Thinking about Public History Projects: A DIY history toolkit

My good friend, Leslie, begins a new tenure-track job this fall in Idaho. She recently asked for input on her next big project. If you haven’t read the post yet, you should. The gist is as follows:

Whereas public historians traditionally have done history for the public–e.g. in museum exhibits or in documentary films–there’s a small but growing group of public historians who want to foster and study history done by the public, by passionate amateurs and average folks instead of created for them. I’m one of those historians, and as I transition to life on the tenure track (I’ll have 4-5 years to prove I deserve to be employed for the next 30-35 years), I’m searching for a project or two in which I can make significant progress in 3-4 years.

I’m hoping you can help me by telling me a bit about how you use history in your life, either everyday or on special occasions. I want to find a project that not only interests me, but that really gets people excited about engaging with the history of their family, neighborhood, house, community, hobby, or whatever else they’re passionate about.

My response in her comments included two ideas, which, you’ll notice, don’t really answer her question. They do, however, raise a couple of ideas about ways to approach her rethinking of public history’s goals:

1) Create a centralized set of resources on a topic. I’m thinking of collecting links to web-based resources, but they might just be lists of various sources/works for the topic. Gathering those together in and of themselves could prove valuable to a group that has not done that yet for its own history and would allow you to bring the experiences of a public historian to help as well.

2) Create a resource that would provide access to tools, methodologies, approaches that would help people engage in their own group/family history. This would be a kind of DIY family/group history kit. You might include advice on how to do interviews; how to scan images and documents for historical purposes; discuss using WP or other blogging software (or software like Omeka) to create exhibits; how to use wikis to create crowdsourced projects like the Davis Wiki; examples of other sites (and ones that inspire a sense of possibility, not major, grant-funded institutional projects); how to fact check family/group stories (or why those stories are valuable regardless of their validity), etc.

Here I’m thinking of initially virtual tools. But with an outside grant or support from your institution, you and your new department might become known for lending the equipment (cameras, audio recorders, scanners, etc.) and expertise needed to empower people in your area to do their own individual or group history projects.

The more I think about it, the more I really like the second notion, the DIY history toolkit. Think about the value of such a guide/checklist/resource. What would you include in a DIT history toolkit?

Good luck to Leslie with her move, her new job, and her new projects. Head on over and help her out.

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  1. Thanks, Jeff. I like the idea of a DIY history kit, and the ideas you propose in particular. I’m imagining a series of PDF guides–also available in print form at the local public library–on each of the topics you mention, as well as screencasts for the more technical topics.

    I think there ought to be something, too, to help people record their thoughts about their family’s material culture–whether the objects still exist or not. Objects are so resonant for people, and they’re a good place to start doing history, I think, yet so many people go instead to conventional oral history questions.

  2. The multi-format guides is a very good idea.

    As for material objects, what about using something like VoiceThread to have people look at an image (even if it only represents an object they used to have)and record their memories, thoughts, etc.

    Of course, you could also have people record themselves with webcams, videocameras, while looking at/showing off their objects.

  3. Jeff, I think that there is a lot of interesting material developed over the years that Bruce Sterling moderated by email “The Dead Media Project.” It’s easy to say that it is merely interesting reviews of technology. But, I would say that the rationale or context of the development or use of these media might prove to be content worth looking into.

    See Wikipedia’s entry at:

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