Professional Organizations and Finding Your Niche

soda.hotglue.meOne of my service gigs currently involves sitting on the membership committee of the National Council of Public History (NCPH).  If you’ve followed my blog for awhile you probably know that this is one of my favourite professional organizations and that their annual meeting is something I really look forward to.  I’ve served on the membership committee for a couple of years now and recently started acting as the co-chair of the committee.

As a committee we’ve been working on a handful of projects this year many of which revolve around making sure new members feel welcome to NCPH as an organization and to the annual meetings.  Professional conferences where you don’t know anyone can be intimidating – but they can also be amazingly rewarding experiences.  The first NCPH conference I attended was in 2012 in Milwaukee.  I went solo but knew other Western Public History alumni and students would be there.  Despite only knowing a few people at the conference it was a hugely welcoming experience where I felt like I belonged.  Granted, part of this had to do with my love of the NCPH meeting format and the flexibility of the sessions.  But it also had a lot to do with people just being helpful.

Conferencing, networking, and putting yourself out there can be exhausting – regardless of how many times you’ve done it.  As a new NCPH annual meeting attendee I found the mentorship program helpful in orienting myself with the conference. It also took me a little bit to find my group – archivists and museum professionals who define themselves as public historians.  But they existed and were welcoming.  I think that’s another reason I love NCPH there is a such a range of professionals who attend from community historians to academics that you’re bound to find your niche. NCPH also encourages technology usage during sessions – so if you’re on twitter that can be a great way to connect with other attendees.  I personally love the “Hey, I know you from twitter” moments.

What were your experiences as a new conference attendee or new member of a professional organization?  Did specific events make you feel welcome at a conference? I would love to hear other people’s perspectives on first time conference attendance and building relationships within a professional organization.

Conference Engagement: Presentations and Papers

Anyone who has attended Canadian Historical Association or Association of Canadian Archivists or any other mainstream academic conference is familiar with what more traditional conference sessions look like.  There are typically two or three presenters per session and the majority of presenters simply read a formal paper.  These papers are at times accompanied by a powerpoint presentation but many of them are simply stand alone papers.  Reading of these papers is typically followed by an extremely short question period, in which a small handful of the audience asks questions.

People reading can be engaging, but it depends on the topic, style of writing, and reading style of the presenter. Some people are dynamic and engaging while talking and don’t really need additional props.  But there are also the monotone presenters, those who hardly look at the audience, and obscure topics that aren’t contextualized for the audience.  Often the content of the presentation has the potential to be interesting, the format of the presentation just lacks any level of engagement.

One of the many reasons I loved the National Council on Public History (NCPH) conference last year was the dynamic, engaging nature of many of the sessions.  The formal reading of papers is fairly non existent at NCPH conferences and I found sessions which involved active audience participation to be the ones which stuck in my mind, provided stimulating thoughts for future projects, and were generally the most enjoyable.

Recently, an email was sent out to NCPH 2013 presenters that reinforced the idea of engaging presentations at the annual conference.  It was suggested to presenters:

1) not to read your presentation if you can help it, but to present as if you are teaching or interpreting at a historic site;
2) bring the audience into the program (don’t leave the audience only five minutes at the very end for questions);

3) see the session as an energetic, highly-informed start of a conversation, not simply a report on work done in the past.

I  really love the idea of presentations as conversations that involve the audience.  I also like that there is an emphasis on “presentation” not “papers.”  A thoughtful carefully written academic paper is not the same thing as a well crafted interactive presentation. Many attendees of the NCPH annual conference come from outside of academia.  I’m sure that this in part is due to the spectrum of people engaged in public history, but I think it could also be attributed to the style of the conference — those not well versed in academic conferences feel completely comfortable presenting in their own style, which might not fit into more traditional conferences.

I’m looking forward to NCPH 2013 which is being held in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in April 2013.  The conference program and registration details are available online.

What makes a good conference session? Have you attended a conference that used an innovative presentation style?

Aboriginal Archives and the Division of Community and ‘Professional’ Archives

South Australian Museum, shields

Somebody, somewhere, decided yesterday was (unofficial) Aboriginal Archives Day.  Google failed in finding a definite answer in who was promoting the day, but by the looks of it the University of Manitoba may have started it as an internal event and promoted it via social media; which resulted in a handful of other archives ‘participating’.  A handful of archives and organizations shared resources, collections, and special events via social media.  Some of the highlights include:

I think perhaps the most notable point here is that none of the organizations who shared resources were First Nation or Tribal heritage organizations.  There continues to be a divide between grassroots Indigenous archives and more formalized institutional based archives. 

The Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA) does have a Special Interest Section on Aboriginal Archives (SISAA).  According to the summary on the ACA website, SISAA aims to act as ” an interface between the community of Canadian archivists and Aboriginal communities and organizations and to form a base of expertise, advice, and support on archival issues that can be shared with Aboriginal communities and organizations.”  The most well known example of this is the 2007 SISAA publication of their Aboriginal Archives Guide which serves as an introduction to archival practice for Aboriginal organizations and communities.  

