Engaging with Communities and their Histories – Michelle Tiedje

It’s hard to believe nearly three full years have passed since the first History Harvest. Held in May 2010, the first History Harvest was a partnership between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln History Department and NET Television that focused on railroad history. I recall working closely with Professor Will ThomasLeslie Working, and Rob Voss to try to prepare as best we could for the unexpected. Although we spent months planning, coordinating, advertising, acquiring equipment, and organizing we were uncertain exactly how many people would show up, what they would bring, what their stories would be like, and what they would be willing to let us do with what they brought. We encouraged people to sign up or “register” for the Harvest ahead of time via either a web form or a toll-free number, which we thought would reach out to those both with and without internet access and allow us to manage time more efficiently the day of the event. Ultimately, though, the History Harvest was much more spontaneous than we initially imagined it.

People who had not registered dropped by and appointments were moved around. Some reported planning to attend for weeks while others said they only learned about the History Harvest while driving by the NET studio or listening to the radio. People came alone, as couples, and with their families. A group of older men with deep knowledge of and pride in the local railroad systems came. Most people brought items with them but others just wanted to look around. We welcomed everyone warmly and did our best to answer questions about how the History Harvest compared to the Antiques Roadshow (the most frequent question that day), explain what we hoped to achieve with the event, alleviate any concerns about how we would treat their precious artifacts, and guide them through each step of the sharing and digitizing process. In the end everyone had a story to tell.

My strongest memories of the first History Harvest involve watching the people grow more comfortable and slowly transition from people simply waiting their turn to members of a community. After observing the process for a few minutes participants usually began to move around, ask others about their items, and open up and make connections with strangers over their mutual interest in railroad history. Some initially hesitated to share their stories with interviewers, insisting that their artifacts – their histories – could not possibly be important. Friendliness, enthusiasm, respect, and a little time was usually all it took to draw folks out. Few people resisted the idea of digitization once we explained our intentions and showed them through conversation how much we valued their stories and their work to preserve the past.

In October 2011 I also participated in the North Omaha History Harvest. By then undergraduate leadership was incorporated into the project and some aspects of the interview and digitization process had changed, but many of the patterns of interaction from the first History Harvest remained. A few participants were reticent to open up and share but most were pleased to learn how much they had in common with others in the community, see how their histories connected to broader stories, and seemed to genuinely enjoy talking history with one another. I hope future History Harvests, here in Nebraska and across the nation, are attentive to the lessons these early experiments in public engagement offer and continue to emphasize an approach that puts the needs and desires of the community at the fore of the project.

Michelle Tiedje is a PhD Candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She assisted with the North Omaha and Railroads History Harvests.

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