Doing Public History

Thoughts from a budding public historian.

Two Really Belated Finding Aids

Better late than never is what I always say…

Here are two finding aids I created in April 2010.

The first finding aid was the culmination of a group processing project. Last spring, I took the first course in Temple University’s archives concentration. We processed a collection held by Temple’s Blockson African-American Collection. The collection were the various records and documents generated by the Downingtown Industrial and Agricultural School. Want to know what that is? Click the link! Many cheers to my groupmates Sara Borden, Lyndsey Brown, Jessica Clark, Jenna Marrone, and Megan Miller. DIAS_Finding_Aid.

The second finding aid is one I created at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The name is quite a mouthful… The Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s collection of Civil War Papers. Lower-case ‘c’ intended. Processing this collection was especially fun. This collection consists groups of Civil War-related documents that were too small to stand as their own collection outright. Therefore, “Civil War Papers” was an artificial collection that was added to piece by piece over time. That meant I got to impose my will on it and create order. This is the result.


August 10, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 1 Comment

Allen Family Papers Finding Aid… By Me!

During my internship at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the collection I worked the most with was the Allen family papers. I wrote a few posts about this collection over at HSP’s blog, Fondly, Pennsylvania. The finding aid I created for the collection just went up on HSP’s website today. I’m very proud of the work I did. I basically took boxes and boxes of letters, photos, manuscripts, journals, a variety of artifacts, and even hair (!!) and turned it into something that is much more accessible. Also it feels pretty good to see my name attached to something! Definitely something to add to my rough CV (see previous post).

Here is the Allen finding aid. And here is the finding aid for another collection which I worked on, Friends of the Benjamin Franklin House, US.

January 8, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 4 Comments

And we’re back!

My apologies. With the usual end 0f semester craziness and the holidays piggybacking on top of that, I really had very little time to blog. Now that we’ve said goodbye to the “oh-ties” I hope to have more blog time.

Well, I am a freshly-minted graduate of Temple University. Not 100% official yet (graduation ceremony is at the end of the month), but close enough for me. I think with a BA in History I can style myself as a “historian” now and not feel like I’m lying. I may still be a bit premature with that, but I worked hard and spent a lot of sleepless nights getting here. So, I think I’ve earned it.

Somewhat fittingly, I took a stab at creating a CV. A bit rough and a bit thin, but it’s a start. I don’t think I’m quite at the point where I need a CV, but building on this from here on out will be an adventure. I do admit that I will derive some sense of satisfaction as my CV grows. Besides, what better way to quantify oneself academically and intellectually than to literally put yourself on paper?

Anyways, here it is. Suggestions would be more than greatly appreciated!


January 6, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ames’ Virtual Museum?

Ames Public Library, 1907. Photo courtesy of Ames Historical Society.

I have a lot of fun  poking around the webite of the Ames  Historical Society.  Ames is a small town in Iowa probably best known as home to  Iowa State University. I have absolutely no recollection of how I stumbled onto this site, but I bookmarked it and visit periodically. There’s a LOT of content and I can always find something interesting to look at about this seemingly unremarkable town.

Perhaps because it lacks a museum or history center, the Ames Historical Society has digitized a lot of its collection and made it available on the website. Organized into groups by subjects like Education, City Government, and Residents, the photos are usually presented along with further information or narratives. It’s kind of like they’re virtual exhibits.

Is Ames onto something? The Society says it does this so that people could still learn about Ames’ history until they obtain a proper museum. Maybe Ames’ lack of a traditional bricks and mortar museum has actually caused the stories of Ames to reach a wider audience than it otherwise would have. After all, it reached me all the way in Philadelphia. If Ames had always had the museum it wants, would they have made some an expansive and compelling website?

Like I said, the sections feel like exhibits, so I’m just going to call them that. The range from photos with just a little accompanying information, to larger and richer presentations with photos, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera (one of my favorite words). I particularly liked the section about rationing during World War II. By using things collected by Ames residents during the war, the Society was able to mount this online exhibit that actually reaches outside the boundaries of Ames and speaks to the greater story of civilian life during World War II. It really drove home the fact that civilians really hunkered down and made sacrifices to support the war effort.

