January 2008

Minnesota Reflections, the public collections project of the Minnesota Digital Library, has gone 2.0 with the introduction of “the social side of Minnesota Reflections.”  I love the MDL–just look at the link to my museum’s collection on the front page!–particularly as an example of how small repositories can participate in successful digital collections projects:  in consortiums,  collaborating for higher public access to information and for economies of scale.

The new social functionality is very simple.  Each item (photograph, document, map) has a little red button that says ‘comment on this item,’ which leads to a comment form (IIRC,  there’s a wiki backend).  This could be useful for items with unclear stories, unidentified people, etc.

It was just rolled out, so there’s not much commenting activity yet.  (I considered commenting on some of our photos, but since I wrote the descriptions myself, I don’t have much to add. ) Since there hasn’t been much commenting, I can’t tell if items will be marked as commented on, which would be useful, along with a list of most commented items.  What I think would be the absolute best 2.0 tool to add to Reflections, though, is tagging.  Right now you can search by keyword, but the keywords are provided by each repository, so there’s on the one hand no consistent taxonomy and on the other hand some solipsism and too-specific or too-vague keywords.  Crowdsourcing the tagging could make the collection easier to navigate, and we might see some emergent stories about how the public views Minnesota history.

An interesting way to get folks to your house museum:  look for ghosts.

The John H. Stevens House, “the birthplace of Minneapolis,” a historic house museum near Minnehaha Falls, is holding three ghosthunting seminars this spring, starting March 2.  “Stevens House is your “laboratory” as you learn how to detect the presence of  paranormal activity using the tools of professional ghosthunters.” What a creative idea!  Doing history is sometimes poetically described as talking to ghosts, and here’s the literal interpretation.  Are members of the public more interested in possible ghosts than in actual documented dead people and their artifacts?  The museum can capitalize on that by using their house, a meeting place for the earliest white settlers in the Village of St Anthony, as the venue.  The museum is closed all winter, so this kind of program is a also good way to get people in the museum in the off-season.  There are some possible problems, including the worry of promoting pseudohistory (which Tim Compeau wrote about interestingly last fall), but I’ll give the ghosthunters the benefit of the doubt.

I’m planning to go to at least the first ghosthunting seminar (my predictions:  they’ll tell us to get a thermometer and an EMF detector and will talk vaguely about presences.  All I know about ghosthunting I learned from Kiki Strike) and I’ll report back on how the metaphoric ghosts of the archives interact with the ‘real’ ghosts that make eerie noises.  Maybe our small museums need a bit of the spectacular.

I’ve always been jealous of the archaeologists who get to spend their summers outdoors in interesting places, since my work entails going to such exotic locations as Rochester, NY and spending all my time indoors in the archives. Now the historian equivalent of the summer dig has arrived: public history field school. For its inaugural field school, Washington State University at Pullman has teamed up with the Montana Heritage Commission to send twenty students to Virginia City, an old Montana mining town, to do cultural resource assessment.* Of course, it’s not cheap: for the two week program it’ll cost you about $1500 plus transportation to and from Pullman. But this would definitely be a great way to gain hands-on public history experience, especially around CRM assessments, evaluations, reports, etc, which is where the money is in public history (if there is, indeed, any money). It’s open to all grad students from any schools.

I started looking around and learned that there are a few other public history field schools. The NPS’s Fort Vancouver has teamed up with Portland State for an eleven-week program. The first year was 2006; I can’t tell, however, if there was a program in 2007 or if there will be one this year. It also looks as though South Carolina  had one at one time.

What a great idea! More field schools, please.

*I found out about WSU’s field school from an ad in the NCPH annual meeting program.  Thanks, NCPH!

Blogospheric news:

Students, faculty and staff of the Program in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota, of which I will soon be a proud alumna, now have a blog for news, events, etc. It’s inspired by the Logan Lounge, UPenn’s program blog, but will hopefully be updated more frequently; that basically everyone in the program is free to post will hopefully ensure that. There’s a post up right now about the HSTM team, “Maxwell’s Demons,” in last weekend’s pond hockey tournament.

It was also brought to my attention that HSS’s Forum for the History of Science in America has a blog which is at least in part masterminded by my erstwhile colleague Susan Rensing. It has various fellowship announcements and also keynote speeches from the Forum’s annual meeting. Of note is the blogroll there, a brief snapshot of many of the blogs I can think of that are written by historians of science (including PH, natch).

Over on the Minnesota Sesquicentennial blog, it’s looking like they’ll post a “on this day in Minnesota history” post every day of the year. January is apparently brought to us by an elementary school class in Edina. I learned last week that Tippi Hedren was a Minnesotan.

That’s all for now; I’ll be talking about the Hinckley fire later in the week.

Quick, how do you keep the South Carolina highway board from demolishing the 150 year old house built by your great-great-grandfather?  Get your petition linked on Boingboing, that’s how.

There’s an interesting comment stream about class and access to a digital soapbox:  what about folks whose houses might be razed but don’t have lots of geeks organizing for them?  I’m definitely for creative approaches to preservation (and I signed the petition), but we can always use a reality check about the digital divide.

News from the two poles of North American digital history (or, you know, the UWO-GMU Axis of Digital Evil) have recently passed into the aether:

The dispatch from London:   Bill Turkel and Alan MacEachern are writing a book, The Programming Historian, “to teach practicing historians how to use programming to augment their ability to do research online.”
The dispatch from Fairfax:  the CHNM is organizing an unconference called THATcamp (the humanities and technology camp), on digital humanities, the weekend of May 31.  “Sessions at THATCamp will range from full-blown papers (not many of those, we hope) to software demos to training sessions to debates to discussions of research findings to half-baked rants.”  Sign me up in the half-baked rants category!  Apply for a spot at thatcamp.info@gmail.com.

The winners for the big children’s book awards have been announced, and this year, history won.

The most exciting news is that Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters, Sweet Ladies has won the Newbery!  This terrific, original book is a series of dramatic monologues from characters in a medieval village.   It’s a surprise and a pleasure to find that such an unusual book, and a history book at that, was this year’s winner. (If you’d like to read more about the judging, Monica Edinger, who served on this year’s Newbery committee, has been writing thoughtfully about the process all year.) Schlitz, a librarian at a progressive private school in Baltimore, wrote the monologues for fifth graders doing a unit on the middle ages, and was persuaded to send the book in to publishers.  Schlitz is also the author of one of my favorite books of 2006, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, about spiritualists, ghosts and orphans around the turn of the century (what’s not to like?).
One of the Honor books (and the Coretta Scott King medal winner), Elijah of Buxton, is also a historical, as is The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the genre-busting illustrated novel which won the Caldecott.

This indicates not necessarily that better historical fiction is being written, but that excellent historical fiction for kids can be acclaimed and honored as much as fantasy or realistic fiction.  Hopefully this will spur the publishing of better historical fiction for kids, rather than “kids’ historical novels getting a pass,” not being subject to real critical scrutiny, as Gail Gauthier has suggested.  And as Roger Sutton recently noted, historical fiction can seem just as exotic as fantasy to kids. So why is it not as widely read and widely sold?   There’s an air of stodginess that clings to historical fiction as much as it does to our small museums.  Let’s air it out.  Historical fiction is perhaps the most visible and widely distributed genre of public history, and we should be reading, recommending, supporting, and even writing it!

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