Community Partnerships and the History Harvest – Jim Beatty

Partnering with the History Harvest came at the right time for the Great Plains Black History Museum.  The GPBHM is a unique archive of African American history and experience in Nebraska and across the Great Plains.  The museum was established in 1976 and operated through the mid-1990s.  Unfortunately, the museum and archive closed to the public in the mid-1990s and subsequently underwent more than a decade of turmoil, which kept the museum shuttered and the archival collection neglected.  In 2011, I joined the museum to spearhead a new effort to get the GPBHM back on its feet and returned to its important role in the local community and beyond as a repository of African American experience in this region.  Partnering with the History Harvest offered our organization a unique opportunity to showcase a sampling of the hundreds of wonderful artifacts contained within the more than 200 archival boxes of materials in our collection.  In addition, History Harvest students donated their time to help reorganize, rehabilitate and document some of our archival holdings, a critical need for the GPBHM as we continue to do the hard work of rebuilding the museum and archives.  And it was just a lot of fun working with these young people, seeing first-hand their commitment to African American history in North Omaha, as well as the various ways their engagement with that history impacted them each in very personal ways.  It is a testament to both the power of African American history in North Omaha and the promise of community partnerships, like the History Harvest, in fostering a renewed appreciation for local history and its relationship to the national story of America.

Jim Beatty is Director of the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. The Great Plains Black History Museum is a History Harvest partner, and provided the North Omaha Harvest students with valuable experiences and expertise.


Project Management of a Digital Archive – Svetlana Rasmussen

As project manager for the Nebraska City History Harvest collection in 2012 I negotiated the transfer of artifacts from a community of collectors to a digital exhibit that preserves the collection while presenting it to communities across the nation and around the world. The transfer was a fruitful experience for the community and History Harvest scholars. The project manager must understand and follow the rules for curating digital archive and successfully find a balance between popular visions of history and stories that emerge from the items that have traditionally been obscured.

The History Harvest project broadcasts people’s stories across the nation. As a project manager for the Nebraska City collection responsible for curating the collection on the World Wide Web, I established and maintained clear rules and protocols for preserving and presenting these artifacts and memories. I believe that the successful communication of people’s experience is impossible without clear-cut rules for project managers and scholars to follow. These rules guide the artifact presentation from the digital images’ pixel size to the background story to highlight the oral histories shared at the History Harvest. The rules enable proper handling and preservation of the artifacts from one researcher to the next within one cohort and from generation to generation of students. Finally, the rules make for an easy-to-follow protocol for organizing the History Harvest event that give consistent and helpful guidelines for participants, especially novices. Project managers are critical to creating and adapting the protocols, since they are directly responsible for presenting the harvested material to the public.

Presentation has to conform not just to the rules of historical research, but must also account for the popular images of history projects generated by the small industry of TV shows about buying, selling and appreciating antiques. Without attaching a price tag, the History Harvest scholars have to engage the curiosity of general public by providing the artifact’s authentic background or story. Only substantial and accurate research can build the authority and trust in the project. Further, what engages the public may lead to a larger historical project that would be the subject of research and education for the next generation of students.

One example of a family artifact from the Nebraska City event that caught public interest was a certificate of parole releasing a Union Army prisoner of war with a pledge “not to take up arms again” against the Confederacy. The fact that the young soldier from Iowa broke this pledge, as is certified by other documents from the family collection, including his letter from a battlefield near Atlanta, offers an insight into how he felt about the Civil War. My favorite, though is a photo of Joseph Littlefield next to his “drugstore on wheels” – a traveling Baker’s medicines salesman’s cart. Aged 63 in 1904, Joseph Littlefield could no longer farm to support his increasing family, so he had become a travelling salesman. This photograph, preserved in the family archive, might have been used as a business card that Littlefield gave to regular customers. Only careful research and the existence of other digital projects allowed the manager to establish the most probable reason for taking this picture.

The project manager is a single person who learns the details of all the stories in a given year or event. Their task is to organize and coordinate the team of researchers to make all these fascinating stories available to public through responsible collection and presentation of the past with best organization and curation practices.

Svetlana Rasmussen is a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is the former Project Manager of The History Harvest, and has assisted with the Nebraska City, North Omaha and Lincoln Refugee History Harvests.

The People’s Access to the People’s History – Brandon Locke

One of the strengths of The History Harvest is our practice of making a digital replica of an item or oral history, so contributors do not have to sacrifice possession of their artifacts. This practice is also advantageous in terms of accessibility, as digital items can be duplicated and viewed and used simultaneously by individuals across the world. Open access is also an essential component to the History Harvest’s goals, which include representing the historical experiences of the people of the nation. In this spirit, we cannot lock up these items in elite institutions, but rather strive for access to individuals outside of academe and of all socioeconomic backgrounds. This is especially important in regards to our two most recent events, where we worked with people whose histories are often hidden or invisible, or whose cultural artifacts have been stolen, decontextualized, or manipulated in the past.

