From Roman aqueducts, the creation of NASA, and the recently renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba, history offers clues into a people’s motivations, priorities, and trends. If you’ve watched a Ken Burns’ documentary, encountered historical interpreters, or read any number of historically-sound popular books, then you’ve encountered the work of Public Historians.
Public History connects academic resources to a wider audience. Public Historians bring history to the public square.
In spring of 2015, Dr. Lynn-Sherow led her Public History class through several collaborative projects exploring Lost Kansas Communities, historic preservation, digital humanities, museum curation, and even Wikipedia.
One project involved developing a walking tour brochure for the popular Pioneer Bluffs prairie heritage site. Public History students visited the historically significant Pioneer Bluffs/Rogler Ranch, researched its history, and formulated a walking tour that is now available to visitors!
They also explored the lost Kansas community of Comiskey. Patrick Moran discovered “Comiskey had a lot of factors that lead to an (enduring) town, so it was all the more surprising that the town failed. Comiskey had a railroad, livestock, etc., and still (disappeared).” He also discovered the people who care about Comiskey’s story. “We are telling the story of ordinary people from an ordinary town. Not many people would stop and think ‘hey, this is important’. It’s a humbling realization.”
Students also had the opportunity to write a Preliminary Site Information Questionnaire (PSIQ) used to determine whether a property is worthy of the extensive research and documentation required to launch a National or Kansas Register of Historic Places application. Trey Heitschmidt chose a home in Manhattan to research and discovered “a little perseverance (goes) a long way.” To effectively craft her PSIQ, Trey employed multiple research methods – including multiple visits to the Register of Deeds and a visit to the site.
The practice of public history includes writing books and publications, creating documentaries and movies; developing historical interpretation, and any number of modes among the digital humanities available to a wide and diverse audience. Dr. Lynn-Sherow requested her Public History students to identify a Kansas town whose Wikipedia – a popular crowd-sourced free-access online encylopedia – article was sparse. A “Wikipedian” – employed by Wikipedia to maintain content integrity on the site -instructed the class in best practices related to updating the site.
Alex Good chose Kanopolis and was “amazed at how much information exists on Newspapers.com. Even the tiny town of Kanopolis provided a rabbit hole of information dating back to the 1800’s for me to explore.” Not only did Alex learn a great deal about Kanopolis, Kansas, (you can read his town update here, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanopolis,_Kansas), he “learned to not be afraid to jump into something new, even if other people will see. A little time and decent effort…gave me the confidence to learn other practical applications.”
If the experiences of these students are common, than Public History changes more than the perception of the wide “public” audience. The process of researching, evaluating, and communicating changes the history scholars engaged in Public History.