Dynamic Digital Methods for Integrating Local History into Public History Institutions and the K-16 Classroom

by Joel Zapata

A Western History Association Sponsored Workshop

The 2018 Western History Association Annual Conference featured over a dozen digital, public, and teaching sessions or workshops. These sessions and workshops considered how history practitioners—K-12 educators, students at all levels, university professors, museum professionals, and public historians—study, record, and communicate the past. As in most contemporary history meetings, the question of what it means to be a twenty-first-century historian arose. While neatly answering this may be high-reaching, conference participants did consider more attainable questions: how do we democratize history, how can we make invisible history visible, how can historians present their work clearly and to the widest audience possible, how can public historians co-create historical projects with communities, what digital or traditional tools should we utilize, and how can history practitioners better collaborate with each other and others?

Public historians, digital historians, design technologists, professors, K-12 educators, librarians, archivists, as well as students considered and answered most of the above questions at the Dynamic Digital Methods for Integrating Local History into Public History Institutions and the K-16 Classroom Workshop (see page 52 of the Conference Program), which the WHA Committee on Teaching and Public Education sponsored. Linsey Passenger Wieck, Director of the Master of Arts in Public History Program at St. Mary’s University, hosted the workshop at her home campus one day after the annual conference. The workshop featured four speakers: Rebecca Wingo, Shannon Murray, Jason Heppler, and myself.

Rebecca Wingo, Director of Public History at the University of Cincinnati, opened the workshop. Wingo’s presentation centered around the History Harvest, a community-based and student-driven digital archival project in which community participants bring items of historical significance and give oral histories about their items while students digitize the objects. Participants then take their family and community heirlooms back home where they belong. While teaching at Macalester College (St. Paul, Minnesota), Wingo and her students partnered with Rondo Avenue, Inc., the governing body of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood. As countless African American communities across the nation, the Rondo neighborhood was deliberately bifurcated by the construction of I-94 during the 1960s. Keenly aware of this history and the positionally of Macalester College as a privileged and majority white institution, Wingo discussed the importance of community leadership in the project. Honoring this, Rondo Avenue, Inc. and community members took leadership status in the partnership. Thus, Wingo and her students entered the community as welcomed partners. The resulting digitized items and oral histories provided valuable additions to Rondo Avenue, Inc.’s online history collection of photographs, historic maps, other archival materials, and oral histories housed at Remembering Rondo. Through the History Harvest process, historians, students, and community members democratize history while helping make a too often invisible local history visible.

Shannon Murray, Indigenous Programming Manager for the Calgary Stampede (a rodeo, exhibition, and festival held every July in Calgary, Alberta), presented on the work of her organization’s education team. Seeking to connect K-12 students to local history, particularly the history of First Nations, Murray’s team focused on building collaborative relations with the First Nations whose history was being told. Through such collaboration, the education wing of Calgary Stampede founded an Indigenous Youth Program to teach life skills while emphasizing the importance of culture and tradition. This collaborative focused work has also produced exhibition signage in Blackfoot for the Calgary Stampede. Perhaps most impressively, the collaboration aided Siksika Nation’s Old Sun Community College and Board of Education in creating the Blackfoot language application. In a similar vein, Jason Heppler, Digital Engagement Librarian at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, presented on making local history accessible to the public through digital archives. Heppler showcased his project Silicon Valley Historical, “a mobile app and website that lets you explore the history of Silicon Valley through location-based essays, oral history, archival images, and documentary film.”[1]. Heppler then lead the workshop in brainstorming how digital tools can be used to improve the teaching and exhibition of history along with what tools could work for chosen projects. I presented on my digital history project, Chicana/o Activism in the Southern Plains Through Time and Space, which I envision as an accessible, digital museum for both scholars and the wider public. You can read about the project in my previous post, “Digitally Mapping and Exhibiting the Plains’ Chicana/o Movement.”

Together, the workshop’s presenters and participants posited and answered many questions concerning the future of the history profession. As the number of history majors shrink alongside the job openings for historians in academia, what struck me the most profoundly from the workshop was the innovative pedagogical, civic, and research approaches that the presenters followed. One can hope such innovations will counter or solve some of the profession’s most pressing issues. Overall, I left the workshop thinking that perhaps answering what it means to be a twenty-first century historian can be done by collaboratively answering more attainable questions regarding the future and betterment of the history profession.



[1]“About,” Silicon Valley Historical, accessed October 26, 2018, http://svhistorical.org/about/.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *