THATCamp: Digital Storytelling, Local History, Social Media

What is an un-conference? It is a participant-driven gathering based on a particular theme or purpose. On the weekend of May 22nd I attended THATCamp, an un-conference at the Center for History and New Media in Fairfax, VA.

THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) is a gathering of individuals who work in the humanities to talk about the issues, concerns, challenges, and products in the realm of digital humanities.  While much of our conversations happened in person, they continued with the group writ large on Twitter all weekend long (#thatcamp). I thought I would take this opportunity to post about three of the sessions I attended.

Digital Storytelling

History is in essence a story. A narrative of the past compiled from documents, objects, and visualizations. It is text, it is verbal, and it is a very integral part of human identity whether it be your personal history or history on the multi-national level. During this session a group of us talked about the nature of digital storytelling and its role in education (though of course I was thinking about how it can be used in the public arena as well).

In a nutshell digital storytelling is the practice of telling a narrative using using technology and web tools. Sometimes this involves film (moving or, pictures put to sound), other times it is just a story told sans words with just digital photography. In our discussions we talked about how DS is narrative (that is a story told in a constructive format), non-narrative (something that is more formal), it can be linear or non-linear, interactive or a mash-up of many different mediums.

In the realm of education digital storytelling can be a means to teach the technology, but also a way to re-examine the past.  At the same time its a way to emphasize the value of textual, material, and visual sources in recognizing a complete picture of the past.

Some Digital Storytelling Links (Resources, Examples and Tools):

Local  History

The great thing about THATCamp was the opportunity to meet with preservationists/historians/humanities practitioners on the local level. At work, we (at the National Trust for Historic Preservation) are often looking at the big picture, and trying to provide resources to the local preservation organizations on the ground. So this session was about digital media on the local level–and what their needs were, and how to make the case to their boards and communities that digital technology and preservation are beneficial to where they live.

During this discussion we ended up talking broadly about the challenges and opportunities for local historical organizations, and aside from the ever present problem of funding we talked about the importance of collaboration and working with free, open-source products to branch out how we tell history on the ground level.  How can we, as digital historians, help our local historic societies reach a broader community not only through the framework of history that they tell, but also through the far reaching capabilities of the internet?

At the end of the session we talked about producing one of three “products” for use at the local level.

At the conclusion of the session we discussed a few possible next steps including,

  • A group blog written by local digital historians in the Mid-Atlantic region
  • A collection of how-to guides for implementing digital projects
  • White-papers or reports with detailed case studies on existing projects, e.g.

Social  Media and the History Non-Profit

This was the session I proposed, which was to get an idea of what was going on at other organizations regarding the use of various social media tools. We started out by looking at some of the ways the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been using social media in its advocacy:

  • The 2009 National Preservation Conference, “Virtual Attendee” page. Using live chat (Cover it Live), Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and Twitter to get information about the conference out to the preservation community.  In particular the web team looked at ways in which Twitter could be used by multiple people to tell the multiple stories from the conference–and as a result a team was deployed that consisted of each individual Twitter account having its own “beat”. For example, my handle @pc_presnation was tasked with giving a general history point of view for the conference, and I ended up actually tweeting the National Preservation Award ceremony as if it were the Oscars. To prep our members we released this video.
  • The Save America’s Treasures campaign. In brief, in the 2011 budget the monies for the Save America’s Treasures, Preserve America and Heritage Area’s programs were either completely zeroed out or drastically reduced.  In order to mobilize our members and remind Congress of the importance of preservation  it was decided that social media would a) put materials out there that people could use, and b)serve as direct marketing for the cause.  The text messages, the Facebook status messages, and the materials posted on YouTube and Flickr were divided between the emotional and the factual. For examples check out our   Tweet for  Our Treasures page.

The conversation ended up with a discussion about how to integrate social media into existing workloads–and we came up with the following strategy list:

  • Adding Social Media to your work plans
  • Creating a policy to deal with criticisms
  • Developing metrics for assessing how our social media projects are reaching potential audiences
  • In order to get the word out it is useful to have canned messaging for your members to use to get the word out themselves

All that being said, we were left with a few questions. How do you reach people digitally outside of Facebook, Twitter etc., and how do you deal with the issues that come from non-profits that work on an international level? Also–aside from another portal to distribute information from Twitter and Facebook how are non-profits taking advantage of the tools on LinkedIn?


The nice thing about The Humanities and Technology Camp is that it appeals to individuals of all levels of tech ability–and unlike most conferences the discussions are informal, and collaborative, ensuring a continuation of the discussion beyond the four walls of the actual lecture room.  With each of these sessions we developed actual goals and ideas that could be implemented in our day-to-day work days.