I find the above statement about SISAA unsettling.  The statement speaks of sharing expertise with Aboriginal communities and the separation of the archival community from Aboriginal communities.   Yes, archivists do have expertise, however there is a tremendous amount of knowledge that archivists can also gain from viewing Aboriginal communities as the experts — traditional knowledge, oral traditions, and cultural heritage can provide a breadth of understanding to archivists that can potentially enrich archival collections.  Additionally, Canada’s colonial past and resulting collection with consultation has long been detrimental to the material cultural of Indigenous people in Canada.  Active and equal collaboration has the potential to benefit the archival and Aboriginal communities.

Though perhaps the SISAA is merely attempting to grapple with its current state — very few archivists or archives staff from smaller more community based archives participate in ACA’s annual conference, special interest groups, or membership.  Many of the members of SISAA are archivists who work in more traditional institutions which hold substantial collections created by or relating to Aboriginal people (eg. LAC, provincial and local government archives, HBC, etc).

Smaller resource limited archives tend to be disengaged from the ACA and more broadly the Canadian archival and heritage profession. In the US, the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ATALM) has worked to engage Tribal based cultural institutions and to provide training and services that are geared to the specific needs of Tribal organizations.  Granted, this still separates Aboriginal heritage organizations and professionals from the rest of the profession, but at least important services are made accessible via ATALM.

In Canada, many archives have worked to established community level collaboration and relationships with Indigenous people.  Currently, these connection just don’t seem to transfer into the national level or the realm of professional associations.  Given the current dismal state of government heritage funding, it seems unlikely that ACA and other professional organizations will change their approaches to Indigenous heritage in the near future. 

Post NCPH2012 Conference Wrap-up

I think I’m still coming down from a conference high.  Despite the backlog of email and reference requests that awaited me upon my return, I’m extremely happy that I was able to attend #ncph2012.  My thoughts about specific sessions and networking opportunities I attended can be seen in previous posts.

What did you get out of the trip? A question that could also be phrased as “was it worth us spending the money to send you?”

The conference provided me with a sense of perspective on my own work and career path.  Despite being what NCPH classifies as a new professional (albeit I’m just on the tail end of that description), talking with professionals who have been in the field slightly longer than myself  made me appreciate the breadth of experience I’ve gained in recent years. This realization combined with being asked for advice by other public history professionals in recent months has helped me realize the mutual benefit of sharing experiences and continuing to seek a variety of development opportunities. 

I live in rural Northern Ontario, while my home has a breathtaking landscape I feel at times disconnected from larger professional community.  The conference helped reinforce the fact that a large public history community does indeed exist, and that I’m not floating alone on a iceberg somewhere.  The conference also allowed me to meet and build on digital relationships that I’ve made over the past couple of years. 

 Attending #ncph2012 allowed me to get a sense of what type of sessions and what type of presentation formats might work well for ncph2013.  I attended sessions that included formal reading of papers without any visuals, powepoint presentations, roundtable discussions, and sessions which actively attempted to get the session attendee’s to participate in discussion.  Each type of format has distinct advantages.  Personally I found the sessions which were less traditional and more focused on engaging discussion far more valuable.

Lastly, but perhaps most tangibly #ncph2012 introduced me to a variety of new ideas, examples of successful projects, techniques for evaluation of unsuccessful initiatives. I’ve returned to work with a number of projects and open source initiatives that I want to learn more about (and now know the names of people to contact if I want more information). The focus of these projects range from community building to crowdsourcing to basic exhibit development to building a successful oral history program.  Granted, ideas are great but putting them into practice is an entirely different matter – but learning about new things is bound to be the first step towards progress.

    Museums, Steampunk, and Makers

    The first session I attended today at #ncph2012 / #oah2012 was focused on Museums and Makers.  The panel included @cathystanton, @katefreedman, and @publichistorian. To give you a taste of the variety and level of fun this session included, some of the things mentioned included: steampunk elephant, fire breathing bicycles, and knitted dragons.

    Overall, I came away with a number of thoughts about community engagement and material culture.  Hands on learning can be seen in steampunk culture that recreates aspects of Victorian science fiction and Maker Faires are all about engagement with the act of making.  Hands-on learning can be a powerful tool no matter what the setting.  Integrating active learning into traditional historical sites invites the public to look at history in a new way.

    The presentations and audience questions also touched on the tenuous balance of communities — hobbyists vs. professionals, fun vs. educational, and forward thinking vs. romanticizing the past.  All of these relationships highlight the complexity of the past and the variety of avenues which one can take to address the past.  History means many things to different people, we as public historians should encourage this broad examination of the past and continue to work to engage so called ‘sub-culture’ groups.

    This session was a great start to my day, both interesting in an academic and fantasy driven way.