It can be very difficult to strike a balance between free and open use and the protection of one’s very personal family and cultural history can be a difficult. Contributors provide all ownership of digital copies to The History Harvest, so it is our duty to try to find a balance that best serves our purposes and those of our generous contributors. With this in mind, we have given a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-SA, meaning that the materials are free to share and remix, on the condition that attribution is given, the items are not used for commercial purposes, and derivative works are distributed with the same open license. Although we can give items more restrictive licenses when needed, the Creative Commons license ensures that the materials can be freely utilized for further scholarly inquiry and collections. At the same time, the Noncommercial and Share Alike conditions prevent others from taking advantage of these materials and placing important histories behind paywalls or otherwise profiting from them.

The members of the communities we have worked with have provided a great service to our archive and our students, and we must make a concerted effort to give back to these individuals and organizations. It is important that members of the community have access to these histories, and are aware of the archive’s existence. The archive is open and free online, built upon the open source Omeka platform, and is deliberately designed to be simple and easy to use. However, open licenses and simple UI can only take the access so far; we must take steps to bridge the digital divide in these communities with socioeconomic and language barriers. Next week, History Harvest students will be going back to the Lincoln, NE refugee community for a brief presentation and discussion with some of the participants. We have also had some great local press, and hope for continued media coverage in the future. I hope to develop a relationship with local public libraries and community centers to try to close the digital divide as best we can, and ensure that people in these communities have access to their histories.

Brandon Locke is a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is Project Manager of The History Harvest, and has assisted with the North Omaha and Lincoln Refugee History Harvests.

How do we talk about digitizing, curating, and managing community history? – Leslie C. Working

How do we digitize, curate, and manage community history? As important a question as this is, encompassing technology, stability, pedagogy, institutional priorities, and numerous other considerations, it leads to questions that may be even more important in the context of interacting with community participants – How do we talk about the ways we are digitizing, curating, and managing community history? What does a digital record mean for individuals without access to, or familiarity with, technology?

Students preparing for a History Harvest event must be ready to explain the processes taking place to participants who may live well on the other side of a digital divide.  From the earliest planning stages of HH, we expected to encounter this divide and those of us doing interviews brainstormed ways to explain the techniques and technology of digitization without jargon or condescension.  The importance of this preparation became clear during from the beginning of the program, as many of the individuals we had the opportunity to interact with at the first two HH events either had no computer or used computers primarily for email – the idea that we would be “digitizing” their object/their stories encapsulated a number of processes with which they had little to no familiarity. In these interviews, it was as important to be able to explain what we were doing with their history and where it would “live” as it was to capture an image or a video.  It became clear in these interviews that participants would most likely never access their own digital record – they planned to tell family and community members, but were not planning to change their own relationships with technology as a result of the event.

Community participants’ willingness to share their stories, their objects, and their images in digital formats they themselves will likely not access is, for me, an important marker of the History Harvest. The desire to preserve and share individual and community histories in one of the most visible modern spaces, the internet, has moved people to participate in the History Harvest in spite of, not because of, the place of technology in their lives. Whether they are contributing to an event in this format because HH is the first time their individual histories have been taken into consideration, or if they are doing it with an eye to the future and preservation, they are sharing pieces of their lives with strangers wielding unfamiliar tools. When those of us whose professional and personal lives are firmly embedded in technology talk about honoring and respecting community participants who are sharing their history, we also need to remember they are trusting us with its future in ways they may not understand, but they do value.

Leslie C. Working is a PhD Candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has been a part of the project since the start, and has helped with the Railroads and Nebraska City History Harvests.

Student Perspectives – Kelsey Jistel

Being a History Harvest Scholar was the highlight of my undergraduate education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, an excellent and innovative learning opportunity for everyone involved.  For me, the History Harvest project really culminated my History major well.  It was an opportunity to work alongside other History students who shared my interest and passion in the subject, as well as a chance to work on a project that would produce long lasting effects. In working with the North Omaha community, many of us only knew the community from the stories we had heard or seen on the news, but the History Harvest made us dig deeper and see beyond the surface to discover a community with a rich, and often hidden, history. The History Harvest project became so much more than knowing names and dates. The project allowed us to actively engage in history and interact with participants in that history in an atmosphere that a classroom could never replicate. Our work in North Omaha highlighted the way a project like the History Harvest could support the local community and help people see that history matters, that it is relevant and that everyone has a story to share.

During the event, I particularly enjoyed chatting with the people as they shared their stories about the objects they brought in that day. We could tell the participants were excited, and several grateful, that we were doing the project. We also encountered shyness, or reticence, in several of the participants who thought that maybe their objects were not significant enough to be digitized and included in the project. We were able to let those people know that the objects that defined their lives were important and that their stories did matter and were worth being collected and shared.

With the History Harvest project, we also worked with the Great Plains Black History Museum, a museum attempting to reinvent itself after years of neglect. Seeing the damage and neglect that the building and artifacts had endured was upsetting and it became clear that the museum needed some help and that we could make a small contribution by lending a hand.  In the process, we discovered many new artifacts and learned some basic archiving skills.

