The Conference Experience – Day One

Today marks the first day of four at the National Council on Public History (NCPH) Annual Meeting. The meeting, held this year in Nashville, TN, is my first experience with a large-scale professional conference. I have attended small conferences hosted by the University of Louisville (UofL) or nontraditional conferences like THATCamp but nothing on the scale of #ncph2015. Over the course of four days in Nashville I will get the chance to learn from experienced professional in my field, form valuable connections, experience new digital tools, and participate in a poster session.

The NCPH van ready for departure outside the History Department.

This is my first time traveling with UofL and is my first real group trip as an adult. So far it is a fun mix of school trip and road trip with friends with structure and individual choice taking equal footing. We [the UofL Public History Program] are in Nashville with a group of nine, two professors and seven students. We came down in two separate cars and the experience of road-tripping in a minivan was nostalgic for me, although this was a much smoother packing and driving process than any trips my family took when I was younger.

The Batman (AT&T) Building as we entered the city.

We left UofL early this morning and a quick drive brought us to Nashville in time for THATCamp. I have posted about THATCamp experiences before and I really enjoy the informal unconference model and the chance to learn about and experiment with old/new digital history and digital humanities tools. Since this THATCamp was part of a larger conference it was more structured with presenters and sessions decided beforehand. It was split into three sessions which took place over half a day. I attended “WordPress Basics” (which accounts for the update to the blog’s appearance), “History Harvest for Digitizing Collections” and “Using Geospatial Tools for Digital Interpretation: An Informal Conversation.” All three sessions were interesting and covered different aspects of digital history tools. Some things we touched on I was familiar with, WordPress, Omeka, Social Explorer, but others (mostly the GIS tools) I had never heard of.

THATCamp Schedule
Schedule for THATCamp at NCPH 2015

The most practical session was “WordPress Basics” lead by Cathy Stanton of Tufts University. We focused on improving our skills with the interface and the practical uses of a blog and domain name. While we were able to get in some practice on the dashboard and learn a little bit about the coding behind the site the bulk of our discussion focused on creating your own domain name and web presence. WordPress is an excellent base platform for this because it’s versatile, open source, and supported by a large and active user community. Users are constantly creating and updating widgets and plug-ins for the site so its capabilities are constantly changing. The free open source version of the site is just as versatile for users as buying the premium package or getting hosting through a third-party like Laughing Squid or Reclaim which allow you full control of your domain name and digital identity.

The most interesting session was the final one, “Using Geospatial Tools for Digital Interpretation: An Informal Conversation.” I had not considered GIS as a method of digital exploration for history work seriously before this. To me it just seemed like boring maps but today I learned that using layers of maps you can show change over time, demographics, significant places. Using mapping lets you present information visually in a way that is engaging for the viewer and easily illustrates the point you as trying to make. While GIS is the main event in geospatial presentation there are a large number of open source platforms you can use to give viewers a similar if not the same experience. From big names like Neat Line in Omeka to crowd sourced projects like the New York Public Library’s Map Warper that allow manipulation and georectification of old and new maps. Some other tools mentioned in this fast paced session were, OpenStreetMap (a wiki tool), Leaflet JS (a java script tool), Social Explorer (web-based interactive maps), Map Story (an online platform good for classroom use), Story Maps (an ArcGIS online platform), iBeacon (device that acts like a QR code), (The Digital Archeology Record), and the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection. These are not the only tools available but they all are mobile friendly and provide most of the capabilities of GIS and Neat Line. The versatility and utility of mobile friendly platforms is especially important for geospatial interpretation as it allows users to experience the space depicted in real-time and see what is missing and what is new.

In comparison to the other two sessions,  “History Harvest for Digitizing Collections” was interesting but not earth-shattering. The History Harvest project was started at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and uses Omeka to curate object based community histories. Working with specific communities in the region and, in similar projects elsewhere, around the country students take oral stories, photographs of objects, and scans of photographs and documents to create a meaningful user experience and facilitate interaction between historians and the community. The project’s tenants are community, pedagogy and accessibility. With those three concepts in mind the project becomes more than a growing digital archive of local history objects. It becomes an outlet for students and the community to mix and to assure those whose items are chosen that great care has gone into the selection and research of the chosen materials.

Each session today enhanced my public history knowledge and abilities and encouraged me to interact with other professionals in my field. Tomorrow promises more of the same; learning opportunities, networking, just in general interaction with people passionate about the same things I am.