Digital Frontiers: Public History Breakout Session

Our public history breakout group was a modest but generous band of contributors who shared a surprising array of tools and resources with each other.  Not surprisingly, one of the themes to emerge from our discussion was how the enormous number of resources available and their ever-changing nature pose a challenge not simply with how we stay current with trends, but might ever hope to find the most relevant resources for our needs.

I began with a brief discussion of the resources the vast genealogical community has created and how some of those material might be used in teaching and research. Frankly, I was intent on playing with the notion of “public history” by offering resources derived by a popular avocation that has created a truly staggering body of digital resources. Many of those resources — indexes, guides, abstracts, transcriptions — themselves derive from public records of birth, marriage, taxation, death, and probate. And in particular it was a pleasure to demonstrate a little of the Colorado Genealogical Society‘s remarkable Colorado Marriages, 1858-1939, which I described in an earlier post.  The result is a 23,417-page alphabetical index to marriages, which I think is simply waiting to support studies of marriage and community.

After my brief discussion — which also saw the patience and good humor of those present as we briefly grappled with the inevitable display issues whenever laptop, projector, and audience come together! — we heard from group members about their particular interests and  projects they especially admired or with which they’ve been associated, including:

And as we discussed these and other projects, including the Plateau Peoples’ Portal, the Bureau of Land Management’s Government Land Office records, FamilySearch, and the Wyoming Newspaper Project, the question arose as to how we learn and share these resources, as well as make them more user friendly in form. In some respects, it was a familiar topic for most of us gathered together, but it nevertheless reflects real challenges.

For my part, I think the fragmentary nature of information has long been with us, and that the very nature of our session and the continuation of this blog offers part of the solution. And I also think we may want to give users more credit for their ability to use new and challenging tools and resources — and even recognize that such a process is a part of information literacy! — rather than strive for an elusive and ultimately futile simplicity that neglects the complexity of the past and the sources we use to explore and understand it.

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About J. Wendel Cox

J. Wendel Cox is Senior Special Collection Librarian in the Western History/Genealogy Department at Denver Public Library. He holds a PhD in American History from the University of Minnesota and a Masters in Information & Library Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His current research involves the history of animals in Denver and other modern American cities. He also seeks to save saloon cats from the enormous condescension of history.
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