Monthly Archives: September 2013

Tour of historic West Main Street with Susan Foley

I think perhaps I was the only one on the tour who didn’t take any pictures.

It wasn’t for a lack of interest, but rather because I was trying my hardest to hang on every word of our tour guide.  Since moving to Louisville, I generally take any opportunity I can get to take a historic tour.  My first date with my now-girlfriend was a walking tour of the Portland neighborhood.  I’ve also been on numerous other preservation-themed bus tours, usually through Preservation Louisville.  There was something different about this one, however.  Susan Foley’s knowledge of West Main Street largely comes from the dozens and dozens of oral history interviews that she’s conducted for Louisville’s Main Street Association.  The amount of knowledge about individual buildings and organizations that the collection of oral histories contains is wholly overwhelming.  Susan admirably disseminated enough compelling tidbits to send us all home satisfied.

I wonder, though, how I would have felt if

A. I hadn’t already started listening to my quota of the interviews, or

B. They didn’t have some bearing on the research I’m currently conducting for (West Main’s own) Science Center.  Several of my colleagues have made the point (here and here for example) that many of the street’s fascinating features go generally unnoticed.. .which brings me to my point:

Should the Main Street Association do a better job of communicating the history of the street to all who walk down it?  Or is their subtle approach intentional?  Is it the public historian’s responsibility to inform and enlighten every man, woman, and child who passes by their little corner of the world?

For me, these sorts of in-your-face public displays reek too strongly of tourist traps.  Personally I would hate to see Main St. turn into one of these urban children’s museum exhibits (Although 21c is making a pretty good go of it.  The Science Center is exempted because it is a children’s museum, effectively)  I’m referring here, to places like Beale St. in Memphis and even Lower Broadway in Nashville.  Does Louisville need a history-themed Fourth Street Live?  Okay, maybe I’m going overboard.  But I think that, in conducting the oral history interviews and making them available at the University archives, Susan and the MSA have done a commendable job of preserving the street’s history in a way that is not only thorough, but perhaps more permanent than another plaque or museum panel on the street.  These histories could be incorporated into podcasts and walking tours without cluttering up the sidewalk.  I think that the creation of this content and making it available to those who seek it out should be the primary focus.

And that, Forrest, is all I have to say about that.  But I can’t end it without disseminating a couple of nuggets of my own; gleaned, you understand, from the oral histories.  Like the time the cast iron facade on the Science Center was unbolted and removed in order to admit the Apollo 13 space capsule (Mattei).  Or the fact that Louisville’s Jewish community initially didn’t want to participate in the Heritage Weekends during Louisville’s Bicentennial celebration for fear that their exposure could precipitate anti-Semetic violence (Guthrie/Courtney/Victor).  Whose idea was it to give Colonel Sanders that hair dryer to help him blow out all of those candles (Guthrie)?  Did you know that West Main’s revitalization was seen as critical because of its historic association with the river, which other parts of downtown lacked (Roberts)?

Man.  History is cool.



Circus Parade Wagons

Circus Parade Wagons

Those of us who were enrolled in Dr. Vivian’s Intro to Public History course last fall had the option of creating an Omeka exhibit as our final project.  Though the results are in a bare-boned text-photo-text-photo-text format, it’s a good experience as a first step into the world of digital history. 

Storm Chasers All

The president of the NCPH, Robert Weyeneth, recently posted on the History@Work blog an entry which addresses the recent flare-ups about the hireability of History Master’s graduates.

In it, he points to what he sees as the 5 main problems with academic public history programs in relation to available jobs.  The brass tacks of it are that there are too many ineffective programs churning out underqualified graduates.  He postulates on whether the NCPH should step in and regulate the programs by handing out certifications to those with the right stuff.  He doesn’t see that happening, since the NCPH hasn’t the resources or the gumption to draw such a line in the sand, and leaves it up to the (prospective) students to seek out quality programs.

