Learning to Write for Everyone

Recently our class was asked to produce 400 word Op Eds and then evaluate them as a group. It was fun – and also challenging. I personally found that writing history for an audience who may not care about history, very strange. When writing exhibit text for a museum – you can at least make the assumption that your audience has some interest in history – as they are visiting a museum – but not so for the broader arena of public history. Those reading a newspaper or listening to the radio, may be interested in hearing  a few historical facts but they aren’t actually turning to your work to learn history!

Well since I wrote the article I thought I would share it along with some of the comments I received – feel free to comment on it as well. I suppose as a public historian it is about time that I learn to write for the public!!

A Stain on Our History We Must all Remember

Canada’s history has a stain. The government’s attempt to “civilize” Aboriginal children through the Canadian residential school system tore apart communities and left a generation of people without a clear identity. It also lead to the deaths of hundreds of children, whose tragic stories remain unheard. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reorganizes, and prepares to look into this issue, we must all ask ourselves: How will these children and their horrific stories be remembered?

The groundwork for Canada’s residential school system was laid out in 1857 with the Gradual Civilization Act. Which sought to civilize Aboriginal people by encouraging them to adopt a sedentary farming lifestyle, imitate European culture and dress, and most importantly educate their children to become civilized Europeans.

By 1931 there were 80 residential schools operating across Canada. Children were taken from their homes and placed in an alien word. Their hair was cut short; they were given a new name, and European clothing, and speaking their own language was strictly forbidden and harshly punished. The schools were chronically underfunded. The buildings were cheaply constructed and faced many heating and plumbing problems. Children lacked the proper nutrition that their growing bodies needed. All this paints a grim picture but the true stain on this history was the appalling number deaths – the majority from tuberculosis.

School records reveal that the milk the children drank came in many instances, from cows infected with bovine tuberculosis. Sick children were forced to attend classes, thereby exposing others. Few schools were lucky enough to have a trained nurse on staff, and most relied on doctors from neighbouring towns. The families of children were often notified of their child’s illness only after their death, and in most cases the bodies were buried in unmarked graves on the school grounds.

The last residential school closed in 1996, but the bodies of the children who died in these schools still remain lost, their stories forgotten. Today historians, and Aboriginal communities are working together to uncover the truth, but for the most part it remains an unheard history. Regardless of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, Canadians must find a way to remember this history, and stop hiding the stain. We are accountable for our past, Canadians can no longer look on this as an “Indian problem” it is our history too and we cannot ignore it.

As for the comments I received, on the up side it passed the “so what” test – meaning that it is a subject worth writing about, and that I managed to explain to the reader why they should care about a particular historical issue. Also I had a strong intro and conclusion. On the down side my punctuation isn’t great (a  problem I struggle with); and I am too objective – this is clearly a dark historical topic – and could be written about with more passion and conviction!

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In the Hamilton area? You have to visit this!

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of a of a private tour of the Hamilton Museum of Steam Technology with curator Mac Swackhammer. It is most definitely one of the best small to mid size museums I have been to lately. The Architecture of the building alone is magnificent, built in the 1850s it’s a testament to the skill of early masons and engineers. The waterworks has been designated as a National Historic Site and a Canadian Civil Engineering Landmark. But you really have to visit it to appreciated the structure. All of the parts of the steam driven beam engines are original. To stand in the piston room dwarfed by the great machinery and look two stories up to the massive iron beam rocking back and forth or watch the crank and flywheel rotate is astounding.

It may seem silly to be astounded by this large piece of metal, but even if you aren’t a great lover of mechanics,consider that this machine and its operators saved hundreds of people from the ravages of cholera, and helped Hamilton become the center of industry that it is today.

The museum is easily accessed from the QEW, at 900 Woodward Ave., and is open from Tuesday to Sunday throughout the year.

Get Noticed (and I don’t mean by google)

In digital history we have discussed the ways in which google rates web pages an how to get yourself noticed by the googlers out there – as well as the google search bots. But what about getting noticed by other public historians – how do we network over the network we can’t see and can barley understand?  Well as Jeff Howe descried in his article “The Rise of Crowdsourcing” found in Wired “all you need is some passionate geeky volunteers to write code” – any takers… I was surprised to find today that yes someone has met this challenge at least for those of us interested in the museums blogosphere. A website called Museum Blogs has taken on the task of providing central access to all of the blogs out there that focus on museums, they basically provide a central directory with RSS feeds to  stories from hundreds of blogs. The passionate geeky volunteers in this case are Ideum a company that designs interactive exhibits and software for museums. They have also built a companion site for musuem podcasts . To become listed to the sites a nomination must be submitted (this can be done by anyone) and Ideum decides who it would like to add.

Thanks to the designers at Ideum there are better and more specific ways for museums and their projects to get noticed on-line – outside of the boundaries of mass information provided by Google.   Perhaps it is time for organizations such as CHIN to provide these services as well, they have stepped up by providing tutorials to learn how to create RSS feeds and do have a few museum related RSS feeds available on their site but none specifically for those publishing on-line or blogging about museums.

the work of the historian is becoming part of the digitized world, as it should,  thanks in great part to those passionate geeks.

Moving Over

This post won’t be long -I’m moving over from my old blog  Muse(ums)…Escape the Tower so you can read my old blog entries there, as well as a little bit about who I am. However if you don’t want to visit the old site I can give you a quick overview of who I am here.

The original purpose for my blog was as an assignment for Digital History, one of the courses I am taking for my M.A. in public history at the University of Western Ontario. So I am a Public Historian in training, still learning the balancing act that such a field requires. My undergrad was a B.A. from Trent University in History and Indigenous Studies.

Although I am still exploring the historical field my interests are closely tied to the history of everyday life – hence my title “A Community of History” I believe that history is created by and for communities and that as a Public Historian it is part of my role to facilitate this sharing of stories.

I hope this blog will help me to do that.

The Monograph Endangered…

In his article, “The New Age of The Book,” Robert Darnton highlights some interesting statistics on the plight of the monograph, especially for those academics outside of the realm of science. He draws our attention to the falling publication rates and climbing costs of producing academic journals that is leaving a new generation of scholars tenure-less. As their monographs find their way to a pile in the corner of an editors office, collecting dust along with many other unknown masterpieces. As we continue to learn the value of digital publications – the ability to add many levels of information (from complete primary documents, to citations, to links to other web sites), the ease of accessibility, the low cost of distribution – we see that a system is emerging that can provide a far better form of publication than simply the academic journal. What’s more it is open to exponential numbers of reviewers throughout a global audience. Journals, such as First Monday, have proven that this new form of scholarly publication can exists and does function. For those of us aspiring to be more public in our history…or, dare I say it, public historians, this is a first all be it very small step to achieving a more open dissemination of our research and an excellent way of distributing our work to the public as well as continuing to have a presence in the academia. As we learn to build bridges between these two worlds we must accept that often the best technologies are the most widely used and least expensive ones.

Public Academic Conversations for the Digital Age

Recently I completed a research paper on the Nicholson Baker – Richard Cox newspaper preservation debate. This debate was made all the more interesting, and accessible, by the use of digital mediums by both authors. In the paper I argued that a true understanding of the debate would first require an understanding of the society in which the debate was created, that is one in which information has become more readily accessible through the Internet, and the use of digital technologies . Although it was not the purpose of this paper to address accessibility of information I would like to use it as an example of issues we have investigated in class
Googling Baker and Cox, or their books, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper and Vandals in the Stacks a Response to Nicholson Baker’s Assault on Libraries, respectively, will provide many links through which the debate can be investigated. This essentially open discussion (minus Baker’s book which must be paid for even in digital medium) resulted in an inserting and rather unorthodox debate. Rather than a private one known only to academics, this debate could be (and still can be) viewed by millions of people, some with academic backgrounds in the subject and many with no background in it at all.
This openness of information is at the heart of some the most interesting conversations we have had in class. We have discussed for example the negative and positive repercussions of Wikipedia, anyone can gain access to information but is the information accurately representing the topic? The first link provided by a Google search of Nicholson Baker is a Wikipedia page which makes no mention of the Baker Cox debate in its “summary” of Double Fold but provides a link to Cox’s book under “further readings” as well as an “external link” to one of his First Monday articles (Richard Cox as of yet does not have a Wikipedia page). This example also highlights what I would term the “pop-culture focus” of Wikipedia, which often neglects to address issues objectively and focuses predominately on issues that are of interest to current society. For example Nicholson Baker (a novelist) is much more of a pop-culture icon than Richard Cox, (an academic) and therefore warrants a Wikipedia page. In her article “Know It all” Stacy Schiff explained that this occurs because “the bulk of Wikipedia’s content originates not in the stacks but on the Web, which offers up everything from breaking news, spin, and gossip to proof that the moon landings never took place.” This results in pop-culture as the motivating factor in the creation of many of the Wikipedia entries.
Another topic we have addressed is the accessibility of academic and scholarly work through the Internet. Many online journals and journal databases (such as JSTOR) require a membership, academic libraries can purchase these and make them available to their users, however the use of the documents is still restricted to those attending the academy. Thanks to online peer-reviewed journals such as First Monday (in which many of Cox’s original responses were printed) everyone can have access to scholarly resources (which as Prof. Turkle pointed out are often developed through research funded by the public).
Paul N Corant also addressed the need to make information accessible in his work “Scholarship and the Academic libraries (and their kin) In the World of Google” he says: “Take an idea. If you don’t write it down, the thought will have had no public effect. If you write it down in a way that no one reads it (at least not until they get to your attic a hundred years later) it has no effect. That is to say if you don’t publish (or at least teach) then you almost certainly have no effect, not even on the life of the mind.” Cox seems to have followed this philosophy and as a result allowed a debate that otherwise might have gone unheard to become a subject of public interest, he also provided an accessible opinion countering that of Baker, resulting in an open and perhaps more level discussion of the issues surrounding their debate.
Based on my experience of what I have termed a Public Academic Conversation, I would like to state that making scholarly information accessible through the Internet and digital media is key to furthering the public understanding of both the practice and subject of history. In class we often take issue with the ideas of openness and authority, and I agree that there are issues surrounding these ideas that must still be addressed. That being said I don’t think we should let this stop our use of the Internet, but rather provide a reminder that we must always question the information we receive, no matter what the form of that information is.