Where is the public history conversation headed?

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Digital conversations now take place across a range of platforms, including a vigorous Twitter stream at NCPH conferences. Photo credit: Rebecca Pattillo

That’s the question that has engaged me since I first became an editor of the H-Public listserv back in 2005. As the National Council on Public History wraps up its editorial involvement in the list, this seems like a good moment to reflect on H-Public’s role in evolving discussions around the field, how the list has fit in the suite of digital platforms that NCPH has developed since 2005, and where the conversation might be headed next.

When I say “where it’s headed,” I’m thinking not only about where the current issues and ideas are, but also literally (or virtually) about where the discussions are actually taking place. Over the past two decades, the venues where we encounter our peers and colleagues—not to mention our publics—have come to include the digital, to the point that it’s become hard to separate virtual and actual spaces as neatly as we once did. It’s the interplay of those two things that I’ve found most intriguing as NCPH has been building and refining platforms and spaces where public historians can gather and interact.

The original header for H-Public on the H-Net website. Image credit: NCPH

In the beginning, when dot matrix printers still roamed the earth, there were listservs, simple electronic mailing lists built on another then-cutting-edge technology: email. NCPH got involved with the H-Public listserv—then known as PUBLHIST—in 1995, three years after it was founded. Three years later, PUBLHIST joined the H-Net network of listservs. Under its new name of H-Public, it was one of 90 lists devoted to humanities and social science topics.

I became an editor in 2005 after I raised a question to NCPH leadership about how the list was being moderated and was rewarded by being invited to take over the job myself (kids, don’t try this at home). Debbie Ann Doyle joined me as an editor shortly afterward, and she has continued in that role ever since.

For several years, H-Public was the main online venue for active long-distance discussion about public history topics. It didn’t reach absolutely everyone involved in the field, but when you posted a message, you could be reasonably certain you were talking to a broad cross-section of the community. People raised questions, offered advice, discussed methods and ethics, and occasionally took a run at the perennial question of defining what public history was. (Here’s a report on a 2007 listserv thread that did that.)

With the advent of Web 2.0 platforms in the early aughts, H-Public and other listservs began to become more like handy bulletin boards than lively discussions around the water cooler. NCPH formed a Digital Media Group as a kind of working advisory committee in 2008, and the organization became a fairly early adopter of social media in the professional history world. (Our conference is still one of the most Twitter-friendly in the field.)

From the outset, staff and members of the DMG wrestled with issues we’re still discussing: What was happening to the formerly more cohesive public history conversation as people self-selected into different media spaces? What was our role as a professional organization within the newer constellation of platforms? Was there some kind of ideal balance between the dignified pace and absolute control of an academic journal and a free-wheeling and increasingly contentious milieu like Twitter? Did it really matter what we thought, when those discourses and the algorithms that powered them were being defined in practice and evolving from one year to the next?

Many of these issues mirror larger questions about public historical projects in general, and talking them over within NCPH has always been challenging and usually fun. For several years now we’ve been asking ourselves on a regular basis whether it still made sense for the organization to be involved in H-Public, and this year we finally reached a consensus that it didn’t.

H-Net was creating its new H-Net Commons platform at precisely the same time as NCPH was developing a more integrated web presence. By the time the H-Net Commons rolled out in 2014, our own new WordPress-based digital home was already up and running. For some time all we’ve been doing is pushing out our biweekly news listing on H-Public, which also sees an occasional query but very minimal discussion. The work of recruiting and training new editors, as well as putting together a required Advisory Board for the list, felt out of proportion to that level of activity.

So, on June 30 we stepped down from our editorial role, which H-Net hopes to fill with new recruits. (Anyone who’s interested should contact the VP for Networks.) We’ll be continuing to build on our successes with the [email protected] blog, the various projects of the Public History Commons discussion area, and our Facebook, Twitter (@ncph), and perhaps other social media presences as well.

We continue to ask “Where is the public history conversation headed?” and to look for ways to convene, participate, or sometimes just listen in on it. One of the things we’ve noticed recently is that Facebook groups are starting to function a lot like the listservs of yore. They are lively spaces used by self-selecting groups of like-minded people for a range of reasons from the most personal to the highly professional.

We’ve created a new group on our Facebook page—look for the NCPH Members Forum there. We hope this space will allow members to connect where they already are without having to share their personal profiles or remember a separate login. Spirited conversations are already happening in the group, and we invite all members to join us. For now this space will be a member benefit, something we’re always looking to create so that there are more incentives to support the organization by joining.

We know that the Facebook group won’t reach or engage everyone, and we’re open to suggestions about other ways that we can continue to tweak our online spaces and projects. Email Membership Manager Christine Crosby with ideas about social media or Executive Director Stephanie Rowe with more general feedback. Or post a comment below. The conversation is here too, and we’re always glad to see more people joining it.

~ Cathy Stanton is a senior lecturer in the department of anthropology at Tufts University. She is in the process of stepping down as NCPH’s Digital Media Editor but looks forward to continuing to be part of the conversation.

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