My immediate reaction was one of gratification.  It needed to be said that those with a Master’s in History but with no Public History training weren’t going to be shoo-ins for Public History jobs.  This is just a reality of the world.  Ideally, a Master’s degree is going to give you the experience and the foot in the door that you need to get started in the professional world.  The truth is that they vary greatly.

When I left my job at ups, I had several long-timers ask me what my next step was.  After I told them that I was pursuing an advanced degree in the humanities </irony>, they related their experiences with graduate school.  Two of these old-time upsers had Master’s degrees in business.  They both agreed that the professors who taught their classes would have never been able to run a successful business because they were out of touch with reality.  They vented their frustration to me, and as I held them, their tears soaking my khaki ups polo, I wondered what I had gotten myself inot.  Would I end up back here, with a useless degree, on the island of misfit toys?

I know a guy from the Circus Historical Society who has been long working on his undergraduate degree in a historic preservation program at an art & design college.  If you do a search for public history or museum studies programs on, you come up with programs with a wide array of focuses.  For example, the one at Ball State is through their school of architecture.  Others are focused on art museum curation.  I also have a friend in Indianapolis(we went to Ball State together, but don’t stay in touch), who, in some bizarre life-mirroring twist, also followed up her art degree by studying public history; she at IUPUI.  Though she didn’t recommend the school to me, she was offered a job with the Indiana Historical Bureau before she even started on her thesis.  Naturally, she took it.  “I was just doing it to get a job,” she told me, “so when I got a job, I quit.”  It seems that though she was interested in local history and preservation, what generally attracted her to the program was the chance to get an internship.  Perhaps someday she’ll go back and complete her thesis.  But in the current market, and with her little background, who of us can blame her for her choice?

What have I learned from these blog posts and these anecdotes from the real world?  Well, I generally think that I’ve chosen a good program which is getting better.  My classes are taught by professionals with recent experience in the field.  We now have a borderline militant administrative adviser who is not going to allow us to waste our time here. We are strongly encouraged to make a plan and to make ourselves into the best possible option for something.  Though some of the available texts are embarrassingly outdated, I think that my best plan of action is to try to do good work.  Take every assignment seriously and excel in the program.  Ultimately I will have to take full responsibility for my hireability.

Digital History, chapters 2 & 6

The book’s introductory chapters (see previous entry) gave a general overview, in broad terms, of the consequences of history-making on the internet. I reiterate that here because in comparison, those thematic elements are immensely more relevant than the specifics which are discussed in this week’s readings.  In a sense, this time-sensitivity is illustrative of the momentum inherent in trying to keep up a website.  In another sense, it’s plain old disheartening.

Chapter 2 gives tips on building a website; from choosing a host to learning html.  Maybe I’m wrong, and call me out if I am, but html to me seems a lot like manual transmission on cars.  It was necessary at one time, but we’ve moved on since then.  Yeah, some people  still do it for their own reasons.  There’s a lot of pride in that.

Now that I think of it, I’m positive that html is a required skill for plenty of people.  So I digress.  For the purposes of this book, though, and for the novice audience that they seem to be targeting, it seems unnecessarily intimidating.  I built my first websites  about 14 years ago on good ol’  Not a shred of html required.  Pick your element, type your text, stick it on there.  It was easy in those days to create your own (generic as it may have been) online presence. (Hey, remember geocities?!)  For me, though, image editing software (the one that came with my scanner was called photoimpact, and I easily moved on to Photoshop via a pirated copy.) helped a lot with the Times New Roman doldrums. Don’t forget to sign my guestbook.

Speaking of Photoshop, I have another bone to pick with the archaic nature of this book.  The authors warn readers (61) that the web just doesn’t do well with fancy kinds of media like audio (oooo) and video (ahhhh).  Ouch.  The list goes on and on.  Livejournal, AOL Journal, IMing with “younger soldiers” as a form of collecting histories?  If these are the things that the book’s readers are going to look for online, I fear that they will be sorely disappointed.  Spam?  Ads?  A simple filter will take care of those.  On page 175, the authors mention (actual, real-life) social networks without mentioning social networking sites.  Oh, take it off, mommy, it burns.

