Public Historian: Facilitator of Knowledge

Happy New Year my loyal reader(s?)!

It’s hard to believe that January is almost over.  My fellow public historians and I are well into the next term of our degree, which brings with it new classes, projects and experiences.  As our Digital History class is now over, my blog is no longer a course requirement.  I do hope to keep blogging, although I suspect my entries will be more irregular and infrequent than last term.

Today, I will tell you about my unexpected “A-HA” moment in my public history class yesterday.  We were learning about oral history and the seminar was lead, via video conference, by Dr. Steven High, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Public History at Concordia University.

As you can tell from some of my previous blog posts, I am struggling to fully understand and articulate what it means to be a Public Historian.  It’s a broad field with many different interpretations and definitions out there.  When explaining Public History to someone, I generally say that my degree is preparing me to interpret and present history to the public.  Yesterday, however,  Dr. High presented me with a definition that I would like to adopt, both in semantics and practice.

Dr. High has done fabulous work using oral history as a historical method.  He is currently involved in the “Life Stories” project, which is a huge oral history project to document the experiences of Montreal residents from Rwanda, Haiti, Cambodia, and Nazi Europe, who fled their homelands to escape violence and persecution.  I am still exploring the project (which I encourage you to do, as well), but it is extremely impressive and moving.  The research and interview process Dr. High described was highly collaborative and reflective, with the interviewees having a much larger role in the process than typical oral interviews.

Thus, for Dr. High, Public History isn’t history for the public.  It is history with the public.  It is learning with people and not just learning about people.

Sometimes I feel that I struggle with my field because I am so often overwhelmed and humbled by it.  Who am I to try to understand the effects of the Holocaust on its survivors or the experiences of Aboriginal children in residential schools? What qualifies me to interpret these events for other people? I will admit that these reservations have sometimes deterred me from working on such topics.  Ironically, these histories – ones that continue to impact our society and shape our relationships –  are most important to me.  History has a wonderful power to educate people, to make them think and feel and to create dialogue between different groups.

Thinking of Public History as history with the public and my role as more of a “facilitator of knowledge” than a historian has inspired me.  With this mindset, I’m encouraged to get even more involved with the public and to produce truly valuable work.


Any mummers ‘lowed in?!

As I sit in my sister’s house in St. John’s, Newfoundland, looking out at a raging rain and wind storm, I’m itching for a bit of Christmas spirit. I’ve spent the morning looking through old Christmas commercials and letters to Santa on the web (in between checking the forecast to make sure Rudolph can land the sleigh through this rain and fog on Friday night) and I thought it might be nice to write about a Newfoundland Christmas tradition.  And, of course, what would a Newfoundland Christmas be without Mummers?

Mummering originated in England and Ireland and was brought to Newfoundland by British colonists. Beginning in the early 1800s, mummering was a common practice in Newfoundland’s fishing villages (called outports).  During Christmas (from Dec. 25 to Old Christmas Day on Jan. 6), people would dress up in all kinds of old clothes  and costumes to conceal their identity and then visit different friends and family in the community.  Mummers would knock on the door and announce their arrival by yelling “Any mummers allowed in?” Once invited in, Mummers would sing, play instruments and dance, while the homeowners tried to guess their identity.  Once their identities were revealed, the mummers would remove their masks or veils and all would sit down for another drink before the mummers carried on to the next house.

Unfortunately, mummering started to decline towards the end of the 19th century, for a few reasons.  A few criminal incidents involving mummers lead to restrictions placed on mummering in 1862. Changes in economic and social structures in rural Newfoundland, as people relocated from small outports to larger centres, also contributed to the decline of mummering.

Growing up in St. John’s, I have never actually participated in any “true” form of mummering, yet it is somehow an important part of Christmas.  Apparently, we have been in a mummer revival period since about the 1960s and this seems to be gaining strength, as evidenced by a new mummers parade in St. John’s and the fact that my sister keeps bugging me to dress up as a mummer.  I was the lead mummer in my Grade 3 Christmas play, so perhaps I can channel my inner mummer and grant my sister her Christmas wish.

I will leave you with my favourite Newfoundland Christmas song by Simani, as well as the lyrics (just in case)!


Don’t seem like Christmas if the Mummers are not here,
Granny would say as she’d knit in her chair;
Things have gone modern and I s’pose that’s the cause,
Christmas is not like it was.

(Knock, knock, knock, knock) “Any mummers ‘lowed in?”

Hark, what’s the noise out by the porch door?
Granny, ’tis mummers, there’s twenty or more.
Her old weathered face brightens up with a grin,
Any Mummers, nice Mummers ‘lowed in?

Come in, lovely Mummers, don’t bother the snow,
We can wipe up the water sure after you go;
Sit if you can or on some Mummer’s knee,
Lets see if we know who ya be.

There’s big ones ‘n’ small ones ‘n’ tall ones ‘n’ thin,
Boys dressed as women and girls dressed as men;
Humps on their backs an’ mitts on their feet,
My blessed, we’ll die with the heat.

There’s only one there that I think that I know,
That tall feller standing o’er long side the stove;
He’s shakin’ his fist for to make me not tell,
Must be Willy from out on the hill.

Now that one’s a stranger if there ever was one,
With his underwear stuffed and his trap door undone;
Is he wearin’ his mother’s big forty-two bra?
I knows but I’m not gonna say.

Don’t s’pose you fine Mummers would turn down a drop,
No home brew or alchy, whatever you got;
Not the one with his rubber boots on the wrong feet,
He’s enough for to do him a week.

S’pose you can dance? Yes, they all nod their heads,
They’ve been tappin’ their feet ever since they came in;
Now that the drinks have been all passed around,
The Mummers are plankin’ her down.

Be careful the lamp and hold onto the stove,
Don’t swing Granny hard ’cause you know that she’s old;
No need for to care how you buckles the floor,
‘Cause Mummers have danced here before.

My God, how hot is it, we better go,
I ‘low we’ll all get the devil’s own cold;
Good night and good Christmas, Mummers, me dears,
Please God, we will see you next year.

Good night and good Christmas, Mummers, me dears,
Please God, we will see you next year.

Housekeeping Items: Qiqqa and Wikipedia

Sunday is a day for housekeeping.  The dishes are done, the laundry is in, the floors are washed and dinner is in the oven.  So, I thought it would be appropriate to update you on two of my ongoing digital history experiments.  (Totally just kidding about the housework – none of that is done.  I’m a grad student and it’s the end of the term – my only domestic responsibility is to make sure I have enough coffee in the house.  It makes a good metaphor, though).


The first experiment, which I blogged about earlier in the year, is with the document manager Qiqqa.  I have been using Qiqqa for a few months now and, like a fine wine, it only gets better with age.  The more documents I add to my Qiqqa library, the more useful and powerful it becomes.  The tagging feature was particularly helpful for my current Archives essay – I was able to filter my library by the relevant tags (being “archives” and “public history”), run an annotation report that revealed the notes I had made on those articles and was essentially presented with the framework for my essay.  Also, being able to search the text of an article (or my entire library, for that matter) is invaluable when looking for that specific quote or passage you saw somewhere, but can’t quite remember where. Basically, if you make detailed notes and use the tagging feature effectively, then Qiqqa will ensure an excellent return on your (non-monetary) investment.

Qiqqa has made a few updates since I last blogged about my experience, including my recommendation of lightening the colour of the annotations (which I have so modestly circled in red in the image).  Also, you can now share your documents with friends and colleagues by inviting them to join your web library (which is synced up to your computer).  I suspect they will be doing more with this feature in the months ahead to further facilitate collaboration. There has already been a December release, so clearly the people at Qiqqa are always responsive to feedback and are working hard to develop their product.


