger, ads for cellophane and Cheez-Whiz, and my personal favorite, disposable cup lids (I love that they’re cataloged). This tension between the mundane and the monumental is something I always notice at the NMAH. This exhibit leans toward the artifacts of everyday life, with the exception of Child’s Kitchen (which is definitely monumental, even in how it’s encased in glass), and I think encourages visitors to revisit and reconsider how the things they use and see everyday fit into the narrative depicted by the exhibit.

There are also three multimedia pieces within the exhibit. One is in the Child’s Kitchen segment, and shows clips from her show as well as from a documentary about her life. One is in the New and Improved! section, and shows historical ads, news, and other television programming. The final is in the Wine for the Table section and is a recent documentary/oral history of the wine industry in California. There were not interactive elements in the physical space, although I do think there is sometimes programming at the long table in the middle of the exhibit. There were lazy susans embedded in the table that described the history of school lunches, but nothing was going on when I visited.

I do think more interactivity would make the physical exhibit more effective, but I’m not sure what the form of that would be. There was a lot of reading, and I noticed that some of the younger children weren’t super interested. To get at the idea I mentioned above, thinking more closely about items we use everyday and our own food/eating practices, there should be some way for visitors to add thoughts or memories – verbal, visual, even artifactual. I also would have liked to have seen more multimedia elements, like commercials or ephemeral films. I know there are licensing issues with some materials, but the Prelinger (and Internet) Archive have items that would enhance this exhibit.  

The digital exhibition of FOOD duplicates the structure of the physical exhibit. It has the same four sections, but they are listed in a specific order: Child’s Kitchen, New and Improved!, Resetting the Table, and Wine for the Table.This is not the order the U-shaped physical exhibit encourages visitors to follow (i.e. Kitchen, New, Wine, Resetting, or Kitchen, Resetting, Wine, New). The intended audience is the same broad public of the physical exhibit, but also includes people who cannot travel to D.C. and possibly even people in other countries, since this site can be seen as offering an official narrative about American history. The digital exhibition is very text-heavy, and that text is only in English, which does seem to indicate that the assumed audience is American (and not Americans who primarily speak other languages). It is also not really accessible to younger children, given its reliance on text.

The site is laid out in four sections, each with subtopics that correspond to the subtopics in the physical exhibit. It is easy to navigate; click into a section and then move backward or forward among the subtopics within that segment. You can also start at the beginning and click through all of the segments in a very linear way. There are occasional digressions on each page, like a link to see all of the 7-11 cups on this page, and you can bounce between subtopics within a section, but you can’t bounce between subtopics in different sections, since once you click on a specific section, the only navigation is within that segment. This is little like encountering and having to walk around the long table in the physical exhibit.

The subtopics within each section follow the panels in the physical exhibit. The page for each subtopic in the digital exhibit includes pictures of some, but not all, of the artifacts, photographs, ads, etc. in the glass cases of the physical exhibit. One of my favorite items, an ad about how boring and depressing it is to cook three meals every day (crappy phone picture below), is not included in the digital exhibit.


The digital exhibit also did not include the reproductions of related materials that appear on the panels in the physical exhibit, or any of the multimedia elements. However, the digital exhibit of Child’s Kitchen actually included more items than were in the physical exhibit, such as a picture of her Emmy Award and Emeril Lagasse’s chef’s jacket. I can’t decipher the rationale behind these inclusions and exclusions.

Although the panels in the physical exhibit stressed moving forward in time, in some ways the glass cases, which included numerous materials clumped together rather than in some sort of order, pointed to the messiness, overlapping, ongoing, recursive quality of history. The digital exhibit feels much more linear in its narrative. The career of Julia Child encapsulates the ways in which food has changed since 1950; here are the technological innovations; here are the cultural and social changes; and here is one example of how all of this plays out in one industry. The text on the pages of the digital exhibit and the captions of the items seems to be the same as the physical exhibit, so this narrative emerges primarily from the organization of the digital exhibit. Because the digital exhibit has the same types of items, if not the exact same items, as the physical exhibit, there is also that tension between the monumental and mundane here. The digital exhibit, though, I would argue, pushes more towards the monumental; there is more about celebrity chefs than in the physical exhibit, and rather than seeing all of the cup lids in their uniqueness, we see one, with a link to others (I am very taken with the cup lids).

Like the physical exhibit, the digital site does not have participatory or interactive elements or opportunities to interact with the site’s creators. Adding these elements would be one of my recommendations for improving the digital exhibit: a forum, a space to submit reflections/memories, a way to submit artifacts or oral histories like the Bracero Archive, etc. This exhibition seems appropriate for these forms of engagement, since it deals so much with everyday objects and practices. Another way to improve the digital exhibit would be through multimedia (commercials, etc.) and perhaps links to related resources for those who wish to explore the topic more deeply (books, articles, websites like the NYPL’s menu collection, etc.).

