What would you want out of a History & the Web conference?

There have been conversations lately–on Twitter, via email, and in the comments on a previous post here–about the possibilities of using the popular Museums and the Web conference as a model for something like a History & the Web conference. The concept would be to connect organizations with historical collections and the people who use them to make the web a better place for studying and expanding our knowledge about history. Possible participants and stakeholders could include:

  • organizations like archives, museums, special collections, historical societies, and libraries who have historical collections and build tools to access them, and the people who work in such organizations
  • scholars and researchers who have used materials available on the web in innovative ways or who have built their own tools to promote access to historical collections
  • scholars and researchers who study how historical materials are used
  • educators at all levels who use historical materials available on the Web in their teaching
  • people or organizations from other fields who have projects that can be used as models for the history community (such as the citizen science efforts)
  • students and educators in archival science, library science, museum studies, public history, and history who are studying the use of the web for the study of history

One question that being asked is what would people most like to get out of a conference like this? Do you want typical conference presentations, un-conferencey sessions or both? Do you want sessions that teach you technical skills, such as learning how to use something like Omeka? What would attract you to attend? What would convince your organization to fund you to attend? Do you think something like this is needed? I’ve toyed with the idea of trying to plan a scaled-down version of something similar, but just for archives and try to hold it prior to the SAA annual meeting. Sort of a one-day Archives & the Web conference, but the logistics of that are complicated. And, of course, part of the value of the larger conference would be gathering together people from different disciplines with different perspectives, so a narrower version would be, well, narrower.

Right now, everything is at the initial talking stage among a few people, but the hope is that if we can get some of our professional organizations interested (such as SAA, AASLH, NCPH, for example) that this may be something that could actually get off the ground. But since we’re still in the talking stages, now is the time to talk. You’ve been to a lot of conferences, so you know what works and what doesn’t. Do you want to see a new conference like this (competing for your travel dollars with the existing ones)? If so, what do you want to see included? What would you want from History & the Web?


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18 thoughts on “What would you want out of a History & the Web conference?”

  1. I would definitely prefer a focus on unconference sessions as well as focus on developing technical skills (I, for one, would attend a session on OMEKA). I am very tired of the typical 3 speaker session–I want interactivity, I want connection-making, I want sharing of a wide range of experiences.

  2. One question I have about this – as much as I do like it – is why there is a sense that this can’t happen within the existing Museums and the Web conferences, or within the Museum Computer Network.

    Historically there has been a predominance of art/science museums in these venues, but there has always been a place for history/libraries/archives as well. (this is my sense from my stint as MCN Membership chair*; – @museweb might have a better handle on MW attendance stats) A few years ago MCN had some preliminary brainstorming about how MCN might hold joint conferences and/or broaden the diversity of members from historical organizations though outreach to AASLH, etc. So I think there would be interest from their side. (see http://www.mcn.edu/board for contact info).

    I point this out not to suggest that’s what should happen, but to affirm the question of whether it would be better to work within existing organizations/conferences rather than starting something new. Do you have a sense of why this should be separate? (is this a cost question?)

    Having trotted that out, I really do think there is a need for a conference with the esprit of MCN/MW, but with an emphasis on historical repositories and uses. I think a conference organized outside of these existing organizations could make the same kind of contribution.

    One thing before I go:

    Museums and the Web has become the go-to place for resources about technology in museum settings for a few reasons. They require peer-reviewed papers and make those papers openly available. This not only creates an ongoing record of the state of practice, but also offers a venue that attracts those of us with an academic interest. I think the ongoing and long-term value of this central body of work is important to consider. However, I think MW has also done a good job of finding balance by creating a place for demos and “unconference” sessions outside of a formal agenda. I think starting this conversation thinking about that balance would be better than saying it has to be one thing or the other.

    *disclaimer: I was previously an MCN Board Member, the opinions above are my own.

  3. I’m glad to see this conversation taking place, and as chair of the Digital Media Group for the National Council on Public History, I’d love to find a way for NCPH to be integrally involved in whatever emerges from the discussions.

    That said, I’m a big fan of building on existing structures and conferences rather than initiating new ones, particularly at a time when most people in our fields are already strapped for time and funding for attending f2f conferences. NCPH has been wrestling with this, as all groups are – how can we have an active national and international presence, including hosting vibrant f2f conferences and digital spaces, while maintaining our core mission and not over-taxing our very small staff and the system of volunteer time that we rely on? I’m leery of anything that looks like creating another whole conference structure at this point, given that there are already a number of good networks (MW, MCN, CHNM, NCPH, others) working this ground.

    I wonder whether some kind of portable add-on, like THATCamp, would be the solution here. It provides some identity and organizational structure that can be plugged into an existing conference but can also function as a network in and of itself. Maybe a “THATCamp History” brand would serve the various purposes in the list above?

    In any case, I’ll look forward to seeing where this leads.

  4. Thanks, Tanya and Richard. My concern about having an event that’s too unconference-y is just about people getting funded to go. If you’re not presenting a “paper” is it harder to make the case for funding? I don’t know. But certainly that’s a format that has great value for information sharing and collaboration. I think for me something that has a mix of both would work best.

    And, Richard I agree with your point about the value of having an event like this contribute a central body of work, which is somewhat at odds with the unconference spirit. As above, it’s all a question of how to balance the event so that it ideally can do as good a job as possible at doing both. And, of course, if it catches on and continues from year to year, it can continue to improve.

  5. Cathy,

    Great! The group that has started talking about this (which started on Twitter) had NCPH firmly in mind as a possible partner/sponsor, along with the other groups people have mentioned. I like your idea of having it as a possible add-on for any organization who wants to be part of the network. It builds on the natural audience of people already attending the meeting and makes it easier for “local” people to attend as well. For example, in 2012 the Society of American Archivists is meeting in San Diego, AASLH is in Salt Lake City, NCPH is in Milwaukee, MCN is in Seattle, and AHA is in Chicago so there is a possibility of a History & the Web meeting at any of the those venues. (Interesting to note that the neglect of the East Coast in 2012!) I wonder also if something another possible partner could be ALA or at least the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of ACRL.

    I’ve also heard from people at AASLH that they want to involved as well, so it looks like this idea has some real traction!

  6. Richard,
    You make some good points here and I agree with you that using existing conferences and organizations is a good place to start.

    As a result of this conversation that began on Twitter last week, a few of us have put together a roundtable proposal for MCN in November to discuss the state of the history museum web and the different challenges faced by historical organizations in the online/digital realm.

    At the risk of sounding too defensive, I do want to note that we at CHNM have been attending small, regional, national LAM conferences and giving digital tool workshops and have been talking about the problems of doing history online for a number of years. (And actually our proposal to give an Omeka workshop at SAA when it was held in DC last year was rejected.) Luckily, we are not the only ones doing digital public history and there are many more public historians talking about tools and sharing their digital projects and lessons learned at conferences like the National Council on Public History and MCN. I’ve been pleased to see this community grow.

    I do think that a distributed model for addressing these important issues within existing meetings might be a better approach rather than starting a new conference, at least for now.

    So, I would like to be interested in seeing others participate and organize these types

  7. I’m really encouraged to see the responses here on this idea, because I think that they represent some consensus that we need to find spaces to talk concretely about digital history work. I love MW and MCN, but sometimes the disciplinary perspectives of historians get lost in the sea of art museum and science center staff. History is different in its attention to context, narrative, and core inquiry questions. As a result, our digital needs and projects are different than those of other cultural institutions.

    In previous discussions of this topic I have voiced the opinion that we didn’t need another conference for people to “broadcast” their work. And perhaps that opinion was misinterpreted as me suggesting that we didn’t need a space for people share the digital projects that they are undertaking in their institutions. That wasn’t my point at all. Really what I meant was, like Tanya, I don’t think that we need a lot of the traditional scholarly organization mode of panels with a chair, comment, and three people blandly reading papers.

    I do believe that the active spirit and approach of NCPH and AASLH are a good match for the need here. The work that happens at NCPH and AASLH is not at all in that nap-inducing frame. Rather, the sessions tend toward active consideration of case studies, lessons learn, and future challenges of real work in public history. I believe that this approach presents promising venues and models for an increased attention to digital history.

    So, in that light, I would like to see the existing organizations agree to label a set of sessions in a “Digital History” track at their annual conferences. These sessions could be targeted at offering case studies on existing projects, working groups on methodological approaches, and roundtables on larger questions. This would provide us an opportunity to concentrate and amplify the individual sessions that we have all been participating in for the last ten years. In conjunction with groups like the Digital Media Group at NCPH, we could do concentrated outreach to the constituents that Kate named above. Finally, we could create an open online presence to aggregate the materials generated across these many venues.