My other ongoing digital history experiment is with Wikipedia.  I mentioned in a previous post, my first attempt to edit an entry, which edit only lasted 8 hours.  I decided that my edit (to do with the Famous Five monument in Ottawa) was more appropriate in a different article (and one less high profile than the one on Parliament Hill).  I took the same sentence I tried to add to the Parliament Hill article and added it to the article called The Famous Five.  Once my edit made it past the 8 hour mark, I felt like I was making some progress.  I then tested the waters some more by adding another sentence, to the end of an existing paragraph, that read: “The controversy surrounding the women has made commemoration difficult.” I then moved the existing paragraph on commemoration to follow this paragraph, having my new sentence act as a transition sentence of sorts.

Although these are minor edits, they did take some of my time.  I have more changes and additions I would like to make to this article, but my initial experience with the Parliament Hill article has made me hesitant to invest too much of my time in the event that my work is reverted and declared “unneeded.” I definitely have a new appreciation for the Wikipedia process and for those who dedicate their time to creating, revising and editing articles. It actually amazes me that there are so many people who invest this kind of time in a project that isn’t much of a benefit to them individually.  I am inclined to agree with Clay Shirky that people who contribute to Wikipedia do so in the spirit of the common good and out of love.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

Well, here I am again, blogging when I really should be working on some of my other assignments.  I decided to work at home today and, as I gaze out the window watching our first real snow fall, I am inspired. Not to work on my Archives essay, unfortunately, but to share with you my favorite archival document.

On September 21, 1897, an 8 year old named Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the New York Sun. As 8 year old girls often do, Virginia began to wonder about Santa Claus and, upon discussing her concerns with her father, he advised her to write a letter to The Sun saying “If you see it in The Sun it’s so.”

So, Virginia wrote a letter to The Sun asking if Santa Claus really existed.  Francis Pharcellus Church was the editor who received Virginia’s letter and his response is simply one of the loveliest pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered.  The letter needs no summary or analysis, and, even if you’ve heard this 1000 times in your liefe, I encourage you to read the original letter.  I found a digital copy on Newseum, a site I haven’t encountered before, but look forward to exploring.

My new favorite blog, Letters of Note, featured this letter in a post last year.  The post mentions that Virginia’s original letter appeared on an episode of Antiques Roadshow, where it was valued at $20,000 – $30,000. You can watch the valuation from the Letters of Note post.

What is Movember?

Well, at least I know I have my priorities straight.  Here it is, 10:00pm on Tuesday night.  I still have to finish my readings for Digital History tomorrow, practice my presentation for the heritage designation meeting tomorrow night, not to mention start chipping away at all of the other assignments and projects that are due in the next few weeks.  However, the most pressing deadline is my Movember submission for Craig.  With just 2 hours left in the month-long campaign to raise awareness for prostate cancer, I figured I better get my post up before the pages on the calender turn…

My Movember submission is dedicated to a true Canadian icon. Mr. George Alexander Trebek.

We all know Alex as the sometimes pretentious, often good-natured host of Jeopardy.  I recently wondered what qualified Alex Trebek to stand in front of three intelligent contestants and mock their incorrect answers, and, in looking at his Wikipedia entry, discovered that he isn’t a Rhodes scholar, Harvard grad or calculated genius.  He graduated from the University of Ottawa with a philosophy degree and then began a career in broadcasting with CBC.  However, for me, this information didn’t detract from Alex’s image or persona and I secretly aspire to earn his respect in a round of final jeopardy.

Alex Trebek sported his iconic mustache for 30 years, until he shaved it off in 2001. My research did not reveal a conclusive reason to explain why Alex made the change, but I can say that many websites, forums and blogs have been dedicated to the topic.

Thus, in honour of one of our country’s greatest mustaches and in in tribute to the man who so sagely sported it for 30 years, I leave you with this classic Alex Trebek moment.

(Fuzzy) Moments of Inspiration

Last week, we were encouraged to reflect on how we became interested in history.  I’m a bit late with my post, mainly because I felt I didn’t have a particularly interesting or specific story like some of my classmates.

My history career begins with a very vague childhood memory of my Dad taking me to a museum in St. John’s.  It’s one of those memories where you aren’t even sure that it happened or if it was something you dreamed or made up (and I suspect my Dad will be unable to confirm that this occurred, as if it did it was probably just another way to keep me out of the house while my mom rested after working the night shift as a nurse).