Survey of the Field: Analyzing Digital Public History

For this activity, I looked at eleven different digital public history websites, ranging in birth date from 1998 to 2014. These sites reveal the broad outline of digital public history work. In the first phase, there is a sense of trying to figure out what digital public history sites could do. Should they be the digital equivalent of a physical exhibition, like the Library of Congress’s Progress of a People site? Should they seek to capture memories from people who lived through an event, like the Blackout History Project? Should they take a reflexive approach and represent not just an historical event but how it is later remembered and interpreted, like the Great Chicago Fire and Web of Memory site? Some of these sites, like the Blackout History Project, try to do too much – not just collect and present oral histories, but archive media coverage and government and corporate documents. Others don’t take full advantage of the medium and just reproduce physical exhibitions. In this phase are the beginnings of some of the markers of good digital public history work: the site should be clearly focused, take advantage of the medium, and promote some form of public engagement.

The second phase of digital public history work is more coherent. The sites I reviewed in this phase are more focused and take advantage of the medium by linking and using multimedia extensively. Links allow users to chart their own path through the material and engage with the site more actively. These sites make historical thinking more obvious by foregrounding a multiplicity of primary sources and perspectives and promote other forms of public engagement. The Smithsonian’s site, A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S., includes a section for users to reflect on the site and to think about the site within the context of contemporary events. The Raid on Deerfield site, unlike the others created during this phase, takes a Rashomon-like approach to history, presenting five perspectives of a single event and asking users to decide. These sites are more clearly focused on a particular theme or event and primarily take the form of an exhibition of primary sources surrounded by traditional historical narrative. The reflexive and educational element of good digital public history emerges in this phase, as these sites try to get their users to engage in historical thinking.

The third, and current, phase of digital public history work is characterized by the differentiation of sites. The Lincoln at 200 site is similar to A More Perfect Union and Jasenovac: Holocaust Era in Croatia; it’s essentially an interactive exhibition of primary sources. The Bracero Archive returns to the goals of the Blackout History Project by soliciting oral histories and other materials from users. In both cases, this is a very good way to use the web, as individuals involved are likely dispersed and primary materials from both events were not likely systematically collected. Manifold Greatness is also an exhibition site, but it more extensively incorporates multimedia and interactive elements for specific user populations (in this case, children). It emphasizes reflectivity and historical thinking by incorporating a section on subsequent uses of the King James Bible with the more traditional narrative of its origins. Operation War Diary brings a new and promising form of public engagement: crowdsourced transcription work. This allows users to directly engage with primary sources and to essentially “do” history in a way that other forms of interaction may not have. This is really neat in a lot of ways, but I have reservations about outsourcing labor that really should be adequately funded (I do understand the types of fiscal constraints cultural heritage institutions operate under, and I understand thinking strategically, but it’s important not to forget this point either).

Tl; dr: Good digital public history work is clearly focused, is reflexive, models or allows users to engage in historical thinking, takes advantage of the medium, and promotes public engagement and interaction.

Response to “Whose Public? Whose History?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, in trying to define public history, Grele, Meringolo, Howe, Karamanski, and Conard end up writing histories of public history. Grele focuses on the relationship between public history and history within the academy while Meringolo highlights the emergence of public history within government institutions. Howe focuses on the field’s origin in the job crisis in the 1970s and then traces the creation of professional associations and publications. This post focuses mostly on Grele’s and Meringolo’s work, as they are the most interesting texts.

Grele offers the most ambitious, idealistic vision of public history and its goals, and I really like it (apologies for the lengthy quotation – this is the best summary):

“In addition, what we know about public historical activities as they now exist points to a similar correctness in Carl Becker’s view that every man can become his own historian; that relatively ordinary people can seek and find knowledge of the world they have made or that was made for them, and that since history always has a social purpose-explicitly or implicitly-such knowledge shapes the way the present is viewed. Thus the task of the public historian, broadly defined, should be to help members of the public do their own history and to aid them in understanding their role in shaping and interpreting events” (Grele, 47-48).

He does temper this a bit:

“This is not to suggest that once a correct view of the past is reached, through the aid of benevolent, anti-corporatist public historians, history immediately becomes a weapon in the arsenal of those who struggle for social change […] But it does mean that local or community history projects can play an important role in moving people to a clearer sense of the possibilities of social change and social action and their roles in such change” (Grele, 48).

