February 2008

You may know that discussions are currently underway on the proposed lightrail line between downtown Mpls and downtown St Paul, with particular wrangling on how the train will traverse the U of M campus.  Twin City Sidewalks has a terrific, important post on the subject, on modernism and community.  Go read it right now.


Welcome to brief post day on PH!  First up, a grant program for programming.

The Motorola Foundation is partnering with the Chicago History Museum to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The grants will fund programs developed by educational, civic and cultural organizations that focus on three themes: Bringing History into the Future, Engaging in Current Events and Leadership Skills. Awards will fund curriculum design, speech competitions and debates, community programming developed by educators in schools, community organizations, museums, arts and culture organizations and other non-profits exploring themes such as diversity, freedom, history and leadership.

The application is available here: http://www.cybergrants.com/motorola/lincolngrant: The grants will be awarded in two cycles, the spring application deadline is March 30, 2008 and the fall deadline is July 30, 2008.

Daniel James Brown, Under a Flaming Sky:  The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894
Giant red blobs of gas floated, jellyfish-like, over the town and exploded. Railroad tracks were warped by the enormous heat.  People sought inadequate shelter in the low water of the foul green millpond.  Arguably Minnesota’s most famous fire, the Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of land, killed about 500 people and changed the course of the lumber and shipping industries in Minnesota.  If you’ve ever been to Hinckley, right off I-35 halfway between the Twin Cities and Duluth, you’ll notice that almost everything in town is named after the fire.  There’s a fire museum (which I hope to visit soon), the bar is called the Firehouse–more than a century later, the town is still grappling with the fire’s effects.  Daniel Brown’s recent book on the fire is a fascinating journalistic account of the events of late summer 1894 from the grandson of a survivor.

Brown’s book is totally gripping, particularly the parts where he focuses on particular individuals and families caught in the firestorm, and their horrific or heroic stories of escape, survival and tragedy.  The book reads like an ensemble disaster movie, with, for instance, the story of a wedding party interrupted by the fire who took refuge in the root cellar, dousing themselves in milk to stay alive.  However, Brown occasionally stops and changes gears, as if, during this disaster movie, an announcer broke the fourth wall and stepped on stage to give you a lecture on Minnesota weather or train construction or a particular firefight in California in 1973.  These intrusions are informative, certainly, but take the reader out of the story and out of 1894.  I was also drawn to the story of John Blair, a porter on one of the rescue trains and basically the only black person in the story, whose heroism in getting folks off the burning train and into Skunk Lake and tending to the wounded is unimaginably amazing.  (I was pleased to find that there’s a children’s book about him!)

Under a Flaming Sky and its detailed recounting of the progress of the fire and the rescues reminded me of this recent post on Digital History Hacks, which discusses how, enabled by cached data, we can tell very detailed stories of very small units of time.

Now suppose you wanted to write the history of a very brief interval, say a few hours, minutes or even seconds. In the past, this kind of history–I’m not sure what to call it–would only have been possible for an event like 9/11, the JFK assassination or D-Day. But with access to Google’s cache data and some sophisticated data mining tools, it becomes possible to imagine creating rich snapshots of web activity over very short intervals. And to the extent that web activity tracks real world activity and can be used to make inferences about it, it becomes possible to imagine writing the history of one second on earth, or one millisecond, or one microsecond.

Beyond microhistory, Turkel declines to name this kind of focused story, but I’d like to call it nanohistory, which both indicates the difference of magnitude from microhistory but also includes a trendy prefix.  Anyway, Turkel suggests that the web makes nanohistory, very small history, possible, because we only have this kind of record for a few Big Historic Events.  I immediately and perversely starting thinking of any other short periods of time for which we have such detailed chronologic data. (This is in fact why I finally got around to reading the Hinckley book.)  For the Hinckley fire, we have at least minute-by-minute information, particularly based on the accounts of the railwaymen and telegraph operators.  Brown was thus able to reconstruct a minute-by-minute portrait of the spread of the fire, the trains’ arrival into town, the time when Sandstone was destroyed, what time his grandfather got on the train to Duluth, etc.  Other local disasters also have developed equally detailed timestamp data (though you certainly need the web to get to the microsecond level).  The kinds of events we have more knowledge about than any others, though, are meetings.  Local historical societies have meeting minutes from all sorts of community meetings in their localities.  It may not be quite so stirring as a firestorm, but who said what to whom can help uncover the texture of the past, and people sitting together in a room is a core human experience.  Let’s train our eyes deeper into the details.

The Minnesota legislative session started last week.

The Minnesota Monitor reports on the Great Outdoors & Heritage Amendment, which would dedicate sales tax funding for environmental, arts and cultural programs.  The bill was discussed in the 2007 session, but not voted on.

On Valentine’s Day, the House and Senate both passed this bill, which asks voters to decide in November on a constitutional amendment to create a new 3/8 percent sales tax to protect drinking water sources, restore wildlife habitat, pay for parks and trails, and support arts and cultural programs around the state. The governor doesn’t need to sign the bill, so the decision is now in our hands instead of an elected official’s. In the coming months expect to start seeing advertising from arts, outdoors and environmental groups asking you to vote yes.

Let me be the first to tell you:  Vote Yes on 2285!

The percentage of the dedicated funding to be dedicated to arts and culture is 19.75, which will probably amount to $54.5 million a year.

Check on other bills pending related to Minnesota history museums at MAHLM’s legislative update page or the MHS’s page, or go straight to the source at the Minnesota House’s Heritage Finance Committee.

My pal Josh passed on this black history event. An interesting contrast to the city/county economics talks, no? You’ll probably see me there, since I of course am a former Detroiter.


A talk by Dr. Luke Tripp – a former leader of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and a screening of the rare 1970 documentary film “FINALLY GOT THE NEWS”

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008 * 1 PM * Free

Sabathani Community Center

310 East 38th Street Minneapolis MN 55409

Sponsored by the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) Local Union

(612) 339-1266 * twincities@iww.org

The League of Revolutionary Black Workers united radical Black
organizing projects in Detroit’s factories, neighborhoods, high school
and college campuses against the racist and exploitative conditions that
dominated life for African-American workers in the 1960’s and ’70’s.

At the heart of the League were Revolutionary Union Movements (RUMs)
built by rank & file Black workers, mainly in Detroit’s auto factory
“plantations”. The RUMs sought to organize Black workers to resist the
racist and exploitive conditions in these factories – and within the
white-dominated business unions that officially represented the workers.

While not as well known as Martin Luther King, the Black Panther Party,
or the Nation of Islam, thousands of workers in Detroit participated in
the League and it’s RUMs. The League distributed mass circulation
newspapers & plant bulletins, organized pickets and rallies, formed
community and student groups, ran opposition union candidates, and led
wildcat strikes that successfully shut down production.

Despite repression from the joined forces of Chrysler, Ford, GM, the
United Auto Workers, and Detroit and suburban police departments, the
League built the last sustained mass revolutionary unions in this
country. The history of the League – and its lessons – should be known
by all concerned with the struggle for freedom and equality.


Dr. Luke Tripp is Professor and Chair of Community Studies at St. Cloud
State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota. He received his Ph. D. from the
University of Michigan. He is an activist and author of several articles
on Black college students and Black Workers. He was a leader in the
League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Detroit chapter of the
Black Panther Party in the 1960s.


FINALLY GOT THE NEWS is a forceful, unique documentary that reveals the
activities of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers inside and
outside the auto factories of Detroit. Through interviews with the
members of the movement, footage shot in the auto plants, and footage of
leafleting and picketing actions, the film documents their efforts to
build an independent black labor organization that, unlike the UAW, will
respond to worker’s problems, such as the assembly line speed-up and
inadequate wages faced by both black and white workers in the industry.

55 minutes/b&w

Original Release Date: 1970

Minneapolis’ municipal wifi network is up and working (though slower when it snows). As part of the contract with the city, the contractor, the Twin Cities-based US Internet, has donated to a fund to address local digital disparities. The first grants from this Digital Inclusion program were awarded last week. Recipients include the Minneapolis Public Library (now Hennepin County Library), for programs for internet literacy for Somali and Spanish speaking patrons, and the TC Media Alliance, the parent organization of the wonderful TC Daily Planet, for a neighborhood citizen journalist initiative that I would love to be part of if I had some extra hours in the day. The grants also have some connection to a local organization called Digital Access that’s been behind the development of community technology centers across the metro. This is all heartening news.

CFP hit parade:

Midwest Junto for the History of Science, University of Minnesota, April 4-6. Abstracts are due on Friday, 2/15, to Jole Shackelford at shack001@umn.edu.

Web 2.0/History 2.0: Making History Together:  The Annual Meeting of the American Assoc for History and Computing, April 20-22.  Abstracts due Feb 28.

Other news:

At Hanging Together, an interesting post on virtual collections in the 19th century, that is, plaster reproductions of famous sculpture and architecture,  made by the V and A.

Regarding legislative advocacy for museums, Richard Urban at Museumatic gives a list of resources and encourages us to think about IT and digital access issues in our considerations of how we want to support museums politically.

Harvard’s Open Collections Program (OCP) has launched a new online collection, Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics:

…the new Contagion collection brings carefully selected historical materials from Harvard’s renowned libraries, special collections, and archives to Internet users everywhere. The collection, which includes more than 500,000 pages of digitized books, serials, pamphlets, incunabula, and manuscripts, contributes to the understanding of the global, social-history, and public-policy implications of disease and offers important historical perspectives on the science and the public policy of epidemiology today.

The University of Warwick in the UK is holding a summer workshop in July on Medicine and New Media:

Medicine and New Media, the first postgraduate Summer School organized by the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick will explore the history of medical imaging from the Renaissance to present times. Participants will trace technological developments and their consequences in medicine, alongside consideration of how these new ways of ’seeing’ the human body reflected and were shaped by the concerns of scientists, physicians, artists, and the general population.

The aim of the Summer School is to bring together current and recently completed postgraduates from the humanities and sciences with experts from a number of different fields to engage with a range of technologies for making scientific images of the human body, including the fine arts, drawing and painting, as well as film, photography, X-ray and the current medical imaging techniques of digital biomedicine. Moreover, it addresses itself to students who are investigating questions about the meaning of images of the human body and how agreement about such meaning is negotiated (in the laboratory, in modern mass-media, public displays in museums, in university anatomy teaching). What are the epistemological, moral and philosophical consequences of our desire to picture all functions of the human body? What does it mean to be human in a world of global mass media in which the individual body is central, yet increasingly public and commercialised? Are there alternatives to the understanding in Western science since the nineteenth century that vision is the primary avenue to knowledge and sight takes precedence over the other senses as a tool in the analysis of living things?

Please peruse these brilliant history-themed comics, featuring many Canadian history in-jokes!

Talking about the internet is one of my favorite pastimes, as you may have noticed.  Mark your calendars for March 1, when I may possibly be talking about the internet in person with lots of other smart people (journalists!  librarians!  scholars!  writers!  etc!) at an event called “Afloat in a Wireless Pond.”

The event, supported by a grant from the Sesquicentennial Commission, is a co-production of the MN Coalition on Government Information and the MN Independent Scholars Forum.   It’s all day at Luther Seminary in St. Paul and costs twenty bucks (not sure if scholarships are available).

[The} digital revolution expands access to the records of Minnesota’s history at the same time it presents unprecedented challenges to those responsible for assuring transparency in government and an informed populace.  Henry David Thoreau might have observed that Minnesotans are “afloat in the wireless pond.”  He might also have advised taking time to stop and reflect on the meaning of it all.

Supported by the Minnesota Sesquicentennial Commission, Minnesotans will have just such an opportunity on Saturday, March 1, 2008.  One of the Sesquicentennial’s early events is a day-long conference aptly entitled “Afloat in the Wireless Pond”, described by planners as a chance to “celebrate by joining other Minnesotans to think about the changes the Internet is making in our lives and in the ways we explore the past, preserve the record of our own times, and shape public policies that enforce the people’s right to know, now and for the future.”

Coincidentally enough, I’ve been rereading Walden.  In the section called “Baker Farm,” Thoreau tells an anecdote about going fishing with John Field, a new immigrant.  HDT is having a successful day, catching a great string of fish, but John Field gets nothing.  HDT proposes they switch seats, but John Field still catches nothing.  In the context of the “wireless pond,” this is a heads up that the digital divide is a strong social factor.  The internet may have greatly changed the lives of some Minnesotans (including me!) and improved our access to many kinds of information, but there’s a whole class of digital have-nots that don’t yet have the resources to catch fish.

Let’s talk about it on March 1st!

Every year the city and county team up for various Black History Month activities; this year’s theme is “Economics in the Black Community.”  All of these lectures will be held on Wednesdays, 11:30-12:30 in City Hall or the Government Center.

Feb 6:  Barbara Jo Davis, Ken Davis Products, Minnesota Black Chamber of Commerce, County A-24 (Okay, this one has already happened.  Sorry!)

Feb 13:  Jacqueline King, Federal Reserve Bank of Mpls, City Council Chambers, Rm 317

Feb 20:  Hussein Samatar, African Development Center (and former city Library Board member!), Level A Auditorium, County

Feb 27:  Dr. Rose M. Brewer, U of M, City Hall Atrium

It’s not clear how historical these presentations are going to be, but the speakers are all pretty interesting. I have various posts planned about Minnesota black history for this extra-long February, so stick around.

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