Spring at the “History Harvest”

C & I Harvest

Currier & Ives, 1849

This week, we talk to University of Nebraska-Lincoln historians William Thomas and Patrick Jones, co-directors of History Harvest, a community-based approach to creating a new people’s history of America online using the real “stuff” of our past.

JUNTO: How did you get the idea (and support) for History Harvest? What are the goals of “community-based history,” and how is it a model for the profession?

THOMAS: The original idea for me goes all the way back to my work on The Valley of the Shadow Project in the mid-1990s with Ed Ayers and Anne Rubin. We ran a small community history harvest in that project, but neither the public awareness of digitization nor the technical infrastructure to do large scale digitization on site were available. Still ever since then, I have been interested in expanding the idea. And we have seen in every digital history project that the community often comes forward with materials to contribute. So in 2010 we started The History Harvest Project here at the University of Nebraska. At the time I was thinking about how to broaden the conversation about history in American life generally. I thought that by bringing academic historians into the community and focusing on the meaning and significance of family history as seen in letters, diaries, photographs, and objects—the “stuff” of history—we might create more space for everyone involved to see the value of history and how history is not a set of learned static facts but is interpreted and revised. I also was interested in “authentic learning” and wanted to develop an experiential learning program for history majors and for our graduate students. I had in mind something like the Antiques Roadshow but where the value is not expressed in dollars but instead in historical significance.

Our timing seems to be right. We have the software and hardware and tools (digital cameras, flip cams) to hold History Harvests. Our students are more prepared to use their digital skills. The public knows more about what digital history means and why it might be important. We gathered support locally, partnering with NET public radio and television first, and of course we are partnering in the local communities, with museums, nonprofits, and local historical societies, as well as community radio stations. We have found support literally at every turn. We were fortunate to have a University of Nebraska alumnus who believed in the idea of the History Harvest and supported us with a gift to the University to help get our project started.

One of the goals of community-based history is to create a new digital archive, a people’s archive. We hope to see thousands of family history materials digitized and collected all across the U.S. Together this collection could comprise an important scholarly resource of previously inaccessible materials. But just as important we see the History Harvest as a way to open up and make more accessible who is included in our history. By inviting a community to the harvest and working within and with the people and institutions in these communities to prepare the harvest, we hope we will see different histories, different materials, different sources that together reveal a more inclusive story of our nation’s past.

JONES: Like Will, I have had a long-standing interest in hands-on, student-led, community-based learning.   I study and teach about modern American history and African American Studies, with an emphasis on the civil rights and Black Power era, America in the 1960s, the Cold War, social movements and electoral politics, and popular culture. There are many great opportunities for students to link these histories to their own experiences, to explore the ways the recent past continues to reverberate in the contemporary moment, to hear and collect the stories of people in their communities who lived through this history, and to help capture, preserve and share historical artifacts.  Digital technology makes all of this possible in some really exciting new ways.

I would add to Will’s comments that the History Harvest project came together in the context of a broader discussion we were having in the Department of History about our undergraduate major.  In particular, we were looking for ways to give our students more hands-on opportunities with history, not merely to study it, but also to create, preserve and share it. We wanted to create more opportunities for them to get out of the classroom and into the community with history.  And, we wanted to find more ways for our students to develop core skills, including media and technology skills, and to apply them to their work as History majors. So, the History Harvest project brought all of these elements together in a really dynamic and effective way.

The History Harvest project also emerged out of a loose set of beliefs:  that our collective history, in Nebraska and across the country, is more diverse and multi-faceted than most people give credit for; a recognition that most of this history is not found in archives, historical societies, museums or libraries, but rather in the stories that ordinary people have to tell from their own experience and in the things – the objects and artifacts – that people keep and collect to tell the story of their lives. The History Harvest, then, is an invitation to local people to share their historical artifacts, and their stories, for inclusion in a unique digital archive of what we are calling the “people’s history.” As more and more “harvests” take place in communities across the country, more and more materials will be added to the archive, creating an ever-expanding, one-of-a-kind digital resource for teachers, students and anyone else with an internet connection. As Will mentioned, the time is right for this type of interactive, community-based, large-scale digital project in History.

JUNTO: Can you share a few discoveries that Junto readers should check out right now, as a way of exploring the site?

THOMAS: Sure. I would point to the collection that Bill Hayes brought into the Nebraska City History Harvest. This collection included a letter from Samuel L. Roberts July 12, 1864 on the battles in the Atlanta Campaign. This letter is remarkable for its vivid detail and viewpoint on one of the most important campaigns in the war. I think it represents the kind of rich sources that remain in family history and are going to be part of the History Harvest. Second, at the North Omaha History Harvest, Warren Taylor shared a variety of historically significant items, including a metal cup and “Liberty” penny carried by his enslaved great-great-grandmother and handed down in his family as part of the family’s history. I would also point out that some of the most important “discoveries” have come as well through those who have shared their stories. These oral histories about the objects being donated or the background of them in their family lore have been extraordinarily powerful.

JONES: I would second Will’s suggestion of Warren Taylor’s artifacts.  In addition to the stunning slave-era cup and penny, Mr. Taylor also brought in a 1925 North Omaha city directory, listing African American businesses and organizations. It provides a wonderful portrait of the black community during the first wave of the Great Migration.  Philip Reis, whose father, Ralph Orduna, was a Tuskegee Airman, also shared a number of artifacts from his father’s life and career, including photographs, military records, newspaper clippings, a statue, dog tags and a congressional medal of honor. During our more recent harvest in Lincoln, the stories we captured from local Sudanese, Iraqi and Malaysian refugees are what really stand out. Many of these local people did not have artifacts to share because they fled their home countries under terrible circumstances.  But each of them had a harrowing, and often tragic, story to share. These stories offer a glimpse into the often over-looked histories of some of the newest members of the Lincoln community.