Currents of Change: Thinking about the Environment and History in Portland, Oregon

For the next few days I’ll be attending the National Council on Public History (NCPH) conference in Portland, Oregon. Not only is this city the furthest west I have ever been, it is also the first time I’ve ever been in Oregon. The topic of this year’s conference is “Currents of Change” and involves looking at the connections between history and the environment. The conference is particularly exciting because this year it is in conjunction with the American Society of Environmental Historians. You can see the program at but I’ll pull out a few highlights over the next few days (and will be tweeting @pc_presnation). Until then here are a few thoughts from the first day of the conference which also includes a celebration of NCPH’s 30th birthday.

Sustainability is something we at the National Trust for Historic Preservation have made a priority. We’ve had tweets, and resources and discussions at various events including the National Preservation Conference. I know its something we care about on many levels. On my way in from the airport I overheard a snippet of a radio conversation that asked about why young people aren’t involved with the fight against global warming like they were back in the 1960s for Civil Rights. The commentator whose name I didn’t really catch, wanted to know where the sit ins, the protests, the civil disobedience to urge government action. His conclusion: That its not happening because no one has put forth a call.

I think a bigger question is: If someone puts out a call how will historians and preservationists answer?

Which of course leads me to more practical questions: how does the green movement and history interact with the public? more importantly what strategies and ideas are currently being used to reach people on the local level? How can we use our knowledge of the history of the environment in America to reveal how historic preservation is also green?

I’ll be look for answers when I attend a panel that talks about historic preservation and sustainability, the opening plenary session with Adam Hochschild and my Friday tour of an organic winery, and much much more. So stay tuned!

Historic Preservation and Higher Education: What is its Purpose?

This post is one I did for work and is posted on the National Trust for Historic Preservation Blog. It came out of a larger conversation on the preservation professional listserve.

Historic Preservationists wear many hats. They are advocates, architects, community organizers, accountants, webmasters, managers, conservators, and teachers. In the same vein, preservationists come to the field from a variety of entrances—from main street, grassroots advocacy for a local building, policy work, or just by accident. Increasingly the decision to enter the field has come from academic institutions.

During the last two weeks on Forum-L preservationists (one of the benefits of being a Forum member) have been discussing the purpose of academic training in historic preservation. Prompted by this article, which takes a look at some of the possible changes for the University of Kentucky Historic Preservation Program, members debated the benefits of theoretical versus technical knowledge and the need to affiliate historic preservation programs with allied fields. In particular some members emphasized how the theoretical underpinnings of the field are not enough, that to truly succeed in the field students have to find their own niche and specializations. member) have been discussing the purpose of academic training in historic preservation. Prompted by

I come to this conversation from the standpoint of a public historian, essentially someone who practices history outside of the academy where the primary audience is the public writ large. It is a field that, in my opinion, really examines the same issues that the historic preservationists on Forum-L were discussing, albeit from a slightly different angle.

To read the full post visit the PreservationNation blog here.


Civil War cannon and luminaries at Antietam Battlefield by Keith Snyder

This post can also be found on the Blog.

I know that Thanksgiving is normally when the holiday lights go up twinkling, bright and cheery. They give you that warm wintry feeling that many associate with both the commercial and religious aspects of the season. However, those lights always remind me that the first week of December is near—and with it the annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination.  On this day, thousands of people drive through the National Park grounds to view the luminaries, one for every single solider who was killed, wounded, or missing on September 17, 1862 — 23,110 in total.

My first experience walking this hallowed ground was in 2000. As a senior in high school I helped to set up the white bags with candles, working with rope to outline a perfect gird. I can’t remember how many I lay down, but I do know what happened at dusk, when each candle sprang to life. From every angle the candles stood at attention, with honor in perfect lines. I guess you can say that they danced, the peaceful glow of the beams a far cry from the violence of those 12 hours–the bloodiest in the entire Civil War.

It has been nine years since I attended the ceremony, but I still spend that first weekend looking for articles, pictures and testimonials. This year I will be in Sharpsburg, Maryland with 20,000 others ready to look out over the field of lights and remember.

The Annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination will take place this year on December 5, 2009 (rain/snow date December 12). More information can be found on the Antietam National Battlefield website.

Illumination is only one way that we remember the past, just as Antietam is not the only battlefield or site that remembers the fallen in this manner. I’d like to hear about some others, so please comment and share.

Closing it Out (and a bit about Nashville Food)

I know it has been a few weeks since the end of the National Preservation Conference, but I wanted to make sure to provide a closing post. On Friday after dispatching the last of the field sessions those remaining in town made our way over to BB Kings for the Final Fling which included a live auction and music from Last Train Home.

Interior of the Downtown Pres. ChurchBut there was more to come. Saturday dawned bright and early for us with the Closing Plenary in the Downtown Presbyterian Church, an example of Egyptian Revival architecture. We were about to be treated to a talk by Chief Justice of Indiana Randall Shepard and Congressman and Civil Rights Leader John Lewis of Georgia.

Fisk Jubilee SingersBefore we talk about them let me say a few words about the Fisk Jubilee Singers. First started in 1876 as a means to raise money for Fisk University (the first American University to offer a liberal arts education without any stipulations as to race) the group is now known for preserving one of America’s greatest treasures—that which the website refers to as the negro spiritual. Let me say from first hand experiences that those voices rose in perfect harmony, bouncing off the walls with a clarity and resonance so vivid and vital that I got chills.

As for the talks-despite coming from two tangentially different directions (preservation and law/preservation and civil rights/politics)-Chief Justice Shepard and Congressman Lewis had ultimately one message for preservationists. The Chief Justice surmised our mission in one eloquent sentence, that “we stand up for livability, for a sense of place and architecture that lifts up the soul rather than deadens it.” His words were followed quickly by a call for continued agitation by Congressman Lewis who proclaimed that “If we do not fight for these places then history wont be kind to us.” In both speeches there was a rallying call that said, to borrow a popular phrase from the National Trust at this conference, what we do matters. That preserving buildings, music, and the spectacular architecture that Nashville has to offer effects how people live and breathe and connect with the world around them.

This dialogue intermingled with my thoughts on the music, the lights and the life in Tennessee and led me to ponder the following question: Where do we go from here?

Union Station Hotel in Nashville

All right. Maybe not. But it does allow me to segue into the final event of the conference (for me at least) which was the Forum Lunch, and I urge everyone who is interested on where Preservation should be and could be going in the next fifty years to take a look at Don Rypkema’s talk here. Particularly intriguing for me was his assertion that as historic preservationists we should work (at least in urban areas) to manage change over time and not necessarily a point fixed in time. At the heart of his talk he is asking us about how we remain relevant in a world that incorrectly sees history and historic preservation as a luxury, as something that will not create jobs, will not help the economy, and is not important enough to consider a priority at every level of living. He says that we are evolving–(for those not familiar with it, This Place Matters is a program of the National Trust that asks citizens to look at the world around them and identify the places that matter to them.)

Here is my test – look at what made the list of the National Trust’s “This Place Matters” program. Virtually none of the finalists met the test of either being an architectural masterpiece or of particular significance to our national history. Those places were nominated because they mattered to the local community and in many cases not on architectural grounds. I for one think that is a wonderful way for historic preservation to have evolved.

Stained Glass at Union Station Hotel

I say that this is exceedingly clear when we think about the evolution of historical thought in the last few decades. We have moved from looking only at the big men of history to understanding the everyday—the people on the streets, the forgotten and the silenced. Social history has done amazing things for democratizing what we know about our pasts and our future—we can now step inside museums and watch on television stories that make connections on a more visceral level than before. It is the same way with Historic Preservation whose history may have began with the rich and the elite but has long since moved to a movement that seeks to preserve the places we live in, the character of neighborhoods, the places that, in essence, make the world unique and diverse in every sense of the word.

So I think my one takeaway from this conference is that we have to be open to expanding our definitions and boundaries, looking to new horizons to let the past and present stand the test into the future.

Shrimp & Grits from Prime 108Whew. Did you think I was going to forget to talk about the food?

This is one of those towns where being a Vegetarian is really difficult—luckily I eat chicken, and boy did I eat a lot of it.

Here are my recommendations:

  1. The Fried Chicken at BB Kings
  2. While the Mac n’ Cheese I had at Robert Hicks’ house was to die for, I’ll just say that Nashvillians know how to make a mean mac n’ cheese.Mike's Ice Cream Fountain-Ceiling detail
  3. Make sure to check out Mike’s on Broadway by the River where you can get some of the most delicious ice cream cones out there.
  4. For brunch—go fancy and hit up the Wyndham Union Station (Prime 108) where I had some delicious French Toast, and my friend had some true southern grits with shrimp. While we waited for food we ogled the stained glass windows.

Don’t forget to Check out the pictures on Picasa!

National Preservation Conference in Nashville

Preserving our Present

I think I was in a mood when I wrote this. All these icons were passing away and it made me think about how we would be remembered. Would it be things connected to popular cultlure like our obsession with reality television (ugh), or will it be the politicial reality we now live in. Which naturally led me to think about how this new media would be saved and documented for us to remember it.

Preserving our Present

127 Years & Still Counting: Barcelona’s Beautiful Work In Progress

A blog post about my summer 2009 trip to London and Spain where I saw remarkable things in cities full of history & art.

127 Years & Still Counting: Barcelona’s Beautiful Work In Progress