29 September 2006

A Canadian Council on Public History?

The scholarly American Historical Association (AHA) may not appeal to a cross-section of the population, but its site still needs to connect with those committed to a scholarly and professional view of the past. Nine out of ten new members of the AHA now arrive through its website. (Cohen and Rosenzweig)
This quote has two reasons for beginning this blog: it demonstrates the relevance of websites to history and historians, and provides a jumping-off point for me to talk about the National Council on Public History (NCPH).

My writing on the first of my two points will be embarrassingly brief. It relates to “Digital History,” and, I feel, emphasizes Bill Turkel’s righteous place in UWO's Public History programme, and faculty in general. Historians and those involved in historical endeavours need to recognize that an increasing number of people are engaging with the world via the internet. As my colleague Carling mentioned in class last week, if it is not on the web, it is almost as if it does not exist.

Though related to the first, my second point is that I became a member of the NCPH through its website, and it – the NCPH – is the main topic of this blog. I think it is a valuable institution for public historians, and I would encourage my fellow students to become members. There are perks to membership, such as a subscription to the scholarly journal The Public Historian and the NCPH’s quarterly newsletter Public History News. I received the Spring 2006 issue of the News not long ago. There are some interesting, and perhaps troubling concerns brought to bear inside its covers.

The first relates to membership, and is part of the reason why I am writing this blog. John Dicthl, in his Director’s column, highlights the fact that student membership in the NCPH declined over the last year, dropping from 223 to 160, with a renewal rate of only 28 percent. It only costs $25 (USD) to become a member as a student, and that membership includes, as I mentioned earlier, a subscription to The Public Historian, the only publication out there right now publishing articles directly and solely related to our field. Furthermore, for those of us working in Canada, it also brings to bear the question of how we fit into this association. Public History News publishes a list of its new members, and of the thirty-nine new members listed, only one of them is Canadian. This prompted me to wonder why there are so few Canadians in the NCPH. Of course, the most obvious answer, to me, is that the “National” in National Council on Public History refers to the American nation, not the Canadian nation or otherwise. There are larger issues involved, however, such as the prominence, misguided or not, Americans place on their history as compared to Canadians' regard for history. Enough historians, such as Jack Granatstein, have written about that for me to leave it alone. I have little doubt that few Canadians know about the NCPH, but assume that those practicing public history, or at those of us new to the field or wishing to enter it, will have at least heard of it.

Still, why does Canada not have a national organization of public historians? Surely, the NCPH, a U.S.-based organization, is not serving our needs as adequately as it should. I estimate that about 99.9 percent of the content of its publications, meetings, conferences, and so on, is about American-based public history concerns. It is also safe to say that the remaining 0.01 percent is not the sole domain of Canada. The mission of the NCPH is as follows:
The National Council on Public History makes the public aware of the value, uses, and pleasures of history; advises historians about their public responsibilities; helps students prepare for careers in public history; and provides a forum for historians engaged in historical activities in the public realm.
This could easily apply to any country, and the NCPH does not discriminate against public historians who practice outside the United States. Americans and those interested in American public history dominate the NCPH, however. All the power to them, I say. I am a member because I think it is a valuable and worthwhile organization, and one from which Canadians and others can learn and gain much. I do not think, though, that it will ever fall within the purview of the NCPH to adequately address the needs of Canadian public historians, if simply because of the differing administrations between the countries’ handling of public history.

So I wonder if it is possible, or even advisable, for myself, and anyone else out there who feels this to be a worthwhile project, to undertake developing such an organization in Canada. I am soliciting feedback here, so feel free to write to me with your thoughts and comments on the idea. Questions you could specifically address are: Is the creation of a Canadian-style NCPH a worthwhile venture? Would such an organization find a place within the Canadian public history community? Does such a community exist (More questions there!)? Would it garner enough interest among Canadian public historians to merit a long life? Should it follow the same format as the NCPH? Would the NCPH consider helping develop a sister organization in Canada, one that it could advise and to which the Canadian contingent could turn for guidance? Does Canada even need such an organization?

There are thousands of other questions that will, no doubt, come up along the way, but as I begin to think about my future as a public historian, I cannot help but try to think of where I might fit in to the world of history and what I might do. A Canadian Council on Public History just might be it.


19 September 2006

Making Money through History

As a student of public history, I entered this field of study with the intent of developing a set of skills that would enable me to enter the working world with, what I hoped would be, an advantage over others. What that advantage will be, I still have not too much of an idea. I like history and thinking through things in the ways my mentors have taught me. But how do I apply this interest into a succesful, lucrative career? After today's seminar and readings in HIS 500, I came to the conclusion that that elusive skill set is not the goal of the program. Instead, and I am thankful for this, those of us enrolled in the program are engaged in what Donald Schön calls "reflective practice." Now, I am still trying to wrap my head around the whole concept, but in essence, I think that I am to think about what it is I am doing, all the time, in relation to history. I like that. I am excited and a little scared about having to think. Excited becuase it is a challenge; scared because I worry that I will think the wrong thoughts or not think in the correct or best ways.

I am going to change tacks now.

I found it quite interesting that Cohen and Rosenzweig, in their essay, "Exploring the History Web," refer to two websites with which I am quite familiar. I am referring to the American Memory Project and The Valley of the Shadow. In a class for my undergraduate degree at
Dalhousie University on the American Civil War and Reconstruction, my professor, John O'Brien frequently urged us to visit these sites. What I liked about these websites was that they were not created with only a young audience in mind, as so many other history websites that I had visited up to that point were. More interesting than those sites, however, is the website DoHistory.org, developed in conjunction with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's best-selling and remarkable work, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. The website could easily have been incorporated into Cohen and Rosenzweig's "Teaching and Learning" section of their online book Digital History. DoHistory.org not only allows visitors to the site to navigate Ulrich's book, but also to learn skills valuable to the historian. (The book, for those interested in public history, was also subsequently made into a made-for-television movie through PBS' American Experience series.) Ulrich is a fascinating historian, employing a variety of research and writing techniques and tools. I was introduced to her work through another course at Dalhousie, "Popular Culture in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850," taught by my undergraduate thesis advisor, Jerry Bannister.

Well, where does this blog go from here? Let's go back to the start and talk briefly again about careers in public history. An interesting question occured to me during a seminar today: why do I want to be a public historian? Most will concur that it cannot be for the money (though I do hope to be able to live a comfortable lifestyle; I cannot expect my fiancée to carry the bulk of our financial obligations for too long). I always said to myself (and others) that my reason for entering a graduate program in Public History was because I want to be engaged, somehow, in matters historical, though not necessarily as a profesor. I mean, come on, history professors have it really hard, don't they? Really, though, I do not know if the academic life is for me, and I figured that some training in a field of history that occurs mostly outside the university setting would allow me to think in the way(s) I have been trained and enjoy. I think the question "Why do I want to be a public historian?" will be one of the guiding questions for me in this blog.

One last thing: I would like to recommend to all of my fellow Public History and graduate students out there that they subscribe to H-Net, in one or more of its forms. I am currently on a list for H-Canada, H-Public, and Film and History. They are useful, though sometimes cumbersome resources that provide an online community for historians of all sorts. Most of what I receive has no application for me, but occasionally I get real golden nuggets in there. And when the time comes for me to look for a job or internship, there are weekly postings in numerous fields.

16 September 2006


I have to say that I really enjoy computer programming. I have a little bit of HTML experience from my college years, so this is fun being able to revisit all the skills I learned years ago, and use them in new and different ways. That is not to say I am particularly adept at programming, but I enjoy trying to figure out how to do this or that. Anyone who had previously viewed my blog will (hopefully) have noticed some recent changes. In the interest of helping those around me, and fostering a sense of community, I made what, for all intents and purposes, looks like a “blogroll.” It consists of my professors and fellow students in the University of Western Ontario's Public History Program's "Public History" and "Digital History" classes. I am not sure if it works like a blogroll (i.e. changing order all the time, as do the blogrolls on Bill Turkel's and Alan MacEachern's blogs), but at least it looks the same. I plan to investigate whether a blogroll is something entirely different from a links list or not. I also did a number of other changes, including switching the sidebar from the right side of the page to the left, making the name of this blog all lowercase letters, and other parts not all capitals.

On a separate note, ever since I found out that, as part of a course in digital history, I am required to write a blog, I have been wondering what I am supposed to be doing with it. I even asked my professor, Bill Turkel, what to do. Still, I am a little befuddled; in a previous blog I stated that I do not like talking about myself, as, at the time of writing, I thought that that was what blogging was all about. I have since read a few blogs, and noticed that, at least in those that I read, blogging is more of an intellectual exercise than a spewing of random thoughts. From what I understand, in the case of the afore-noted course, the purpose of blogging is to think about the processes and ideas that we are learning. That is, of course, not the only purpose behind blogging for this course, but I hope that, eventually, it will be the focus of mine.

This leads me to wonder why blogs, in other places and for other people, exist in the first place. There is no doubt that for some people, blogging is an effort to have one's fifteen minutes of fame. It is also a way of involving oneself in a community of like-minded people. I am forced to wonder, though, whether my thoughts are really so important and relevant as to be available to millions of people. To whom am I writing? Who, or what, is my assumed audience? It is certainly not my family or friends (though it may help clarify to some of them what, exactly, this whole “public history” thing is. For those interested in that question, see the Public History Resource Center’s “working definition of public history”). I hope to answer these questions throughout the course of my academic year.

11 September 2006


Well, as an introductory blog, this will be short and sweet.

This is my first blog ever. I hail from Newmarket, Toronto, and, most recently, Halifax. The biggest news of my life right now, and almost always one of the first things I let people know, is that I am engaged to be married. 21 April, 2007. Big date. Double wedding, actually, with my older brother.

I hate talking about myself, so this may be hard. Especially considering the fact that there is the potential for so many people to read what I write.

I am a Public History Masters student.

What more do you want? If asked, I will tell.

How do I use this thing?