JUNTO: What are some of the technical and aesthetic challenges you face in translating real-world finds into digital presentations?

THOMAS: The main technical challenge we face is content management and developing best practices for quality control as we go forward with many students collectively entering large numbers of items. We decided to use Omeka, but it took us several tries in a home-grown content management system to realize we needed to switch to Omeka. The aesthetic limitations of Omeka are ones that the students in particular were concerned about. They would like a more dynamic interface, and we are looking at a variety of options. But the broader challenge is one of scale. There are also challenges related to how best to capture an object. The two examples above are illustrative. The letter is easily digitized. But the folding cup is difficult to capture — its weight, smooth edges, and collapsing accordion-like pieces together produce a remarkably tactile experience of history. This is not easily digitized of course. In my view that’s why the story we record on camera is so important.

JONES: Developing a digital infrastructure for a national History Harvest archive is a key priority currently. Along with that is the need to establish some best practices so that there is a clear shared set of standards for all History Harvests across the country.

JUNTO: This project brings together academics and non-academics in an exciting way. Can you share a few of their experiences, and how working with History Harvest has reshaped their notions of American history?

THOMAS: Patrick will have a lot to say about this great question I think. I have been amazed how non-academics react to the project—it has been overwhelmingly positive. In part the North Omaha History Harvest even helped reshape and broaden awareness of the value of community history in ways that contributed to the city’s rethinking of history tourism. One story from the North Omaha History Harvest revealed the important community work of Creolla Woodall, who has been conducting research on, and raising public awareness about, the unmarked graves of U.S. Colored Troop soldiers from the Civil War. In particular, she uncovered the lost graves and recovered the lost histories of James Adams, a free black from Baltimore, and Edward Jones, an enslaved man who enlisted in Georgia. The stories of their wartime experience and their migration to Omaha after the war help reshape the way we think about American history.

JONES: At each “harvest,” we try to partner with local institutions that are dedicated to, or have a stake in, local history. During the North Omaha harvest, we partnered with Love’s Jazz & Arts Center, the Malcolm X Birth Site & Memorial and the Great Plains Black History Museum. Our collaboration with the GPBHM was particularly significant.  The museum, which has been closed for more than 15 years, is home to an important collection of materials related to African American experience in Omaha and across the Great Plains. For many years, it was one of the few African American history museum and archives west of the Mississippi. In addition to organizing and executing the History Harvest in North Omaha, students also spent time working with archival materials from the GPBHM collection, rehabbing and reorganizing materials on African American homesteaders, black cowboys, pioneering African American firemen in Omaha, and early 20th century jazz musicians. This experience gave the students a much deeper understanding of the “hidden history” of the local black community and, in the process, profoundly changed their understanding of Nebraska and the Great Plains.

I can think of two specific examples: One white student from Alliance, Nebraska, processed some materials detailing the experience of a group of black homesteaders in her hometown. These artifacts fundamentally changed the student’s perspective on her home community (she never realized African Americans had lived there and thought of it exclusively as a “white community”), on rural agriculture in Nebraska (she thought of farmers as white people, not black people) and on her own relationship to African American history, generally (a new aspect of her own history had been opened up to her and she wondered what else remained hidden). Another student, a non-traditional African American student in his late-40s, was overwhelmed by his interaction with the GPBHM materials, simultaneously awed by the proud stories these materials told about black community achievement in Omaha and across the Great Plains, ashamed and angry that they had been neglected for a decade and a half, but also proud to be a part of the effort to preserve these materials and share them once again with the community. Six of the eight students in the North Omaha History harvest class credited their experience in the course with influencing their decision to pursue graduate education in museum studies, library science, K-12 teaching, or History.

JUNTO: What’s next for the History Harvest? And how has it changed the way you teach?

THOMAS: Well, first we have had so many people at universities and colleges reach out to us that we plan to hold a History Harvest Blitz Week April 8-12. This will be a “virtual” brainstorming session for all interested parties, culminating on Friday April 12 with a NITLE seminar on The History Harvest that Patrick Jones and I will lead. We hope the blitz suggestions on our blog and through Twitter @HistoryHarvest (just established) and other social media will help shape the project’s next steps. The goal of the week is to open our broader History Harvest idea out through social media for participation and feedback. We see this as a form of open strategic planning for the History Harvest project. While we are glad to encourage everyone who leaps in and runs their own harvests (undoubtedly a good thing in the community), we are seeking ideas about a federated approach to this form of experiential learning, how to develop best practices for the History Harvest classes, and how to develop the cyber-infrastructure to support it. Should be interesting. We’ll capture the comments, twitter stream, etc. We will post an invitation to join in on the Blitz Week soon. To keep matters interesting each day of the blitz week, we are planning on releasing student-produced work, including a short video introducing The History Harvest, and we hope to have a series of community radio “interstitials” for “The History Harvest Moment” that indicate what students can do and focus on one object/story from a harvest. Finally, I’m planning to teach The History Harvest next year in a distributed format with classes running simultaneously at two other universities and colleges in Nebraska. This will be our first effort at a multi-site, multi-class History Harvest course. Very exciting.

JONES: I will simply add that I am convinced that the History Harvest is a prototype for the kind of teaching we need to be doing in the 21st century across the humanities and social sciences. During exit interviews, every student in the North Omaha History Harvest class called it their most significant educational experience in their entire academic career at the University of Nebraska and stated that they wanted more of these “authentic learning” opportunities, not just in History, but across College of Arts & Sciences. I hear them and plan to continue to move my teaching in this direction.

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