The Role of the Public Historian

The fact that the term ‘public history’ has yet to be defined by those working in the field should be taken as a sign of its multipurpose function in the role in sharing with the general public the role that the past has shaped the present day.

Honesty about the past is crucial. Whether it be at a battlefield, museum, or other historic sites, public historians have the responsibility to open up about both the history of the site and the institution. Shared authority is another important aspect of the public historian’s role. We must acknowledge the fact that many interpretations and memories can be associated with one single event. Although public historians most often times see themselves as historians first, recognizing that the general public and the non-academic historians have a legitimate role in shaping our understanding of the past is necessary to keep dialogue open between the two groups.

Public historians provide context when, perhaps, the traditional way of doing so is not available. For example, Rebecca Amato and Jeffrey T. Manuel both provide history tours that go beyond architecture to frame discussion about the local history. Instead they look to the law and its application as a theme to interpret the way various laws are used to justify both the good and bad of urban development in their respective cities.

Prior to this class I thought public history meant reaching out and informing the general public about historical truth. It was a means to let the public know what the academic historians were writing about and that our understanding of the past came from the work they have done. Over the course of this semester I have broadened my understanding of public history as not only informing visitors of the work being done those historians, but also to interpret to the visitors the role historical memory has played in remembering. The way in which we arrive at our beliefs has been an interesting topic to me throughout this semester as well.

A recurrent theme over the course of the semester has been not having a definite answer to most questions. I think this is due to the fact that as public historians we have to be flexible and adapt to the many different types of visitors we encounter. In other words, instead of looking at the facts and coming up with a single interpretation, we should look at those facts and understand that others may not draw the same conclusions. We have to be open-minded and have a sense of willingness to at least except that others may not feel the same way.

Fitbit Charge 2

No matter the weather or occasion, my Fitbit Charge 2 wristwatch is always on my right hand. It’s slender and inconspicuous design match my simple taste. The watch face’s OLED display is touch screen and features a single button on the left-hand side. The factory rubber wristband is indicative of its purpose as a fitness watch, yet interchangeable to fit a leather band for other occasions. The buckle and tracker are steel with a glass interface. Underneath the interface is a sensor that measure heart rate, step count, etc.

Day’s resulting in emails and research do not equate to a high step count.

Wrist watches have been mainstay of material culture since the early twentieth century. Prior to being completely visible, personal watches were oftentimes hidden and glanced at only when one needed to know the time. Over time, however, watches have transformed from simply telling time to a multi-functional tool that stores and manages data. In other words, digital is the new analog.

The Fitbit has the ability to create a new way of life. Personally, I purchased the Fitbit as a present to myself for quitting smoking. I saw it as a way to start a healthier lifestyle. By simply tapping the screen, I can inform the Fitbit that I am working out, and in turn, it will track cardio, fat burn percentage, and other cardiovascular-related measurements. The watch also features breathing exercises to help relax and to slow down the heart rate. It also fulfilled my need for visual reminders. Other than having to keep it charged, I have no complaints.

The sensor detects heart rate and various other uses.

The watch itself is just the tool used to compile the large amount of data. To access the numbers/percentages and to see the visual charts, I can use either the computer or the mobile app. I am able to compete with friends in steps-per-day and other games as well as set goals and unlock new achievements. The user has access to many challenges, both solo and against friends and family. In other words, technology has allowed competition to spread to other avenues of our daily lives.

Screenshot from the Fitbit app. Within in seconds, I am able to link the data from my Fitbit to my account.

The Fitbit is an example of the way digital technology has become an ever-present feature in our daily lives. Down the road, historians can view this is as one of the many ways in which technology has become intermingled into everyday life. The Fitbit allows the user to input a host of information including, water intake, calories consumed, and various other numbers that allow for detailed tracking. This new performance-tracking brings about questions concerning technology’s relationship to health and fitness. Another question to be considered in the future is how well we do with the mass amount of data that is available to us instantly. Does the data help to achieve our goals or are we simply overwhelmed?

