History Day – and why it matters

It’s spring – and that means across the country thousands of teens are putting the final touches on their National History Day presentations.

What is History Day?

National History Day is an exciting opportunity for middle and high school students to engage with the past. They develop their own topics around a broad theme that changes each year. The 2016 theme is: “Exploration, Encounter, Exchange.” Students conduct their own research, with heavy emphasis on the use of primary sources. They analyze and interpret their findings, and their work culminates in a final project in one of the following forms: research paper, documentary video, dramatic performance, museum-type exhibit, or website. Depending on the category, students can work alone or in small groups. Students compete with others in their same general age range or grade level.

Ten Reasons History Day Rocks!

  1. It’s fun!  – Students bring and generate energy and enthusiasm for their topics, the research process, and the final outcome.
  2. It’s self-directed – Students select their own topics, and choose how to connect their subject to the contest theme.
  3. It’s challenging – Students learn to ask hard questions of sources, their teachers, and each other.
  4. It’s social – Students meet others with similar interests, learn from each other, and encourage one another.
  5. It’s inspiring – Students have a knack for finding interesting stories and presenting them in intriguing, creative, and thought-provoking ways.
  6. It’s engaging – History Day goes beyond rote dates and “facts” found in dry textbooks – and makes the past come alive. Suddenly, history is exciting again!
  7. It improves skills – Overall skills in research, critical thinking, and writing improve across all of a student’s work – not just in history class.  Technical skills such as set design, costuming, videography, web design, and others also find expression and development through History Day projects. Self-confidence grows, as does intellectual curiosity, teamwork, and social skills.
  8. Quality is rewarded – As students advance further in the contest, they find they must constantly revise and improve their work as the competition stiffens. This teaches ongoing critical thinking skills, editing, and objective assessment of their own work.
  9. There’s prizes! -Students compete at school, local, regional and state levels, before advancing to the National finals. At various levels, but particularly at the state and national levels, students may win special awards, often cash, sponsored by History Day alumni, corporate sponsors, or professional organizations; or gain other forms of recognition. Of course, the best prize of all is to advance to the next level of competition.
  10. And even scholarships! – The University of Maryland at College Park, Case Western Reserve University, and Chaminade University of Honolulu all offer scholarship prizes.
    And let me add Reason #11 — just for teachers!
  11. Teachers can win, too! – A few special prizes are awarded to teachers who exhibit leadership and encouragement to their students.

How You Can Get Involved

State and regional competitions are underway now! Contact your state coordinator and learn how you can volunteer, serve as a judge, or provide other support.

Some students may be in need of financial assistance, particularly if they advance to the national competition in Maryland in June. National History Day does not provide financial support, so most families must foot the bill themselves. Watch for students in your area to hold fundraisers or online campaigns, and contribute generously. NHD also accepts donations to aid in its operations and to get more classrooms and teachers involved in the contest.

Archives Month 2015

Interested in archives, but don’t know where to begin? Are you a family historian who has found limitations to online sources and want to delve deeper? Take a look at these guest posts at the blog on Ancestry.com:

4 Things to Know Before You Visit an Archive – Want to visit an archive, but don’t know what to expect? Read this post to learn more.

Archives Month: Searching by Context – Too often, researchers are too specific when they begin their search. Learn how using a contextual approach can aid your research.

Archives Month: Anatomy of a Finding Aid – What is a finding aid, how do I read one, and how can it help me?

Traces: Making the Invisible Past Visible

During the recent National Council on Public History conference, I had the privilege of moderating a session on the subject of “Making the Invisible Past Visible.” This post will serve as a brief summary and list a few further resources.

The conference program described Session #S23 (Friday, Apr. 17, 8:30-10:00) as follows:

“Exploring a forgotten story of black freedom during the Civil War; ghost tours as a more diverse and inclusive public history; the built environment and what-might-have-been — studying unbuilt architectural proposals; cracking government secrecy through the Freedom of Information Act at the National Security Archive. What are the different ways history can be “invisible”? What is the political character of invisible history? What kinds of invisible history are in your community? What “traces” can aid in making invisible history visible?”

The session format was four speakers talking for about 10 minutes, followed by a brief period of cross-panel discussion, with the remainder of the time spent in small groups discussing audience members’ own thoughts about “invisible history” in their own communities.

Presenters included:

Linda Barnickel (myself), archivist and freelance writer

Glenn W. Gentry, Lecturer at Cortland University in New York

Christine Kreyling, freelance writer and architectural critic for the Nashville Scene

Nate Jones, director of the FOIA Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University

Summary of presentations

Linda Barnickel

I spoke about my work researching the battle of Milliken’s Bend, a small and long-forgotten battle during the Civil War that nevertheless had significance in the larger narrative of African Americans serving in the Union army and their fight for freedom. Time did not permit me to speak in any detail about the history of the battle, and that information is now readily available elsewhere. Instead, I focused on the “invisibleness” of the story of Milliken’s Bend. I examined some of the reasons why it had been forgotten for so long, and outlined some of the methods I used for doing my research, including expanding my research beyond the finite boundaries of the battle at Milliken’s Bend on June 7, 1863 to include broader issues in place, time, culture and context.

For more on the historical story of Milliken’s Bend:

Milliken’s Bend website

Book: Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory (LSU Press, 2013).

Follow Linda on Twitter at: @MillikensBend (for Civil War & related subjects)
or @LindaBarnickel (for general history, archives, writing, research, etc.)

Glenn W. Gentry

Gentry spoke about ghost tours. A geographer, not a historian, Gentry raised a number of thought-provoking points, explaining that ghost tours are often stories that a city “doesn’t want you to know” or that are whispered about in the shadows, hidden from the mainstream. Ghost tour guides often engage their audiences as participants (not tourists), and encourage them to tell their own stories, as well. Gentry spoke a lot about the story-telling and performative nature of ghost tours, including engaging the participants in the possible: “what may have happened; what is rumored to have happened; and what we (or they) don’t want to say happened.” He also pointed out that ghosts are far more about the present than they are about the past; in fact, ghosts only exist in the present. Ghost tours enable the public to engage with the past and the landscape in ways that they normally wouldn’t, and hear stories about people, places, and events that have often been left out of the usual narrative.

Additional resources:

“Walking with the Dead: The Place of Ghost Walk Tourism in Savannah, Georgia,” in Southeastern Geographer 47.2 (Nov. 2007)
Preview in ProjectMuse

Glenn W. Gentry and Derek H. Alderman, “A City Built Upon its Dead: The Intersection of Past and Present through Ghost Walk Tourism in Savannah, Georgia,” in South Carolina Review 47.2

Christine Kreyling

Kreyling spoke about “The Nashville We Didn’t Build,” exploring the value, impressions, and sometimes downright “kooky” proposals by architects and city planners that were envisioned and proposed, but never constructed. Based heavily upon research in private papers and newspapers, as well as surviving architectural plans, and using numerous illustrations, Kreyling examined these themes: the predominence of the “tall tower” concept; the way urban transportation, particularly the growth of automobile traffic, influenced urban planning; the tension between preservation and demolition; futuristic visions of monorails, moving sidewalks, and UFO-like appendages on buildings; urban renewal’s impact on the downtown core and its population; and wildly varying scenarios for repurposing the Union Station Train Shed, which was eventually demolished in 2001, despite its National Historic Landmark status.

Additional resources:

The Nashville We Didn’t Build,” Nashville Scene, July 10, 2003.
[online article is minus illustrations that appeared in the original print version]

Book: The Plan of Nashville: Avenues to a Great City (Vanderbilt Univ. Press, 2005)
[A 50-year vision for the future of the city]

More Books by Christine Kreyling

Nate Jones

Jones provided a whirlwind tour of the work of the National Security Archive (NSA) – an independent, non-govermental institute housed on the campus of George Washington University. The NSA works to uncover government secrecy using the Freedom of Information Act, known as FOIA (pronounced “FOY-yuh”). Among his examples: a tripartite comparison of a Wikileaked document, the initial release of the same document from the State Department under FOIA, and the final release from the State Department after a FOIA Appeal. Jones also spoke about the Able Archer nuclear war scare in 1983, which he has researched extensively. Other intriguing documents shown: fingerprints of Sadam Hussein and an FBI document containing statements Hussein made while in U.S. custody; a history of American cryptology during the Cold War; a mention-in-passing of several Civil Rights leaders on a 1960s FBI watch list of “domestic terrorists and foreign radical suspects,” including Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, and Muhammed Ali; and at last – government confirmation that Area 51 does indeed exist in the Mojave Desert!

Additional resources:

Unredacted – the National Security Archives’ blog, many posts written by Nate Jones

FOIA resources from the National Security Archive

Effective FOIA Requesting for Everyone guide

Follow Nate Jones on Twitter: @NSANate or the National Security Archive at: @NSArchive

Other Resources about NCPH2015:

View a Twitter feed about this entire session.

Various post-conference resources, links, and compilations.

Civil Rights in the Archives – Description

First, a definition. The word “Description,” when used by an archivist in a professional setting, refers to “information about a collection.” This can include things such as finding aids, inventories, scope and content statements, catalog records, subject-oriented “pathfinders” and other research aids. Think of Description as being a tool that you consult before actually diving in to do the research. It can help you decide if a collection has materials of interest, guide you to a specific box to request during your visit, and help you determine if a collection has enough content to be worth travel expenses to conduct research at a far-away repository.

The act of archival description wields enormous power. Fail to mention that an 1849 account book contains details about the buying and selling of human beings; or that an entire box of materials in Mr. VIP’s collection actually documents the social and charitable activities of Mrs. VIP over the course of 40 years – and it might as well be as if these things do not exist. Indeed, from the perspective of a researcher – they do not exist, because the contents of the collections have not be adequately communicated to the end user.

If either of these collections were processed today, I am confident that they would be adequately described to bring out the content relating to African American and women’s history. Those subjects are topics that are generally understood within the archival and history professions to be worth mentioning and highlighting.  However, that has not always been the case.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, most of history through the mid-twentieth century was focused on the stories of “Great Men.” Thus, a collection that was processed and described by an earlier generation of archivists, might not provide adequate description for modern researchers.  Seth Rockman’s comment about African American resources being hidden away in a box or folder labelled “Miscellaneous” is an example. The easy and obvious question is: why can’t archivists provide more (and adequate) description for the contents of their collections?

If only the answer were that simple. Two main factors work against this:

1) As a general rule, archivists seldom have time to reprocess or re-describe collections that already have some form of finding aid or descriptive summary. If a collection was processed in 1920, in any form – then archivists are going to be concentrating their time and efforts on collections that still have received no processing or description at all.

2) Collections from the latter part of the twentieth century are more voluminous than ever.  In an attempt to make better use of archivists’ scarce time, Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner proposed a method of processing known in archives lingo as “MPLP” – (More Product Less Process). What this means is that archivists are encouraged to do “speed processing”. One way to do this is to process at a more global, less granular level – at the box-level, for instance, rather than the folder-level. We might, for example, determine that this box contains financial records, another box contains correspondence, and yet another box has marketing materials and advertisements, all part of the Local Widget Company records. That might be as detailed as the description gets. After that, it’s up to the researcher to dig around and determine if the collection has any content of interest. So the MPLP method does present some risk in terms of overlooking certain subject matter – like labor unrest, or LWC’s refusal to hire women on the factory floor, or the Widgets for America campaign during World War II, for instance.

So how can researchers work around these limitations of archival description? First, I encourage you to think broadly.  Even if the formal description from the archives for the Local Widget Company records doesn’t mention its WWII campaign, if you know there is content from that time period in the collection – then it is worth investigating. Consider related topics – narrow and broaden your search terms and your way of thinking of your primary research focus. For instance, if you are researching women factory workers, perhaps try terms like “industry” or “manufacturing” or “widgets” or “women in the workforce”. If that still doesn’t help, always always ALWAYS – ask an archivist!!! Most experienced archivists have more content in their heads than any finding aid could ever capture.

What are archivists doing to try to bring out “hidden topics” from their collections? Some institutions routinely highlight certain items from their collections. Carnival floats and costumes from LARC (LouisianA Research Collections) at Tulane is one great example. Other institutions are creating “virtual exhibits” like Territorial Kansas Online, in this case, featuring content from several repositories. Other organizations are using social media, blogs, or outlets like Historypin  to highlight different aspects of their collections. These methods all allow archivists to zero in on specific items from their collections, or particular themes, and bring them to a wider audience.

 Part 3 in a series.

Part 1 – Access

Part 2 – Collections

Part 4 – Acquisitions

Civil Rights in the Archives – Collections

Why is it sometimes so frustrating and difficult to find African-American voices in major archival repositories, even to this day? What strategies can historians and other researchers use to identify and retrieve silenced voices?

I was following the Society of Civil War Historians‘ conference on Twitter in mid-June. I couldn’t be there in person, but when I saw this post from Megan Kate Nelson, summarizing a point from Seth Rockman, I had to chime in.

Three parts of this tweet prompted me to respond: “records of black people….” and the hidden character of these records in the archives; the all-encompassing but informationally void “miscellaneous” category; and what does and does not get digitized (prompted by a followup tweet from Peter Carmichael). I’ll confine most of my comments in this post to the first part, and save the other two subjects for future posts.

It is all too true that resources about African-Americans – especially African-Americans prior to the 1950s and 1960s, may be hard to come by in many research institutions. Although I’ve done no systematic study, I believe there are several factors which led to this situation.

The first, and most obvious, of course, is racism, pure and simple.  In the first half of the twentieth century, racism permeated America, North and South. The Dunning school held sway in the interpretation of black life under slavery, stereotyped by a paternalistic concern and charity on the part of slaveholders, and loyalty and willing subservience on the part of slaves. Given these kinds of stereotypes, promoted by men who were considered “leading scholars” at the time, it is understandable why historians and archivists of the day might have given more consideration to private papers of the slaveholders, rather than the enslaved. Furthermore, high rates of illiteracy among former slaves meant that many of the raw materials of Southern African-American history existed as oral narratives, not written materials that could potentially find their way into an archive.

The racism that permeated every thread of Southern life also reinforced distrust among blacks and whites.  Why would a black family give their papers to a white university archives, where their story would not be given value, and would likely be marginalized, no matter how successful or prominent the family was? If they were to safeguard their papers for posterity, it only makes sense that a black institution, such as an HBCU in its early years, would be entrusted with the care and preservation of their papers.

The difficulties encountered by black scholars in accessing Southern white archives points out another issue wrought by segregation. If the prevailing law of the land was “separate but equal” and each race had their own schools – what expectation was there that the color line would be crossed to perform research? Poole’s article makes it clear that it was extremely rare for a black scholar to ask to use resources at a white institution. Why, then, would archivists at such an institution care to collect, describe, or make accessible papers of African Americans, when it was assumed there would be virtually no use of such materials?

Finally, and I think this is a point worth highlighting – African-Americans were not the only voices being silenced. Women, other racial and ethnic minorities, religious minorities, labor groups, homosexuals, and any number of other groups could just as easily end up in the “miscellaneous” (thus, silenced) bin.

Up until the mid-twentieth century, history was considered to be the study of “Great (White) Men”. Presidents of corporations, city leaders, politicians and others in positions of power and influence were thought to be the most important subjects of study – and therefore, the most significant collections to obtain for archives.

The explosion of social history in the 1960s changed all that. While it is true that People in Positions of Power are still overrepresented in archival collections, social history posited that the less-well-documented, such as African Americans; women; labor organizers; and others, had historical value as well. Social history represented a sea-change not only in the production and profession of history – but in the archival profession and repositories as well. Records of a local black women’s social and charitable organization in the 1910s and 1920s might have been ignored had they been offered to a (predominantly white) institution in the early part of the century. By the 1980s, these items would be valued and preserved by that same institution, not only in the interest of providing material for social historians, but also to appeal to and support a more diverse student body.

Part 2 in a series.

Part 1 – Access

Part 3 – Description

Part 4 – Acquisitions

Tourism, History and Memory

Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine
(Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2003).

In honor of the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, instead of reading yet another book about the furious fight on the Pennsylvania hills, I chose to read this book by Jim Weeks. It was recommended to me earlier this year by Rob Thompson whom I met at the Future of Civil War Studies Conference this past spring. I had asked Dr. Thompson if he knew of a good book about Gettysburg and tourism, and this was the title he mentioned.

It is an extraordinary example of public history, and one that carries many lessons and examples far beyond Gettysburg and the Civil War:

How do tourists in the present day encounter history? What are their expectations? What do they feel they already know about the site or its story? How do their educational experiences and background affect their outlook? How has the historic site been commercialized? How do the business people involved in such activities view their association with the historic site?  What kinds of objects or services do tourists purchase, and why? How has the interpretation and commemoration of the site changed through time? How did the historic site come to be marked, remembered, and commemorated? Has this changed over time? What is the natural environment at the site – and how does that affect interpretation and the visitor’s experience? How do issues of race, class, and gender intersect with all of these issues? And the ramifications go on and on and on.

Every page is full of keen insights about the history of commemoration and tourism at Gettysburg. But even more enriching than that, nearly all of Weeks’ observations can be extrapolated to virtually any other historic site.  It is a case study, that can serve as a guide.

Highly recommended!