I don’t blame Rosenzweig in the slightest.  The man has done more than anybody to keep historians on pace with technological advances in the 21st century.  The book, as I understand it, is the definitive available text on the subject of history on the internet.  But my angst and consternation about graduate school flares up when I read things like this.

Tomorrow’s hist…

Tomorrow’s historian will have to be able to programme a computer in order to survive.

LeRoy Ladurie, 1968

Digital History Rosenzweig and Cohen pp. 1-50

The book is introduced with a loose outline of what it means that history is being done and will be done digitally/online for the forseeable future.  The heaviest ramification of this seems to be that no longer is history so authoritarian.  The web creates a shared authority, and anyone and everyone (so long as they have internet access, and yes, this is an issue to be discussed) can now start a blog, comment, and publish their own thoughts, memories, and opinions to be consumed by anyone and everyone (there I go with superlatives again).  Luckily, this trend mirrors one which has been happening in museums since the late 1970s.  History in museums was once dispersed only by an unquestioned authority (THE HISTORIAN) and the wee little people known as the general public were pleased as punch to go along with whatever the historian deemed the absolute truth.  No more.  Shared authority is what’s en vogue nowadays, and though some museums are more successful than others, any institution with a professional staff knows that this is the goal.


Not only is history being written and published by the masses, but history on the internet can also create a dialogue.  Internet users can then comment on John Q Public’s views on history, creating a two-way discourse which was impossible when history was only read in books or learned from static museum displays.


The authors go on to discuss that way in which this can and does sometimes confuse the historical record.  Photoshopped images, uploaded and widely consumed on the web are anathema to professional historians who have spent their careers trying to get the record straight. (As an aside, the authors then make a strange analogy concerning comic strips and the Bible.  The authors seem to assume that the Bible is as true and correct and literal as any historical document that could possibly be created by man and that everybody knows it.  It’s an automatic stand-in for that absolute truth that was supposedly written off as bunk so many decades ago.)  Additionally, online archives differ from their onshelf ancestors in that they lack a shared provenance.  Rather than being of “The So-and-So Collection,”  digital archives created by students and amateur historians are custom-built.  They are made up of both published and unpublished media of all types, and are usually centered around a particular topic.  This, to me, seems like something more like an electronically published bibliography than an archive.  Indeed, the authors grant that anyone who has written a book or even a historical paper has created one of these catch-all archives.  Randy Bass is quoted as saying that the web has put the “novice in the archive,” but, the authors state, it has not taught him or her what to do there.


The chapter ends with a fact that anybody familiar with Facebook knows well.  If historical institutions want anyone to know that they exist, they must establish an online presence.  The internet has become so ubiquitous in our daily lives that previous methods of locating a business, institution or organization such as phonebooks are, if not obsolete, somewhat unconventional.  The internet allows for all sorts of media to be inexpensively used to entice, educate, and entertain like never before.  And as the Facebook maxim goes, “Pics or it didn’t happen.”


Of course I do remember a time before the internet, but it was a time in my life so innocent, so carefree, that I’m not sure that its presence would have impacted me very much.  I certainly wasn’t writing any history.  I got my first email address in my 9th grade Spanish class.   Señora Hotchkiss was well aware of the internet’s potential, and we were assigned pen pals in Bolivia with whom we could easily converse via el Hótmail.  Anyway, the internet’s perpetual presence throughout my post-pubescent life doesn’t seem to have given me any sort of fluency when it comes to online research.  I’ve lately come to realize that I have a lot to learn in the way of utilizing the myriad of different resources that can be found on the internet.  Having said that, the things that I have managed to find have been immensely rewarding.  I’m looking forward to being unleashed on the internet like Ferris Bueller on the streets of Chicago.  Look out, all you techno-Camerons out there.