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.

NCPH recap: Day Four, March 19

I’m recapping my NCPH 2016 experience.  I’ve already written about the first three days of the conference and some of the great workshops and sessions from those days.  The final day of NCPH included a great keynote address and the bittersweet nature of a conference winding down.

Awards Breakfast and Presidential Address

The awards ceremony celebrates the winners of the numerous awards offered through NCPH including book of the year, public history project of the year, and others.  The awards were followed by Patrick Moore’s presidential address titled “Places, Privilege, and Public History: A Journey of Acknowledging Contested Space”. Moore’s talk took the form a personal narrative exploring his exposure to history in his childhood, youth, and professional life and the personal realizations he developed about how history is interpreted and experienced.

Moore raised questions around interpretation – is it possible to overlap different historical narratives? To share space in history? How do we as professionals reframe questions to look at things in different ways? And how do we talk about people who ‘lost’ who are not part of popular narratives? It is crucial that we give history and authority back to communities and provide opportunities to people who have never had their stories told.  It can be deeply challenging to recognize your own privilege but that recognition can make for better professionals and better approaches to historical work. This talk was great mixture of reflection on the public history profession and a call to arms around approaches to challenging the exclusive past.  A very fitting presidential address considering the theme of this year’s conference.

Not Lost and Not Forgotten: How to Help Cultural Communities Preserve Their Sacred Traditions and Sacred Spaces

Singing and Praying Band
Singing and Praying Band

This was one of the most unique conference sessions I’ve ever attended.  It focused on the African American Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware and one of such bands actively participated in the session.  The session hinged on the idea of how historians can document cultural communities and what tools are needed to build collaborative partnerships – especially around the documentation of spiritual traditions.

Prior to this session I had zero knowledge about the Singing and Praying bands.  The session did an excellent job of highlighting how these bands are deeply connected to church culture and African American history.  The bands brought people together, they were the worship experience of many early Methodist societies, and have a connection to the participatory worship that links back to the slave trade.

This session also picked up a number of themes that were discussed throughout the conference – the need to build relationships of trust within the community, the fact that history can be deeply personal and that personal experience has a place in historical narrative, and the fact that successful collaborations are a relationship, not a project. Having the singing and praying band participate in this session was a great experience – it brought the community history to the forefront and showed the nature of this deep history.  It also brought community voices and community realities to the forefront – something that could not have been accomplished by someone simply presenting on this topic.

Cemetery Activism Roundtable

The final session I attended at NCPH 2016 was a roundtable focusing on cemeteries and the use of cemeteries to present more diverse and inclusive historical narratives.  The discussion was facilitated by Lynn Rainville of Sweet Briar College and included Steven Burg, Shippensburg University; Savannah Darr, Metro Louisville Planning and Design Services; Dennis Montagna, National Park Service; and Ryan Smith, Virginia Commonwealth University.

This session focused primarily on the preservation and documentation of community cemeteries and African American burial grounds.  The presenters all highlighted the need to advocate for cemetery preservation, the need for community engagement around these sites, and how to get people to care about these sites — particularly if they exist in an area which the impacted community is no longer represented in the population.

NCPH recap: Day Three, March 18

I’m recapping my NCPH 2016 experience.  I’ve already written about the first two days of the conference and some of the great workshops and sessions from those days.  I presented on day three and also had the chance to attend some great sessions and the inspiring public plenary.

Transformative Archival Methods: Inclusivity, Partnerships, Human Rights, & Activism

This panel was one of my favourite of the whole conference.  It included Trudy Huskamp Peterson, Human Rights Working Group; Marla Ramirez, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign; and Patrick Stawski, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. This session was frames around the idea that access to archives is an essential part of professional archival practice and that archives can be transformative within a human rights context.  A lot of what was covered in this session was very relevant to ongoing conversations in Canada around Indigenous archival material and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Trudy Huskamp Peterson‘s discussion of the International Council on Archives (ICA) Human Rights Working Group was particularly inspiring.  It also raised a lot of questions about best practices for archives, access, and marginalized communities. Archives have the ability to be play a key role in transitional justice processes but they need to be preserved in order to do so — archivists need to actively consider human rights claims when they are appraising documents. Similarly, archives need to be accessible to victims of human rights offenses and archives need to do a better job of communicating with marginalized communities about how access can be gained and facilitate connections to records.  Trudy also touched on the need for professional discussion around displaced archives and the role of archives within human rights contexts more broadly.  I was particularly struck by the irony of the fact that the ICA working group draft document on human rights is not publicly accessible, when so much of its content emphasizes access as a right.

