Public History – Best Practices and Realities

This week’s readings were about ethics and best practices in the field of public history, with some of the readings calling out a need to focus on digital scholarship within public history.

The National Council on Public History’s “Bylaws and Ethics” emphasizes the diversity of topics, artifacts, professions, and audiences who come together to make public history, and the need for continued education in the field. An interesting aspect of their code of ethics was in discussing best practices, specifically the strained interpersonal relationships within the historical field. It was unclear to me whether this meant strained relationships between academic and public historians, or between historians and the public we serve, however it was a helpful recognition of the reality of a historian either way.

The Society of American Archivists’ (SAA) “Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics” outlines first the need to document individuals, groups, and corporations in order to be held accountable to society today and in the future. While this idea is certainly a good one, I saw a few problems with this understanding of archivists. First, private corporations can decide what to save for themselves and may be unlikely to preserve those documents which are embarrassing or harmful to their livelihood. Second, this document asserts that archivists must decide which documents to preserve in their original formats and which can be transcribed without detailing how one would make that decision.

The American Association for State and Local History’s (AASLH)“Statement of Professional Standards and Ethics” is the first to deal with electronic media directly, noting its importance in disseminating information to the public and in staying up to date in changes in historical scholarship. The AASLH takes a much less corporate stance than either the SAA or the National Council on Public History. While each of these previous organizations recognized the need to be flexible regarding donor and employer needs, the AASLH pushes its members to serve the public almost exclusively as part of their social responsibility and to avoid conflicts of interest. A strength of their statement of ethics was in recognizing that non-professionals also work in the field of public history as employees, volunteers, and visitors and that their opinions and contributions must be taken seriously and treated with respect. This understanding of a positive relationship with non-professionals is in line with Rosenzweig and Thelen’s recommendations in The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life.

The Presence of the Past focuses on the need to change the context of history more than its content. We should focus on personal stories, oral histories, and relating national events to individual experiences in our exhibits which can reinterpret events of the past to be useful to present needs and problems. This can help people, especially non-minority groups, to move beyond personal histories toward collective histories and shared experiences. This book also focuses on using new, interactive technologies and tools as a way to make obscure elements of the past more relatable, proving that medium matters. This bolsters the importance of the work of LODLAM with regards to Linked Open Data, which is data made freely available with standard markup.

While the idea of Linked Open Data is an interesting and good one, the main problem of LODLAM is that while they recognize the need for increased training, I think that they are downplaying the fact that so many museums, especially smaller house museums or National Park museums, do not have any staff that deals with digital or technical work. These places need to get a digital component before they can think about getting the most up to date technology.

In “Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Parks Service” the Organization of American Historians (OAH) used a survey of NPS full time historians to reveal findings about historical research and interpretation in the National Parks and to create a series of recommendations on how to improve that history. While full of useful findings and recommendations, some of the most important recommendations were to reintegrate historians and interpreters (Rangers), to increase professional requirements for people in history posts, and to expand the history workforce by tapping the unemployed recent PhD recipient market. The need to move historians away from being an isolated profession, especially academic historians, is in line with the recommendations of AASLH, the National Council on Public History, and The Presence of the Past.

The idea of integrating history and interpretation and increasing education for people in history related posts are interrelated and extremely important. Something not directly addressed by the report is the fact that Rangers are responsible for writing their own tours and deciding which themes to communicate to the public with absolutely no oversight by either field supervisors or historians. However, in the call for more education I couldn’t help but wonder if increased museum studies education would be more applicable given park needs instead of traditional history training. This was especially true given the fact that Rosenzweig and Thelen revealed that the public does not generally relate with the field of academic history and its interpretations. Also, the real need for even basic training in digital tools is understated. No matter what areas increased education is focused, it is extremely necessary. Especially since the post of Ranger does not even require a college degree. Additionally, there is little to no training for summer seasonal positions or staff brought in through the Student Temporary Employment Program (STEP), the NPS’ internship program. The lack of attention paid to these types of employees in this report was particularly off putting because while NPS has up to 16,000 full time positions, 135,000 of its employees are billed as either STEP, part time, or volunteer. Who cares how we should change full time park employment if most of the parks’ employees are not full time? This report would have done well to follow AASLH’s lead in incorporating non-professionals in their consideration.

Additionally, in the recommendation to embrace conflict and controversy to create bold history, the OAH report is forgetting that some of the individuals and groups interpreted in the National Parks are still alive. This is something which the SAA code of ethics understands, playing up the importance of privacy in archives since individuals and groups have no say in determining what is preserved about them. Often you do not realize that the individuals and groups documented in archives may still be alive, or have relatives who are still alive and could be affected by the use of information on their ancestors.

Classes Past and Present

This blog has been used over the last two years for a series of classes during my Masters and Doctoral Programs. Posts during 2010 were from Dr. Paula Petrik’s “Digital Mapping” course. Beginning in 2012 this forum will be used for posts relating to Dr. Sharon Leon’s “Digital Public History” course.