Something like rationing would never fly now. Can you imagine what would happen if the government deemed half the cars in the United States were not to be driven for pleasure at all? This happened in 1942 to conserve gas. The government basically told people that use of their cars was non-essential and severely limited how much gas they could purchase. Imagine if something like that were to happen tomorrow. I’m sure we would have total chaos (and non-compliance).

If I had one complaint it would be the lack of the ability to direct link to the exhibits on the website – no matter what page you’re on, the url remains that of the main page. I’m not sure what the reasoning behind this is, or even if it is intentional, but it prevents me from posting links to anything I was talking about above. So if you want to check out the rationing section, or any of the other interesting things on the site (and I suggest you do), go to the main page and click “About Ames” from the main page navigation.

So do please check out the Ames Historical Society’s site. It’s a fun site that seems to have been produced with very little resources. Be careful though, you may find yourself spending hours clicking around like I have.

December 7, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Archives: MS v. MA

It was a very long week. There are about two weeks left in the semester so needless to say, it’s crunch time. I have some pretty significant projects due this week so it’s been a long weekend too (again!). Yesterday evening I decided to take a much-needed personal night and just relax. I started reading the back issues of the American Historical Association’s monthly publication Perspectives and came across this interesting, but somewhat alarming article from May 2007 called “The Historical Profession and Archival Education” by Joseph M. Turrini.

In the article Turrini talks about how archival education used to be taught almost solely within larger history graduate programs, but is now being usurped by archival education within larger library science programs. This has happened because the library science programs have been more receptive to the “technologizing” of archives and have expanded their course offerings accordingly. History programs have not. Employers are looking for people who do have this technological experience and therefore more and more archivists have MLIS degrees.

Wait a sec! This is a little bit scary because the graduate program I’m most interesting in is Temple University’s Public History concentration that offers an archives sequence that prepares you for taking the Certified Archivist Exam. So upon finishing the program and taking the test I would be officially “Master of the Arts in History with a Concentration in Public History and Certification in Archival Methods” or something like that. I have been interning this semester at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania in the archives department and it has been a huge learning experience and very inspiring. I’m drawn to archival work because it really is hands-on work with the stuff of history. Sometimes I notice at HSP that it’s been really quiet and all you hear is the shuffling of papers and the clicking of the keyboard as items are described. It’s a really great sound, trust me. The internship has caused me to think about being a professional archivist.

Anyways, this article got me thinking: Am I making the right choice? To seriously have a chance at being a professional archivist do I need to refocus the hunt on library science programs?

One of the reasons why the archives within a history program appealed to me is because I feel like it would provide me with the opportunity to explore those aspects of public history that are more intangible (like “spheres of memory”) while also providing the education needed for doing archives (there’s doing again!).

I think there’s something to be said for learning the practice of archives within a history program. The rich historical knowledge and perspective that a history-based education provides would most certainly be helpful when trying to understand letters or documents from another time. I suspect it would also help with the very difficult task of deciding what to discard. The library science programs to me seem very limited in their scope.

Turrini does have a point though. If the history programs are to keep up then they must expose their students to al the acronyms associated with archives – MARC, EAD, and XML etc. The Southeast Archives Educational Collaborative Turrini mentions is a neat and oh-so-21st Century solution to this. Middle Tennessee State University’s stock just went up in my book.

Lots to think about now…

December 5, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Greyhounds of the Atlantic

One of my first fascinations as a kid was ocean liners. I think it all began when I accidentally caught the truly awful (and incredibly historically inaccurate) 1953 film Titanic. Nevertheless, I was hooked. A crazy pursuit of all things Titanic led to a pursuit of all things ocean liners. This was still in the days when Internet in the home was still a novelty, so I used to repeatedly check out the three or four books my local library had and pour over the text and photographs for hours on end.

Cruise ships today, with their awful names like ‘Odyssey of the Seas’ don’t hold a candle to the Atlantic greyhounds of yesteryear. Modern cruise ships are really just big, ugly, floating resorts. They have none of the lines that liners had; they’re really just floating boxes.

Compare the Cunard Line’s Aquitania of 1914 (left) to its Queen Mary II, 2005 (right).