Accessing Alabama History

The Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) is the official archival repository for the records of various state government agencies. Established in 1901, ADAH is the first state-funded archival agency in the United States. The institution strives to “tell the story of the people of Alabama by preserving the records and artifacts of historical value and promoting a better understanding of Alabama history.” In addition to collecting government records, ADAH actively seeks and preserves private records, including diaries, estate papers, sheet music, photographs, and three-dimensional objects.

The bulk of the archival material is available to researchers. The EBSCO Research Room is open to the public Tuesday-Friday and the second Saturday of each month. In addition to visiting in-person, ADAH maintains a digital archive. The digitization component is meant to allow access to more individuals as well as to keep up with the growing digitization demand. The webpage is updated regularly with recently donated collections, frequently requested items, and material that is deemed too fragile to examine in-person, i.e. early statehood records and Civil War letters. Searchable databases, including the Civil War Soldiers Database, World War I Goldstar Collection, and the 1867 Voter Registrations, are available on the website. Researchers can also browse through indexes that highlight Alabama church records, maps, and newspapers that are available on microfilm.

Outreach is an important part of ADAH’s mission. Staff members meet regularly with various historical, genealogical, and local government organizations to discuss proper storage, retention, various laws, disaster preparedness, and preservation practices. With funding being an ever-present issue, ADAH also provides information on grants and administers federal government grant funding to local institutions. The reference archivists often conduct genealogical workshops to help both the novice and professional.

Social media plays a prominent role in promoting ADAH’s programs. Food for Thought, a monthly lecture series sponsored by the Alabama Humanities Foundation, brings in a wide variety of lectures on Alabama history. Book talks are another avenue that serve as a promotional tool for those authors who have conducted research at ADAH.

The Museum of Alabama is another component in which the archival collections are highlighted. One of the exhibits, Alabama Voices, tells the story of Alabama using artifacts and “diaries, letters, speeches, songs, and other sources” to tell the story of Alabama from the early 1700s to the beginnings of the twenty-first century.

Given the large volume of records, it can be overwhelming to know where to begin. Without proper identification and publicity, little-known collections have the potential to be left in the dark. ADAH’s current home website is somewhat outdated, but a newer version is in the works. Luckily, they have linked their new and improved searchable database to the underwhelming homepage. The software is easy to access and use, but certain collection finding aids are more detailed than others. A reason for this, of course, could be the collection’s complexity and volume, yet those with little additional information hinder their potential and ability to aid a researcher’s work. For the researcher’s use and for the sake of uniformity, the website does use the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). It is the author’s hope that the updated website will have an assortment of collection finding aids available to those who look to plan their visit.

Ask A Public Historian: Wes Garmon

Wesley Garmon is the Education Coordinator for the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH). He received a BA in history and secondary education with a teaching certification license from Athens State University and a MA in history with a concentration in public history, particularly museum and archival administration, from the University of North Alabama. Wes came to ADAH in 2014 after four years of teaching high school world history and government as well as adult programs for a local community college.

Do you consider yourself a public historian?

I see myself more as an educator, but the informal way I go about teaching leans more to the public history side.

Who is the “public” in your situation? How do you engage them?

K-12 parents, teachers and students, primarily 4th grade students because Alabama history is part of the curriculum.

How does your style of teaching differ from a classroom setting?

During tours of the Museum of Alabama, we strive for thoughtful, open-ended questioning that I believe further benefits the students than simply dictating the information to them. We also partner with Alabama Digital Learning through the Alabama Department of Education to conduct virtual field trips that engage and educate hundreds of schoolchildren on various themes in Alabama history through the comfort of their own classroom. We also create digital education resources and lesson plans for teachers. All of these things combined have allowed us to reach students the state.

What made you want to switch from being in the classroom to your position at ADAH? How does it differ?

The aspect of having to cram so much history in a short amount of time is not the most effective way to teach history. I wanted to find a more effective way to engage the students, and I wanted to reach a broader audience in order to have a larger impact.

Public history was a concept I was unfamiliar when I began my teaching career. I like to use the term “practical history” because I am able to do more things that are less passive.