This last sentence is key for me, with its emphasis on learning and historical thinking as empowering for individuals and communities. Much of my library scholarship deals with how discursive practices within the library community, particularly around ideas such as “the future” and technology reify the world we currently live in and work to render systemic change unimaginable and impossible. It is very important to me to think about ways to work against these sort of discourses, which aren’t limited to libraryland.  

Meringolo expands on Grele’s definition, but does not lose the core of it. Public history is fundamentally multidisciplinary and collaborative, but that collaboration is not limited to working with historians or other academics: “In reflective practice, public historians engage in active collaboration, constantly reframing questions and improving interpretations in conversation with themselves and with their stakeholders — employers, audiences, and so on” (Meringolo, xxiii). The addition of “employers” here is interesting, especially given Meringolo’s emphasis on public history within governmental institutions (and given the sorts of historical narratives you’ll find in something like the Foreign Relations of the United States), but also accurate. The ideas of “shared authority” and “shared inquiry” are key to this vision of public history, and play into public history’s goals of empowering individuals and communities (Meringolo, xxiii).  

Grele notes that this means that there is always negotiation between the public historian and the public: “Sometimes this merely means helping to bring to the front the information, understanding, and consciousness that is already there. More often it means a much more painstaking process of confronting old interpretations, removing layer upon layer of ideology and obfuscation, and countering the effects of spectacularized media-made instant history” (Grele, 48). Meringolo, too, sees this tension as central to practicing public history: “By acknowledging these emotional attachments, public historians can open up dialogue and foster a mutually educational experience, allowing public historians not only to educate their audiences but also to learn something about the ways in which average people understand, use, and value the past” (xxv).

This tension and the reflective nature of public history means that it is also interested in how historical narratives are produced, communicated, received, and interpreted, which I don’t necessarily think is as central to history more broadly. There is also a much more prominent and explicit educational element to the practice of public history as described by these authors is less crucial to history (whether that is a good thing or not is debatable). Grele’s understanding of the pedagogical element of public history is more one-way than that of Meringolo, who is more interested in understanding the relationship between the public and the public historian as one of exchange, negotiation, and recursiveness. In the quotation above, Grele really portrays the public historian’s role as exposing truth. In my definition, Meringolo’s description comes closer to what should be the practice of public history: thinking through a variety of historical narratives and interpretations, considering the work that those narratives perform, and empowering through education.

My definition of public history would include Grele’s expansiveness and idealism around the ultimate goals of public history and would incorporate Meringolo’s emphasis on public collaboration and public engagement. Education is crucial and multidirectional; it is not the public historian revealing the correct historical interpretation but rather opening up spaces in which the public can question, analyze, and interpret. In contrast to some of the definitions that Meringolo cites that locate the difference of public history in the communication methods and audiences, I would suggest that the reflective nature of public history and its interest in how historical narratives are created are distinct from (some) traditional historical work.

The authors of these articles primarily focus on the origin of the field of public history (wherever they locate that origin) and don’t discuss/unpack “the public.” My definition of public history includes the caveat that publics vary widely by institution and have different needs. Part of doing public history is being aware of who your specific public is, and what its needs are. This is a key element of librarianship, and I think it applies here as well.

Finally, my definition of public history rejects the notion of a division between “academic” history and practical/applied/public history. It is more productive to think of historical work as having particular goals and stakes depending on its contexts in which it is produced and received. This division is reductive and can slide into anti-intellectualism (I see this all of the time in librarianship).


Roots of Public History: Introductory Post

This post kicks off another semester in GMU’s digital public humanities certificate program. I’m not sure if I’m ready.

Some basic information about me as a student: I’ve been working as an academic librarian since 2007. I have an M.A. in American studies and an M.S.I. in library and information services. I started this certificate program in the fall of 2015 but otherwise haven’t been in school since April 2007. It’s rough having homework again, especially since I’m quite active in libraryland research and scholarship and have two articles and one conference presentation to write this semester.

My background in digital humanities: My background primarily consists of the course last semester, although a lot of DH concerns overlap with those of libraries (metadata, searching, digitization, etc.).

My interest in digital public history: A lot of this interest is tied to my background in American studies. I am interested in how we talk about and represent the past and being American, and this interest has grown as I’ve lived in Washington, D.C. The digital piece is interesting because it offers different forms of presenting, interpreting, and engaging with history for both institutions and individuals.

My learning goals for the semester: I want to become familiar with the theories, methods, and tools of digital public history. This is less clearly tied to my current position as an academic librarian than the class last semester, so I am a little uncertain about how the projects will inform my library work.