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.

Looking Ahead to Our Session in Oakland …


I’m delighted that Doug Seefeldt has asked me to lead a breakout group at the Digital frontiers workshop and to serve as your humble Google-jockey* for digital materials related to public history. Last year’s session at Lake Tahoe set a high standard and was a wonder of collaboration and ideas.

For my part, I’d like to share a little of the enormous body of digital resources largely used for genealogy, and talk about their application for historians in teaching and research. Most of us are likely familiar with commercial databases such as Ancestry (which actually aggregates thousands of individual databases), but a universe of other resources exist, many of them free and created by volunteer efforts.

To take but one example, a project involving the Colorado Genealogical Society and a troop of volunteers created an index to Colorado Marriages, 1858-1939. The index in its PDF form is 23,417 pages in length, and testifies to the power of volunteer efforts. (I hasten to add every librarian in the Western History/Genealogy Department at the Denver Public Library recalls with horror the first time they clicked “print” rather than “print current page” with this database!) Colorado Marriages provides the name of a bride, a groom, a date for a license application, the county involved, and a license number. The application for genealogists is obvious, but consider how a researcher armed with a surname schedule might use this index to explore ethnicity and patterns of marriage within and amongst different ethnic groups.**

Anyone who wants to dabble in such sources before our session might want to explore the materials available online at FamilySearch, especially the materials under USA, Canada, and Mexico. I encourage you simply to play with these resources. Crossover opportunities abound, and I think the informed historian should be aware of the possibilities and challenges involved with such tools.


Wendel Cox

* Google-jockey (n.) [goo-guhl jok-ee]: a person who frantically uses Internet search engines and other tools to find and display websites casually mentioned by presenters or participants.

** So where’s the link to the Colorado Marriage Index? It’s not available online. Why not? For reasons that would form an interesting thread at our session: privacy, identity theft, and the public record in the digital age.