In any event, this really is a terrible story, because I don’t remember exactly where we went or what we saw.  I do, however, remember feeling completely fascinated by the objects and thinking that wherever we were, it was very special and cool.

Fast forward to high school, where my memory is a little better (but not much).  I had a boring and grumpy history teacher and I don’t remember the class being particularly interesting to me.  I do, however, have a very clear memory of studying for an exam (or, to be more accurate, cramming for an exam).  I remember sitting on the floor in my basement with all of my notes and text books spread out around me.  As I finally sat down to learn the material, I became totally captivated and interested all of a sudden.  It is here that I would have to add a vote for the Seven Years War to Prof. MacDougall’s tally.  I remember actually processing the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, imagining what it looked like and understanding what it meant for Canada.  My Dad makes another appearance in this memory, as I recall running up the stairs, excited by what I was learning and eager to share it with him.

Lucky for me, my history memories are not restricted to these two moments and I’m continually adding to the collection.  Many more occurred while I was traveling throughout Europe a few years ago and many are being created as I complete this degree.  I guess that’s how you know if you are in the right field – you keep having  these moments of inspiration.

Trying to be “A” Something

The topic of history and education is a hot one in my class right now.  After last week’s readings, many of my classmate’s blogs were dedicated to exploring some of the questions that remained unanswered (to read some of these great posts and conversations, click on just about any link in my blogroll to the right).

The main question our professor challenged us to answer was “why teach history?” Of course, this is a difficult question to answer (it wouldn’t be grad school if we were given easy questions)!

It is difficult to provide an articulate and tangible response to this question.  I remember when I was choosing my high-school classes, I felt pressured to take math and science classes, because they were the most “useful” and “important prerequisites for university.” There was so much emphasis on taking these courses, that I ended up dropping French in grade 11 and taking two Science courses instead (a decision I very much regret now).

Even though I knew that I likely wouldn’t be pursuing a science or math degree, I was convinced that I needed the courses because the teachers had a much better answer for the “why teach (or take) this course” question. I needed science if I wanted to be A doctor; I needed math if I wanted to be AN engineer. These courses had much more tangible applications than history.

With a history degree, it is much more difficult to be A something.  Even after this degree, I will never be A something, and my profession will always be defined by my current job title (assuming I get one!).  Although it can be scary not knowing exactly what kind of career I will have (and makes for painful conversations when I’m trying to explain my degree to people), it is also exciting and I like that I won’t necessarily be limited to one type of job.

Unfortunately, the structure of our education system (starting in high-school and continuing throughout university) is designed to make you into A something.  Starting when you are about 14 (depending on what province/country you are in), you essentially start a 10 year education plan, as you select your courses, making sure they will eventually form the correct path of prerequisites. To make sure we all stay on track and up to snuff, we are given standardized tests. This environment is problematic enough for those who know they want to attend university.  Those who don’t plan on going to university spend most of their time in high-school trying to fit into this mould and then feeling bad about themselves (and acting out) when they can’t find their place.

Ideally, it would be nice if our education had less structure.  By university, there is very little room for courses outside your department (unless you count that mandatory math class that you have to take, to which I say, stop it with the math already – after this class I will be using this new device called a calculator and I will never need to know how to derive the quadratic equation).  As much as I love history, there are so many other subjects I would like to study, which I simply can’t do during my degree.  Perhaps the web will address this issue.  I know there are many resources on the web for education – you can access course outlines, lectures from renowned universities and read textbooks online.  All of this makes education more affordable and more accessible.  However, it takes a fair amount of discipline to rid yourself of traditional systems of education (teachers, classrooms, assignments) and learn how to learn by yourself.  I don’t think the web will entirely replace traditional education, but it would be nice if we could use it to address some of the problems in our current educational systems.

I started this blog intending to explore the “why teach history?” question, but it seems that, in doing so, I was sidetracked by trying to understand how we got to a place and time where we are having to answer this question and essentially justify the teaching of history.  I will continue to contemplate the “why teach history” question and report back if I find any answers.