NCPH recap: Day Two, March 17

I’m recapping my NCPH 2016 experience.  I wrote yesterday about my experience on the first day of the conference and the LGBT history workshop.  Day two was filled with sessions, connecting with colleagues, and quality discussions.

New Member Welcome

Day two started off bright and early at 7:30am with the new members breakfast.  As part of the membership committee I attended the event to help welcome new NCPH members and new conference attendees.  The group at the breakfast was a great mix of students, new professionals, and seasoned practitioners who were new to NCPH.  I was lucky enough to meet a handful of archival students at this breakfast – it was great to see people excited about the possibilities of public history programming within archives.

Uncomfortable Truth

Slide from Uncomfortable Truth panel.
Slide from Uncomfortable Truth panel.

Following the new members breakfast I headed to the “Uncomfortable Truth” panel that focused on the ways in which archivists and historians challenge truths and the need to bridge the gap between seeking to tell a more complete story while respecting community memory/stories of diverse audiences. This panel included Jennifer Wellock, National Park Service; Dorothy Dougherty, National Archives and Record Administration; and Jenifer Eggleston, Preserve Marshall County, National Park Service.

This session was well received by a packed room.  The panelists focused on the different ways in which archives are used to challenge different types of truth — they can challenge personal/family truth, community truth, and national narratives.  For example, people going genealogy research can find out unexpected realities about their families — arrests, mental health diagnoses, voluntary name changes etc that might be contrary to family myth.  Similarly, a place with supposed historical value can be de-bunked using archival records or a community history can be challenged by bringing in new interpretations that include marginalized voices.  This session really highlight the power of archives in truth telling and the value of incorporating archives in historical interpretation during all types of history.

The Uncomfortable Truth session ended with an activity that invited audience/participant members to engage with archival documents.  This fairly standard archival instruction activity allowed participants to discuss how specific archival records could be used as teaching tools and what historians can learn from archival documents.  The activity portion of the session was a bit rushed – but I think there was definite value in having participants engage in this learning exercise as it’s a great example of how archives can be brought into the classroom.

Methods of Digital Archiving and Biography

This panel focused on two very specific biography projects: the People of the Founding Era and the Foreign Relations Series of the U.S. Department of State.  The Social Networks and Archival Context project was also briefly mentioned.

The People of the Founding Era project is “is a scholarly reference work that provides biographical information on over 25,000 people born between 1713 and 1815, drawn from the digitized papers of the Founding Fathers and other documentary editions of the Founding Era.”  The project creates searchable biographical statements, and provides structured data for prosopographical study.

I liked the ideas behind this project – using a database to connect individuals and creating unique profiles of people mentioned in historical text.  The project also aggregates information from a number of sources which has the potential to be extremely useful to researchers. However I had some ethical challenges around the copyrighted and pay-walled nature of this project.  The project is tied to a publishing company and the material isn’t accessible unless you subscribe to the service.  I was particularly interested in the initiative to document slaves and other marginalized people and the fact that this work would then be inaccessible to present-day marginalized community.  The irony and ethical challenges of this was particularly striking.

Conversely the Foreign Relations Series project was created using completely open source technology.  This project captured names of people mentioned in FRUS publications and created biographical data sets.  It used Open Refine extensively to cluster and edit data, though the presenter did highlight the need for human intervention and checking the clusters created by Open Refine. This project was a great contrast to the Founding Era initiative and really emphasized the range of possibilities that can be done with open source software.

Change Starts Within Challenging Cultural and Structural Barriers to Inclusive Public History

This structured conversation was facilitated by Julie Davis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Abigail Gautreau, Middle Tennessee State University; Lara Kelland, University of Louisville; and Craig Stutman, Delaware Valley University.  This was the only structured conversation I attended at NCPH.  It was an interesting format that had participants organize their chairs in tiered circles and invited everyone in the room to talk about doing public history with marginalized communities.

A Google Doc was created to document the conversation and as place that participants could contribute to during and after the conversation.  The document is worth a read to get a sense of the passion of the presenters around inclusive public history and the challenges of creating safe spaces and historical narratives that are reflective of multiple perspectives.  I found this an interesting session that got participants really riled up about important issues.  That being said, the physical space for the discussion wasn’t ideal.  There was a large pole in the middle of the room so you couldn’t see everyone participating and the tired circles meant some people’s backs were to others.  Also as commonly happens in any type of open discussion there were a couple of voices that dominated the conversation.  Their contributions were worthwhile but I wish more people had the opportunity to contribute as well.

Extra Activities

Other things that day two included – the NCPH business meeting where Stephanie Rowe was announced as the new executive director of NCPH.  I also had a wonderful lunch with some archives folks.  It was great to see so many people who work in archives at NCPH this year – I think it’s definitely a growing group of members.  My evening of day two was spent at the Walters Art Museum, which I’ll recap in a separate post.

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