Ocean liners were first and foremost a means of transit. One hundred years ago if you wanted to go from say New York to London you didn’t get there by spending a few hours impossibly squished into an uncomfortable seat, you spent about a week at sea. Even though they were, strictly speaking, a way to get from point A to point B, the best ships were marvels of design and engineering. From the late 1890’s to World War I the British and the Germans engaged in a one-upsmanship to see who could build not only the fastest ships, but also the most luxurious.

SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, 1897

RMS Mauretania, 1907

RMS Olympic, 1911

The heyday came in the 1920’s however. Germany lost all of its ships as war reparations which the British and Americans used as their flagships. American ships though weren’t too popular at this time. Being that it was the Prohibition Era, American ships were “dry.” Wealthy people who could afford it would sometimes simply book passage on a foreign line to enjoy a good time drinking. The very first booze cruises?

RMS Majestic AKA SS Bismarck, 1922

Of course I have to mention the S. S. United States, the engineering feat of 1950’s America, which now sits derelict here in Philadelphia.  Launched in 1952, the United States easily broke record both eastbound and westbound crossing records. The ship was so fast and the engines so advanced that details were officially classified. It was said the the United States could go faster in reverse than any other ship could go forwards. The ship cut the journey across the Atlantic to a puny 3 1/2 days. In practice she was “slowed” down in order to keep a weekly crossing schedule with her older, slower running mate, the S.S. America. In order to entirely fireproof there was no wood (save for the butcher’s block) on board. Everything – including furniture – was made out of metal and/or glass. Though this led to a Spartan feel, the United States was a very popular and profitable ship (and you could drink now). For more info, please check out the TWO organizations dedicated to the preservation of the “Big U.”  Save the S.S. United States and S.S. United States Conservancy.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love, love, love to see some restoration if the United States to its former grandeur, but I’m sure that would require an enormous amount of money which frankly isn’t around right now. I’m worried that the ship will continue to deteriorate in the meantime and will be declared too far gone to do anything before any solutions come to fruition. Of course, I could be wrong. Having the United States open in come capacity would be great for Philadelphia.

The Big U in her glory days…

And her much less glorious present.

November 27, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 3 Comments

Brain Wanderings

Taking a break that I shouldn’t have been taking this morning, I started looking into the Philadelphia Civic Center. Personally, I have no recollection of this place although seeing as that it only closed in 1996 it seems likely that at some point some school trip or something like that brought me here. [Edited to add: I have been there – a lot actually. My parents reminded me that, among other things, we went there for an annual model railroad show and used to go there for the Philadelphia Auto Show as well.]

The Civic Center, curiously called the "World Trade and Civic Center" here. Photo courtesy of, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records.

News to me: the “Civic Center” was actually a complex of buildings whose origins go all the way back to the 1899 National Export Exhibition. Several buildings were built, on the edge of the University of Pennsylvania’s campus and right along the Schuylkill River, to support the event, including the Philadelphia Commercial Museum. The museum housed industrial and economic objects culled from past fairs and expositions of the era and continued to collect objects from new expositions. Eventually the museum grew to be one of the largest museums in the country.

Convention Hall. Photo courtesy of, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records.

The building probably most commonly associated with the Civic Center is Convention Hall, built in 1930. Originally called the Municipal Auditorium, Convention Hall played host to basketball and hockey games, the National Conventions of both the Democrats (1936 and 1948) and Republicans (1940 and 1948). Editors Note: BOTH Conventions in 1948, wow! In the 60’s, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones played sold out concerts here and presidential candidates, the Pope, and Martin Luther King Jr. all spoke here. In short, Convention Hall and the Civic Center complex were Philadelphia’s Madison Square Garden.

Convention Hall. Photo courtesy of, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records.

For a nice history of both the Commercial Museum and Civic Center check out this link. Ironically it’s on the website of UPenn’s Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, which the Civic Center was torn down to make way for in 2005. The legacy of the Civic Center lives on. The Perelman Center’s address? 34th and Civic Center Boulevard.

Finding pictures of the Civic Center/Convention Hall online was actually kind of tough. As you can see, these photos all came from (another one of my favorite sites). Finding pictures online of the Commercial Museum was even harder, actually impossible, although the Pennsylvania State Archives seems to have a nice photographic collection of the museum. I also found this interesting flickr set of the demolishing of the Civic Center.

