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:
- HistoryLink: The Free Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, a product of the non-profit organization History Ink and its efforts to use new media in the presentation of the past, with information in varied forms about Washington’s people, places, and events.
- Athabasca University Press, which follows an open-access model and offers digital journals, monographs, and new media concerned with scholarship on Canada, the North American West, and the circumpolar North.
- The William F. Cody Archive, a collaborative project intended to become a repository of text, image, scholarship, and multimedia concerned with William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his life, as a means for exploring the West and the American experience.
- The Washington State Digital Archive, with its vast collections of materials, including an extraordinary body of keyword-searchable audio from Washington’s House of Representatives committee meetings, created with voice-recognition rather than transcript-based searches.
- The Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society (NJCHS), devoted to the history of law and its namesake circuit, including amongst other initiatives the publication of Western Legal History and an oral history project.
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.