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.



Jeremy said...

Is it possible that the duties of Public Historians are spread out through Canadian Heritage?

The Goverment of Canada's departmental website dealing with Canada's heritage has a link named "Heritage," and that page lists a number of projects that would probably fall under the label "Public History." In particular, the Canadian Heritage Information Network is aiming to develop, present, and preserve Canada's digital heritage. (On the other hand, the website is not very big - does this reflect a small budget? Or perhaps a lack of public/digital historians?) It seems that Canadian Heritage would be the obvious rallying point for Canadian public historians.

Should there be a forum for communication among Canadian public historians? Yes - sharing and building upon innovative ideas to educate Canadians about their heritage can only come through the exchange of ideas! Would the government or the public be willing to support such a forum? That's a little trickier to answer. Certainly it would be wonderful if the federal government was willing to provide young public historians with projects and a start at a career, but what would the price be and what would such a forum or, as you write, such a council look like in relation to other established heritage institutions?

Ken said...

Hi Bryan,

A very interesting and thought-provoking post. My name is Ken Reynolds, and I, too, am a Canadian member of the National Council on Public History and a subscriber to "The Public Historian". I am a civilian historian with the Department of National Defence and, even though I have a typical academic history background, I definitely view myself and pursue our craft as a public historian.

I agree that historians need to consider the internet as a means to spread the word about history, to teach, and to create further interest in our profession. This will only become more important as time goes on.

I also support your call for Canadians who view themselves as public historians to join the NCPH, in particular the younger generation of our profession.

And, I have also been thinking lately about the need (in my opinion) for a Canadian equivalent of the NCPH. You're absolutely right, its focus is on the American situation, of course.

Should a Canadian counterpart organization be formed? Yes.

Is it a worthwhile venture? Anything that helps our profession create a greater sense of historical awareness amongst the Canadian population is worthwhile by definition.

Would such an organization find a place within the Canadian public history community? I simply don't know, but there's only one way to really find out.

Does a Canadian public history community exist? I think it's more likely that public history communities exist (students and teachers, government historians, contract historians, website authors, etc.).

Would it garner enough interest among Canadian public historians to merit a long life? I think that would depend on what it could offer the community (I know, that's obvious, but still true).

How should it be organized, and could the NCPH help? Good questions - I don't know.

Does Canada even need such an organization? Yes. None of us has the time to track all of the potential resources, sources of funding, ideas, technologies, etc., involved in the pursuit of public history. A common forum or starting point would undoubtedly help all of us in our pursuit of public history.



Ken Reynolds, PhD
blog: www.cannonsmouth.ca
blog: 38thbattalion.blogspot.com