So what got me looking into the Civic Center? That’s a bit of a story. Last year during election season I got a little swept up in it all – the whole shared experience thing. The fact that I also had cable for the first time in years and could now basically watch non-stop coverage didn’t hurt (I love you Rachel Maddow but David Gergen is Supreme!). I got very into past elections and therefore amassed quite a few clips re: past elections on my YouTube favorites list (YouTube is one of my favorite things in the world, BTW).

My work break consisted of looking through my favorites list and I stumbled across one of my favorites. It’s a clip from the 1984 Vice-Presidential Debate held at… the Civic Center. The canididates were Geraldine Ferraro and George Bush I. You may remember Ferraro more recently for saying that Obama only got the nomination because he’s black (and actually, he’s mixed race, like me!). Gerry figured it was OK for her to say that, since she only received her nomination because she was a woman. In the video, she owns Bush. Too bad Mondale & Ferraro got the absolute smackdown in the general election, only carrying Washington D.C. and Mondale’s home state of Minnesota (that’s 13 electoral votes to 525 for Reagan/Bush, folks).

November 22, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Spheres of Memory

I wrote this blog a little while ago and didn’t post it thinking I would come back to it a later date to do a little editing. Well, needless to say that never happened. I’m knee deep in the end of semester craziness. And I remembered that this is my blog, so really I can put up whatever I want!

One of the classes I’m taking this semester is an American Studies course called “Museums and American Culture” (or shorthanded to “Museum History”) and is taght by Dr. Seth Bruggeman at Temple University. This class is easily one of the most interesting classes I’ve ever taken. Actually, I should have probably been an American Studies major to begin with. Had I stumbled into the crazy little world of public history before I was more than halfway through the history curriculum I would have switched. Sure, I enjoyed all 50+ hours of lecture by Dr. Crawford about the history of England, but maybe had I been an American Studies major perhaps I would have had the opportunity to take more courses like “Museum History.”

Anyways, one of the reasons I’m enjoying the class so much is because some of the things I’ve though inside my head are finally being articulated through readings, class discussions, etc. I think that one of my biggest challenges is getting all the thoughts running through my head out into some form that other people can understand (usually through writing). I’m hoping that this blog will be of some help to me in that regard.

Last week we were assigned to read an article called American Memory, Culture Wars, and the Challenge of Presenting Science and Technology in a National Museum by Roger D. Launius. A quick google of Launius revealed that he’s either the curator/chair of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Division of Space History or is the curator of the NASM outright. Either way, it’s safe to say that Launius’ is an informed opinion.

Launius raised several interesting points and questions, but one part has stuck with me. Launius refers to “spheres of memory” and that people unconsciously divide these spheres of memory into three different parts. The first sphere is personal experience, or “events that individuals participated in personally or that had salience in their individual lives.” So, think 9/11. The second sphere is events that are “not intimate to the individual but still resonating” and may be known through family or friends. Think World War II. The third sphere “is the past that has no special connection through loved ones or personal experience.” Launius uses The Crusades or the Ming Dynasty as examples, but I would be willing to throw in everything before The Great Depression/World War II era. The generation that lived before the 1930’s is quickly vanishing, and with them the keepers of the first sphere of memory of anything pre-1930 (ish).

I think the sphere of memory that most interests me in the first sphere. Naturally, it is far more interesting to think about an event that I personally was alive to witness (at least through television), but I’m also concerned with how we experience, interpret, and remember these events as they pass into the second and third spheres of memory. I thought it was interesting that Launius used the attacks on September 11 as an example of a memory within the first sphere. For me, that day that history went from being something that I was always interested in but felt far removed from. September 11 was kind of an eye-opening experience. I realized that those interesting historical events weren’t just in the past, but they were occurring in the present day. And not just that day (9/11), but everyday.

