The Flexibility of a Definition.
This past weekend I attended an Active History conference in Toronto. The conference focused largely on the variety of ways in which academic and community historians interact with the general public and attempt to employ history in ways which actively engage audiences.
I think one of the most significant ideas I took away from the conference was the notion of flexibility. I am beginning to think that for an understanding, appreciation and a career in Public History flexibility is essential. The Active History conference featured many presentations by traditional academic historians whose work had brought them out of the ivory tower into the realm of Public History. The conference also featured a number of presentations by people who may not be considered “true historians” by traditional academic standards. This juxtaposition of academic and community historians helped me expand my definition of what a historian is. A historian does not necessarily have to have spent a good portion of their life in the academy, rather they may be participating, learning and researching history from a grassroots level.
One of the most surprising aspects of the entire conference was the lack of conversation about the use of digital technology to enhance active participation. Digital technology was discussed by a few of the presenters but it did not receive its own panel or resonate as a general concern amongst participants. I understand that a lot of volunteer based organizations and underfunded historical projects may not have a great deal of money to fund some of the more complex digital technology avaliable. However, there is a number of open-source programs which could be used to enhance historical websites or even the technology used at specific facilities. Many of the presenters at the conference were very flexible in their outlooks and were creative in coming up with ideas of how to engage the public. Yet, many did not apply this creative thinking in a digital way, which would (in my mind) allow for an increased public engagement and accessibility of historical information. Perhaps it all comes down to a lack of knowledge about the digital resources which are avaliable to them and a lack of training in how to use technology in a historical setting.
Overall, I found the conference to be an insightful look into a variety of avenues of Public History which I had not given an immense amount of thought to prior to the conference. The conference also gave me a lot to think about regarding the ways in which the “profession” of public history can be both professional and very far from the traditional professional ideal.