Besides 4th grade classes, does ADAH reach out to other grade and age levels?

Most of our docents are volunteers or college-level student workers who have undergone training in both interpretation and historical knowledge. We teach the docents to be flexible in order to tailor to all grade levels. The elementary students are typically blank slates in which we try to give them an overview. We encourage the older students to think critically and to to relate the past to the present.

A great example would be World War II and the Civil Rights Movement. The older students are capable of understanding how fighting overseas and coming home to Jim Crow didn’t line up. With 4th graders we try to introduce the idea, with 12th graders we try to engage them and encourage them to tell us why it wasn’t fair to come home to racial divide after fighting for your country.

What is the best part of your job?

The best part of my job, and the reason I went into education, is being able to have an impact on people, especially students. I was fortunate enough to have had great teachers growing up, especially my 9th world history teacher, that instilled in me the love and importance of learning about the past and its relationship to the present.

I also enjoy working with various committees, particularly the Alabama Bicentennial, where my miniscule amount of input pools with other educators, scholars, and community leaders to create meaningful programs that reach students of history from all ages and education backgrounds. Lastly, every day is different.

What do you wish you knew before you started your public history career?

I wish that I had known of a straighter path to becoming a public historian. I would have never heard of public history if not for my wife enrolling in the master’s program at the University of North Alabama. I took a public history 101 course soon after and decided to enroll in the program as well.

What advice would you give to those looking to get into the field?

Volunteering and internships are crucial. The contacts you make and the experiences that you build are every bit as valuable as the education. A solid grounding in history doesn’t hurt either.

Attending various conferences and talks are also important. By attending conferences, presenting papers and posters, and visiting ADAH as a student, I was able to meet the staff and network with other professionals. It was because of those connections that I was made aware of the position in 2014.

Gauging the Presence of the Past

Using Rosenzweig’s and Thelen’s Presence of the Past questionnaire, the individual I selected to interview received his B.A. in history, but is not a historian by trade. Considering it has been 25+ years since his undergraduate days, I wanted to understand how he initially became interested in history and to gauge his present-day interactions with the past. I learned that his parent’s interest in visiting historic sites and reading were crucial to his decision to major in history. In other words, the presence of history and the past were instilled in him at an early age.

As far as the actual interview, I wished that I had chosen someone I was unfamiliar with because at times I sensed his answers and quickly moved on. If I had not known his background, I most likely would have nudged him to elaborate further on specific answers.

Overall, I was pleased with the interview process. Having done a handful or oral histories prior, I felt that the questionnaire was monotonous at times, but overall it was a great introductory piece and a great evaluation piece for gauging how individuals interact with the past. Lastly, it is important to remember that conducting oral histories is a learned skill.

Confederate Memorial Fountain, Helena, Montana

The city of Helena, Montana had a fountain dedicated to Confederate soldiers. Located in Hill Park, the fountain was erected in 1916 by the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and is considered to be the northernmost memorial to the Confederacy. On August 15 of this year, three days after the horrific events in Charlottesville, eight members of the American Indian Caucus of the Montana legislature asked the Helena City Council to remove the fountain. The council voted for removal on the 18th. The memorial fountain deserves discussion or interpretation regardless of its physical presence. Below are potential interpretive themes and points to ponder:

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Southern Poverty Law Center)

  • Inconspicuous Fountain. Compared to the other Confederate monuments and memorials, the fountain is rather plain and simplistic.
  • Unsuccessful Compromise. In 2015, following the events in Charleston, locals and city officials decided to place interpretive text at the fountain. As of this past May, interpretative text was still being planned.

(Thom Bridge, Independent Record)

  • Native American Perspective. Presents a new side and perspective to the monuments debate.
  • Swiftness. The swiftness in which it was proposed, and removed, should be included in its potential interpretation.
  • Future Unknown. As of August 21, the fountain’s new home, if any, is unknown. Should a text panel be placed beside its former site to denote what once was?
  • The Independent Record’s coverage can be found here.