It was also during this project that I realized my love for public history. I am currently finishing my first year as a museum studies graduate student at the University of Kansas. In the future I hope to continue working on projects that help to preserve local histories. The History Harvest project made me aware of the importance of working with community members and their involvement in preserving their own history. People often wonder why we study history but making connections between people, places and objects is such a vital part of what makes us who were are.

Kelsey Jistel was an undergraduate student in the North Omaha History Harvest course held at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the Fall 2011 semester.

Student Perspectives – Robert Perry

I am a non-traditional undergraduate at UNL with a major in History and two minors in Ethnic Studies & Communication Studies.  As a junior, I was one of the original eight (8) advanced undergraduate History majors who enrolled in the History Harvest class in the fall of 2011, which focused on African American history in North Omaha.  I enjoyed the eye opening experience tremendously, so decided to enroll again for the fall 2012 History Harvest, which focused on the Lincoln refugee community.  In both History Harvest classes, students worked as a team, along with Dr. Jones and members of the local community, to organize, promote and execute the History Harvest.  We also conducted oral history interviews with community members and processed materials for the web-archive.

I saw this opportunity as a critical part of my ongoing development as a History major.  One of the reasons I wanted to be involved with this class was because it gave me that more hands-on experience doing history that I needed.  In turn, this direct involvement with historical work led me to new insights and a new depth in my evolving understanding of history and how you do it.  These projects provided me the experience of working directly with artifacts, conducting original interviews, and, overall, allowed me to better understand race relations and the experience of African Americans in Nebraska.  Each History Harvest class reaffirmed for me that our shared history is all around us, but is often hidden, or badly in need of collection and preservation.  My involvement also brought home to me the power of history to alter the way we see and understand our world, and in the process, better understand the diverse experiences of different people.  Overall, the History Harvest has helped me sharpen my professional goals as a historian and archivist and has made me all the more excited to continue down that path.

 I have seen the transformative power of this project and this history in both classes.  We saw first-hand the way the projects brought young historians together in a unique alliance between disparate groups, like UNL, the Great Plains Black History Museum, the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation and Birthsite, Love’s Jazz and Arts Center, The Center for People in Need, Division of Children and Family Services, Author, Mary Pipher, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, Good Neighbor Community Center, African Multicultural Center,  Nebraska Entertainment Television and others.  I have been told countless times by community members how important this work is and how excited they are about the project.  I was able to understand the way that history can be a part of the broader revitalization plans in North Omaha and how it might play a role in helping the established community in Lincoln, Nebraska, better understand the histories and cultures of new refugees.  And I think the History Harvest provides a great example of the way innovative new teaching approaches can help build bridges between what we do on campus and what is happening in communities across our state, and nation.  In this way, my participation in the History Harvest project gave me a new appreciation for the power of history to connect people and develop community. 

In addition, despite being an African American man in my late-40s, the North Omaha History Harvest was my first significant encounter with African American history in a direct, hands-on manner, and it made quite an impact on me.  As a military kid and later a serviceman myself, I moved around a lot growing up and into adulthood.  I never lived in a black community and my experience in the military did not reflect the complexities of race in civilian life.  Helping to capture, preserve and share this important local African American history was tremendously empowering and stirring.  Not only did this history fill in important silences in my mind, but also helped me better make sense of my own experience and my place in the broader society. It cast traditional narratives of American history in a crucial new light by bringing black voices into the mix.  In the end, my experience in the History Harvest clarified my continuing interest in history, material culture and African American experience.  Recently I was accepted to graduate school to continue this journey!

Robert Perry was an undergraduate student in the North Omaha (Fall 2011) and Lincoln Refugee (Fall 2012) History Harvest courses at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Student Perspectives – Jennifer Kroft

So many times school seems like an endless road of reading assignments, papers, and test which add up to a degree but leave a student feeling unengaged in the learning process. Will the paper written today or last semester amount to a hill of beans once the ink has dried on the diploma? In most cases no. This is where the History Harvest as a class and experience breaks out of that tired mold and gives the student a chance to engage history in a personal and profound way. The discoveries we made during the History Harvest left a lasting legacy of new historical artifacts that will be useful to everyone in the community, instead of just the lone student working toward their individual educational goals.

At its core, History Harvest is historical inquiry combined with community service. It allows history students the rare opportunity to use their growing skills and passion for the discipline to engage with a local community and help them tell their own story through objects and memories. This process empowers community members, but also the students involved, by giving them a chance to create a space where history is a dynamic and relevant process and not just a fading keepsake, or distant memory.

The History Harvest project, then, enables students to use their historical knowledge in a new way and to give back to the community. In my personal experience, it was the moment where I was able to actually hear history through my engagement with these objects, as well as directly from those who lived it, and that is what mattered most to me. It was humbling to have a participant entrust their story, or their objects, to us. That, in turn, made the work of curating and interpreting those materials far more interesting and important than merely writing a paper that only my professor would read. In the History Harvest, then, history came alive for me in a new way and gave us the chance to leave a lasting legacy from our work through the web-archive we helped build. BEWARE, though, the nature of this type of scholarship is extremely addicting and might just change your life in a way that few classes ever do.

Jennifer Kroft was an undergraduate student in the North Omaha History Harvest course held at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the Fall 2011 semester.