Launius also says that people tend to take these national events that occur in their lifetime and personalize them i.e. everyone knows that they were doing when they learned of the attacks. I was on Temple’s campus (yes I was at Temple THAT long ago) For whatever reason I had not done the usual watch morning news/read news online that morning so I actually made it all to campus with no idea of what was going on. The scene on campus was pretty chaotic as all classes were immediately canceled. I must have asked someone what was going on, but surprisingly I don’t actually remember the moment that I found out just what was going on. Whoever told me said that “they” were flying airliners into New York City, Washington D.C., and “Pittsburgh.” At the time, two of my good friends were at the University of Pittsburgh so I quickly called them, and they gave me more correct information (including that the crash in Pennsylvania was about an hour or so away from them). The Septa Regional Rail trains immediately went off the hinges as everybody tried to leave Center City at once. Once it became clear that the targets were symbols of America, there was a real fear that for its importance in early-American history that Philadelphia could be a target. That meant that there was at least a two-hour wait at Temple’s train station for either of the train lines that ran into my neighborhood. By this point in time all cell phones had ceased to work as well, so it felt pretty isolated at the station. Strangely enough this seemed to force a bond between us students at the station as we started to talk to each other, sharing any bits of info we had managed to pick up, and I think seeking answers or comfort or something from each other.

I think one reason why that day seems seminal to me is because I never considered the possibility of one of those “Where were you when…” type events, like Pearl Harbor or the assassination of President Kennedy, happening in my lifetime. Suddenly there was one and I don’t believe I’ve thought the same way since.

Anyways, all this is to say that when Launius started talking about spheres of memory it was a total “A-ha!” moment, one of many that I’ve been having the last few months.

November 19, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

First Post!

Wow, first post.

So why is this blog called Doing Public History? Well as I’ve been reading things for my museum studies class, internship, and just reading public history-y things for fun I keep coming across the word “doing” in quotations marks. As in “When I graduate I hope to find a job “doing” public history.” The use of quotation marks seems to imply that “doing” is a naughty word to use. Whenever I see it used I always get the sense that the author is almost saying “I hate to use this word, but it is the best word I can find to describe what I’m trying to say.”

Well, I don’t think that “doing” is such a bad word to use when trying to find a verb to describe what a public historian… well, does. The phrase “doing public history” kind of defies definition in the way that public history itself defies definition. The definition I’ve heard more than once of public history is “History outside of the university” which is a pretty large sweeping statement. About 3-6 months ago I  would have agreed with that definition but capped it  at museums, historical organizations/societies, historic sites, and things of that nature. Now I can see that “doing”  public history is so much more than that.

In the last few months I have had to consider whether Disney World is a museum and if a museum full of made-up exhibits is not complete crap. Surprisingly I can see Disney World could be considered a museum and that a made-up museum isn’t necessarily totally worthless. All in all I have had to expand my definition of public history outside the box I had created in my mind previously.

“Doing public history” encompasses all the activities normally associated with the job titles filed under public history (curator, archivist, docent, etc) but I think more people “do” public history than they realize. Aren’t the employees of Disney’s various historical fabrications “doing” public history in a way? They’re engaged with the public and work to make people feel like they’re in some past time and place. It’s kind of history…

This actually got me to thinking about the news… like newscasts and reporters. I am somewhat of a news junkie. To me the best mornings are those spent with a cup of hot chocolate (I don’t drink coffee) and an internet full of news (my #1 is I’ll never forgive WHYY for replacing their nightly broadcast of the BBC World News for that garbage World Focus (ok, so maybe I have a British news thing). Anyway I don’t think it’s surprising that I’m into history and the news – after all, today’s news is tomorrow’s history. What interests me is how the news is presented to us. What is the top story? How is the story told to us? How does the narrative unfold day-to-day?

Take for example a local newscast. The team of people who create each broadcast work together to bring the people of a certain area a report on the days happenings, both local national, and international. They also record how the people of the geographic are they serve are reacting to whats going on in their city and around the world. In a way they’ve sort of created an archival record of not just what happened that day, but how the community reacted and felt. So really, couldn’t the people who worked to create the broadcast be called public historians? Weren’t they “doing” public history?

All this is to say that this blog, like public history, may be all over the place. Basically I created this blog as an outlet for all the various thoughts I get from classes, interning, reading, and just thinking. So don’t be surprised if you see a blog about Star Trek at some point (the connections I see between my love of history and my love of Star Trek… another blog, another day).

Furthermore, since public history can mean so many things, I don’t think that “doing” public history should be such a bad thing to say. To me “doing” is an ambiguous way to describe what people in an ambiguous field do. So let’s remove the quotation marks from “doing” … doing. There! That was easy.

November 4, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment