Public History's Great Showing at the 2012 NCPH/OAH Annual Meeting


David Austin Walsh is editor of the History News Network.

Click Here for Full Coverage of the 2012 OAH/NCPH Meeting

A week has passed since the end of the 2012 Organization of American Historians/National Council on Public History Annual Meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and it's an appropriate time to look back on one of the major theme, if not the major theme, of the conference: the new frontiers of public history.

Public historians are often sidelined at OAH and American Historical Association meetings -- at last year's OAH, only five sessions were highlighted as of special interest to public historians, and there were even fewer explicitly public history sessions at the AHA in Chicago; by contrast, the joint session in Milwaukee saw over 60 public history sessions sponsored by the NCPH, a healthy third of the conference's 180-odd sessions; that's to say nothing of the score of OAH- and affiliate society-sponsored panels, like the working group on the Civil War sesquicentennial (ably tweeted and blogged by public historian John Rudy). The joint meeting also significantly boosted overall attendance -- turnout measured a paltry 1,300 at last year's OAH conference in Houston, compared to the over 2,100 who showed in Milwaukee. That's a better showing than the 2009 Seattle conference (1,800, a low number for a coastal conference and attributed to the bad economy) and the last Midwestern OAH conference, Minneapolis in 2007 (1,900). "NCPH meetings ... have attracted 560 to 630 attendees ... for the past four years," wrote NCPH executive director John Dichtl in an email. "Although not the sole reason ... the addition of NCPH's conference energy [has been] a major factor towards success in Milwaukee."

That conference energy was, and remains, palpable to the tech-savvy. 2012 will be remembered as the year of the digital historian -- scholarship was a major theme of the AHA meeting in Chicago and digital public history was very much in the spotlight in Milwaukee. Public historians have been leading the way in embracing the possibilities of new technology, and this was very much on display in Milwaukee. Public historians have longed tended to dominate Twitter and blog coverage of the OAH and American Historical Association annual meetings, but this year their monopoly of coverage was so complete it could warrant an anti-trust investigation. It may be a cliché, but it's true that a picture is worth a thousand word, and the OAH has put together a word cloud of the top tweets from the conference:

The only terms that were more popular than "public" were "history," "historians," "History" (apparently Wordle is a case-sensitive piece of software) and "Milwaukee." Almost all of the actual tweeters in the word cloud are public historians (including @TJJohn12, the Twitter handle of John Rudy).

Public historians have obviously embraced social media much more readily than academic historians, but this shouldn't be terribly surprising. Some of the major themes at public history panels in Milwaukee (and yes, I'm drawing much of this information from Twitter) were the challenges and opportunities of engaging with the public in digital spaces -- spaces that A) the public expects museums, historic sites, archives, exhibitions, etc. to have, and B) spaces in which the public expects to be able to some control of historical narratives.

Hence, with a handful of exceptions, public historians are much more comfortable with the idea of something like Twitter than many academics. Public historians already exist in the now co-existing public and digital spheres. And it's not as if there's an easy way to opt out of the digital age. I spoke to an academic historian about some remark he made while on a panel, despite the fact I hadn't actually been in the room when he said it. A public historian in the audience tweeted it. Academic historians can learn this lesson already known to many public historians: these days, *anything* said in a public forum can and often will go up on Twitter or YouTube, and there will be a record of it. Every single tweet related to OAH/NCPH 2012, all 8,800 of them, has already been indexed in this handy little spreadsheet.

There's even a digital component to the controversy swirling around The Public Historian. The NCPH has been engaged in a dispute over the journal with its co-publisher, the University of California, Santa Barbara for some time; in January, the NCPH announced that it would end its relationship with UCSB and start a new journal based in Washington D.C. At a session in Milwaukee, however, incoming NCPH board president Bob Weyeneth said that the NCPH and UCSB agreed to a pending two-year extension to negotiations about the future of the journal. Regardless, the controversy has stirred some serious thinking about the future of digital scholarship and open access for all, from the coordinated group blogging at History@Work, the NCPH's official blog, to Larry Cebula's proposal to transform The Public Historian (or, if the name stays with UC Santa Barbara, its successor publication) into a primarily web-based open-access publication (borrowing the successful business model of The Atlantic, which started a "digital first" policy in 2007 and as a direct result actually turned a profit in 2010). Cebula also wrote on his blog that "JSTOR is not our friend" when it comes to twenty-first-century digital scholarship, noting that JSTOR turns away "150 MILLION" access attempts every year. Using the JSTOR model, Cebula wrote, "will alienate many of the younger and more tech savvy members of the NCPH."

All in all, the joint OAH/NCPH 2012 demonstrated the great technical and methodological strides public history as a discipline has made in the past several years and the health and robustness of the NCPH -- the organization's endowment, according to John Dichtl, has grown to half a million dollars, the membership is a healthy 1,200, and the new History@Work blog attracted 3,000 unique visitors in its first month -- an auspicious start.

The 2013 NCPH meeting will convene in Ottawa, Canada next April!

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