Trudy’s presentation was followed by Patrick Stawski‘s discussion of archivists as ‘memory bandits’ who engage in a proactive redistribution of archival memory.  Stawski spoke a lot about the politics around archiving community materials and raised an important point around the language we use — we talk about acquiring collections, but in the case of communities we need to think and talk more about partnerships and address how we can support the origin of the materials.  Stawski also highlighted how archives are the beginning of relationships and archives around human rights are often connected to living communities and we need to evolve are archival practices to address changes within the communities we are serving.  This presentation also included a discussion of the transformative nature of records and how there can be a huge value in examining records that cause discomfort.  Records that document trauma can be directly linked to community healing and the redistribution of memory.

The final presenter in this session was Marla Andrea Ramirez who spoke about creating platforms for silenced voices, filling in archival silences, and the important of oral history in transforming historical narratives. Ramirez’s work focused on transgenerational oral histories to create narratives that reflect both survivor and community experiences in relation to the deportation of Mexicans in the 1930s from the United States.  She also spoke about her work with family archives and documents help by individuals that explain their history that don’t exist in official historical narratives or government archives. Ramirez’s talk emphasized the power of oral history to highlight the long term trauma that archival records do not capture and the need for establishing trust and patient relationships when doing this type of oral history project.

This was an extremely powerful panel with so many perspectives and experiences relating to archives and trauma. As Canadian archivists start to consider their own role in reconciliation, access, documenting the impact of colonialism and residential schools looking to examples outside of Canada has the potential to be extremely useful.

Finding the Embedded Archivist

I was fortunate to present on this panel organized by Jennifer Black of Misericordia University.  The other presenters included Marc Brodsky, Virginia Tech; Suzanne Catharine, University at Albany, SUNY; Jessica Garner, Misericordia University, Mary Kintz Bevevino Library; Noreen O’Connor, Kings College and myself.  This session brought together archivists, faculty, and a student and looked at the potential of embedded archival instruction and the power of moving beyond ‘show and tell’ archival instruction.

I learned a lot from my fellow presenters and gained a few new ideas for instruction exercises, such as: having students examine a rare book or other item with the question of if it should be de-accessioned; or telling students they are the head of a brand new archives facility and having them consider how they would design the space to be used by archives staff.  Both of these examples highlight important work that archivists do and get students to engage with some of the difficult questions associated with archival practice.

This session also highlighted the need for the archival community to talk more broadly about instruction strategies, techniques, and successes.  There are a lot of great archivists and faculty partnerships out there that can be used as examples but they often require substantial digging to learn about.

Using Spatial History to Challenge the Exclusive Past

This panel included discussion of the “Spatial History in the Public Square” project by Bradley Andrick and Kevin Borg of James Madison University, the “Canal Lives on the James River and Kanawha Canal” project by Gregory Hargreaves of the Hagley Museum and Library, and the “98 Acres in Albany: Documenting a Demolished Neighborhood” by David Hochfelder, University at Albany, SUNY.

There were some interesting discussion around technology used in these three different mapping projects.  The Canal Lives utilized Omeka to setup a very basic visualization of the cannal and embed underrepresented stories of those who built and worked in the canal region. The Public Square project was more complex and used digital map tools to overlay archival Sanborn maps with present day terrain and to include metadata within the maps for contextual information.  This project used completely open source software including Leaflet, GMP, and github.  They wanted to create something that would by easy for other communities to replicate using similar Sanborn maps and a bit of hacking.  I loved that aspect of the Public Square Project.  The 98 Acres in Albany project focuses on the social history of urban renewal and highlight the experiences of individuals from diverse backgrounds.  The site appears to be currently setup on a WordPress blog and is very narrative driven currently.

These were all interesting mapping projects and were connected by their desire to highlight unrepresented narratives. However, I was very concerned by the fact that all the presenters on this panel were white males and the community voices were lost in their presentations.  Despite their work seemingly revolving around silences communities those voices did not seem to have a place at the table for the project administration or overarching project decisions. In the case of the Canal Lives project there was a particularly jarring moment where the presenter indicated they were using ‘placeholder’ images to show what slave or servant individuals probably would have looked like.  I understand the desire to make projects visually appealing but using an image of a historical document or explaining why there were no photographs of a marginalized person might have been a more appropriate option.

Public Plenary

The public plenary was held at the Ebenezer AME Church a short walk from the conference hotel.  Titled “Uprising in Focus: The Image, Experience, and History of Inequality in Baltimore” amd moderated by Elizabeth Nix the plenary included photographers Devin Allen, J.M. Giordiano, director of Ingoma Foundation Paula Gregory Harris, and long time Baltimore residents Robert Birt and Devon Wilford-Said.

This event was open to the general public and focused on the history of activism and protest in Baltimore in response to racial injustice.  It focused on both the 1968 protests following the death of Martin Luther King and the 2015 protests following the death of Freddie Gray and used images as a lens for looking at the past and present racial divide in Baltimore.  The church was packed for this event and the narratives of the panelists highlighted the need to look beyond the images of protest presented on CNN and other major news sources.  Devin Allen’s talk in particular was inspiring and deeply moving.

Other Fun

This was a busy day – I also attended a membership committee meeting and participating in a Canadian public history meetup. One of my favourite parts about NCPH is getting the opportunity to connect with other public history professionals from all walks of life.  The Canadian contingent this year included a number of fellow Western alumni who it was great to see again and discuss the challenges particular to public historians in Canada.

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.

NCPH Recap: Day One, March 16

LGBTAnother year, another NCPH conference down.  This is by far my favourite conference.  It brings together so many diverse perspectives, there is a welcoming sense of community, and the sessions are always dynamic and engaging.  I had a fantastic time in Baltimore at NCPH 2016 and over the next week or so I will be recapping my experience at the conference and exploring Baltimore.

This was the first year I was able to participate in any of the pre-conference workshops.  The “Daring to Speak Its Name: Interpreting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Pasts at Historic Sites” workshop facilitated by Susan Ferentinos, Frank Futral, and Megan Springate was a wonderful way to kick off the week in Baltimore.

The workshop included a broad discussion of challenges interpreting and integrating LGBTQ history into mainstream historical sites and common historical narratives.  The session allowed for substantial discussion of participant ideas and projects.  The workshop opened with Sue Ferentinos highlighting some of the different ways that LGBTQ history has been interpreted – monuments, memorials, special events/exhibits, and reshaping of existing programming.

We also spent considerable time talking about the challenges or ‘issues’ around interpreting LGBTQ history.  Some of the issues that resonated most with me was the idea of archival silences or silences in the historical record.  How do you tell a history that isn’t well documented?  And without imposing present day identification and terms on the past?  And who has the right to tell these stories? And how do you tell it without ‘whitewashing’ or generalizing the very diverse range of experiences of LGBTQ communities.  As an archivist much of this conversation made me consider the need to more actively engage in documenting present day queer communities, so that future generations have more information and the ability to tell this history more fully.

The session also pointed participants to a number of resources including:

And the morning concluded with participants workshopping ideas around LGBTQ history interpretation at the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site and specifically Val-Kill the home of Eleanor.  Overall this was a great workshop with great ideas around engaging with LGBTQ past and the need to be more proactive in documenting this history. There was also a lot of enthusiasm for more LGBTQ history at future NCPH meetings in terms of working groups and presentations.

Following this workshop I concluded Day 1 of NCPH by helping the Resume Building Workshop and attending the Opening Reception.  I had a mentee for the conference so the opening reception was a chance to meet her and orient her to the conference.  I also had dinner with a number of the Canadian attendees at NCPH – and it’s always great to connect with those great public historians.

NCPH 2016 Plans

The National Council on Public History (NCPH) conference for this year is almost here.  Next week I’ll be heading to Baltimore, MD for NCPH 2016.  It looks like it’s going to be a great conference with a wide range of panels, walking tours, workshops, and other events.  The full conference program is available on the NCPH website. I planning on taking in a variety of events including:

Wednesday March 16

  • 8:00am-12:00pm “Daring to Speak Its Name” Workshop
  • 5:30-6:00pm I’ll be attending the “First Time Attendee and Mentor/Mentee Pre-Reception” as a Mentor.
  • 6:00-7:00pm Opening Reception

Thursday March 17

  • 7:30-8:00am As part of the membership committee I’m attending the NCPH New Member welcome.

Friday March 18

  • 10:30am-12:00pm I’ll be presenting as part of the “Finding the Embedded Archivist” panel.  The panel is focusing on archival instruction, partnerships between faculty and archives, and teaching about archives in substantial ways.
  • 1:30-3:30pm Membership Committee Meeting
  • 6:00-7:00pm The Uprising in Focus: The Image, Experience, and History of Inequality in Baltimore public plenary.

Saturday March 19

  • 8:00-10:00am NCPH Awards Breakfast and Presidential Address

I”ll also be attending a variety of sessions but if you’re at NCPH in Baltimore and want to connect I’ll definitely be at the above events.

2016 NCPH/SHFG Joint Conference Topic Proposals

Last year the National Council on Public History introduced the idea of topic proposals for its annual meetings.  Topic Proposals allow individuals interested in submitting sessions to the conference to receive feedback on their ideas, recruit other panelists, and further develop their ideas with community input, prior to submitting their final proposals to the conference committee.  The History@Work blog has written about last year’s success of the topic proposal idea.

This year the deadline for topic proposals was June 1st.  A complete list of the 40 topic proposals received by NCPH can be found here. There are a lot of creative ideas and lots of people looking for feedback and potential collaborators.  It’s a great way to connect with people who might have similar ideas for presenting at this year’s conference and connect with other like minded public historians.

Volunteering and Service Projects

During the month of December I am participating in #reverb14 as a means of getting my writing habits back on track. I will be altering the prompts as needed to fit within the scope of this blog. Today’s prompt: The Plank: It has been said that you must learn to take care of yourself before you can be effective at taking care of others.  How did you take care of yourself in 2014?  How will you take care of yourself in 2015?

One of the most rewarding personal things I’ve done this year is to continue being engaged in projects that matter to me.  Taking on extra projects outside of work might seem counter intuitive to self care.  But working on history projects that are intellectually challenging and interesting is something I greatly enjoy. I find engagement in this type of project rewarding and something that helps lift my mood.

Projects I’ve continued to be a part of this year:

  • Volunteering with the Multicultural History Society of Ontario‘s digital archive project.  This project has focused on making oral history interviews conducted by the MHSO accessible online.  It’s been great to be able to volunteer with this meaningful project from a distance and be able to help out with interview transcription, research/writing of biographies, and indexing of interviews.
  • Serving on the membership committee of the National Council of Public History.  NCPH is a great organization that I’ve enjoyed contributing to.  Serving on the membership committee has allowed me to become more engaged in the organization and connect with a number of public historians from both Canada and the United States.  
  • Active History Website.  I’ve continued to be a co-editor at Active History.  I’ve been involved with this project for a number of years now and it is something I have continued to enjoy participating in.  The site promotes the dissemination of historical knowledge and often focuses on the intersection of history and everyday events.

Archives Meet Public History

Earlier this week the Students and New Archives Professional (SNAP) Roundtable of the Society of American Archivists hosted a joint twitter chat with the New Professional and Graduate Student Committee of the National Council on Public History.  The chat focused on the intersection of public history and archives and generated a lot of interesting ideas for collaboration.

The first portion of the chat focused on introducing participants, discussing what interested them in archives and public history, and what they learned about archives in their public history program (or vice versa). The vast majority of responses seemed to indicate that many archival programs didn’t talk about public history and that most public history programs might include a class or two focused on archives.  A number of participants also mentioned gaining exposure to other fields through internships and work study opportunities.

The second section of the chat invited participants to share how they have interacted with public historians or archivists as part of their work.  A number of people (@Sam_Winn, @PubHistPhD, and @jessmknapp) mentioned that reference, outreach, and engagement work often allows them to interact with people from a variety of fields.

This was followed by a discussion of why archives, public historians, and museums don’t work together more frequently on advocacy issues. Holly Croft suggested that this disconnect might be rooted in the fact that archives only recently began to advocate for themselves.  Croft’s comment garnered a lot of discussion and highlighted the issue of similar fields committing for the same funding sources and lack of engagement between professional groups. 

The chat closed with practical suggestions of how these two related fields can work together.  A number of participants suggested holding more tweet chats or similar discussions which invite people from different backgrounds to engage.  Using digital and local history projects as points of collaboration was also suggested, as was the idea of holding joint professional meetings.

As someone who holds an MA in Public History and works in an archive I found the chat very interesting.  While I’ve worked in an archives focused role for the past four years many of the outreach and engagement practices I’ve undertaken are rooted in public history and the idea of a living archive.  There is tremendous potential for collaboration between fields to bring history to the forefront.

NCPH Topic Proposals

This year the National Council on Public History (NCPH) introduced a new element for the conference submission process.  The 2015 NCPH Annual Meeting call for proposals included the option of submitting topic proposals.  This option was geared towards people who are interested in presenting but who might be looking for ideas to more fully develop a proposal or who are looking for co-presenters. 

The results of this initiative were 55 topic proposals that include a working title, abstract, and descriptions of the type of assistance the proposer is looking for.  The list of proposals can be seen here.  There’s a wide range of topics and a variety of people looking for collaborators.  If you’re interested in getting involved in NCPH this is a great way to connect with others and get started.