    And, lastly, a word about THATCamp. I love unconferences, and I’m sure that THATCamp has a place here (and the Bootcamp sessions that sometimes accompany it as well), but I think that the just-in-time planning of the schedule and sessions might mean that it wouldn’t make a great lead event for the things we’re thinking about. But, together a clearly labeled digital track and an associated THATCamp might be a really powerful combination.

  8. Thanks, Kate, for initiating the idea for a digital history gathering. I attended a THAT Camp and found the participant demographics and topics discussed to be along the lines if what you’re envisioning. (Thanks to the CHNM folks for supporting the regional THAT Camps.) The unconference format does, I think, exacerbate the tendency of a few individuals to dominate discussion so combining the event with more formal sessions might help prevent that. It would be great to have a fairly balanced representation of librarians, archivists, museum professionals, and scholars. There a lot of discussion about LAMs (libraries, archives, museums) converging, but in practice we don’t seem to talk to or work with each other much (outside of Twitter). So tagging on to NCPH, AASLH, OAH or some other already scheduled conference makes good sense and might help us reach across those disciplinary boundaries. Let me know if I can be of any help!

  9. This is a marvelous discussion–thanks, Kate, for reaching out to get more input. Paige makes a great point, that these various constituent groups don’t actually seem to work together and learn from each other too much despite a well-articulated desire to do so. A History & the Web event is a great opportunity to do just that.

    In our previous conversations I’ve supported the idea of a standalone conference, and that’s primarily because I suspected that a dedicated standalone event is most likely to attract the widest representation of participants and stakeholders. There are many positives about attaching a History & the Web event to an existing conference, as others have pointed out above–my only real worry about doing so is that it may unintentionally limit the breadth of participation. Will my museum support my attendance at a digital history add-on to the SAA conference (if I’m not an archivist)? Will my library support my presence at a digital history add-on to the NCPH conference (if I’m not seen as doing public history)?

    That being said, I do believe that it certainly IS very possible to make the case for attendance by a wider constiuency even if the event is an add-on to a focused conference. This just points to a kind of marketing challenge: the need to make it clear that such a special add-on event is intended for all those stakeholders and not just for the “regular” attendees of the conference to which it might be attached.

    The question is: how best to get the widest participation? That, for me, is the ideal purpose of an event like this. I can learn about digital projects in my own field pretty easily at my field’s conferences–how can I learn what others are doing (in a way that my employer will see the value)?

  10. I love this idea.

    And I love the idea of it being a conference completely focused on bringing all constituencies together to discuss the basics — users can talk about what’s really important to them, information science researchers can talk about results of work they’ve done (it may be interesting to see differences between what users say and what researchers find about users’ habits), some practitioners can talk about how they’ve implemented solutions, and a discussion about compromises can be had — what users would be willing to give up, and what practitioners need to let go of.

    For instance, reference. I’m reminded of the panel at last year’s SAA about “The Real Reference Revolution,” and how I was daydreaming about hearing from Rebecca Goldman’s students or Chela Scott Weber’s patrons regarding how they felt about these patron service models.

    Or we can talk about creating metadata for images — what do users really need to see, and how does this correspond to how we’re spending our time?

    It would be AMAZING to have a crit room where we all go over our finding aid delivery sites, and talk about the gap (if it exists) between what we thought our users would like to see, and what they really care about.

    And user contributed content! Let’s have a frank discussion about the content that users contribute, what kinds of systems they find amenable to these practices, and let’s talk face-to-face about our concerns with authority, correctness, and all the other creeping, nagging doubts that keep us from truly integrating users’ knowledge into our records.

    One last note — I would love to see a concerted effort to involve family historians, since they’re such a huge and under-acknowledged part of our user community.

    Awesome idea, Kate!

  11. Great idea to get archives together to talk, but why not an international virtual conference?

    That said, has anyone asked the people who use the archives? I don’t work in this area, but I do use archives on a very regular basis as I am a researcher & writer. I find that collections are all using different systems, (even within the same organisations!) and some of these systems are not user-friendly at all. I have mentioned this to the bodies that run the collections, but they are not interested!

    I live in England and A2A is a good example of how systems can work together, why not try this internationally?


  12. Glad to see this discussion keeps rolling! This comment got kinda long, so I may end up refining it a bit and putting together my own blog post on this 🙂

    One of the central questions seems to be, should this be a standalone event or should it be an event that happens as part of other conferences and meetings. I would suggest that it might be valuable to have this kind of event happen alongside other events, so possibly one year it is held right before or after one of these conferences, and then the next before or after another.

    With that said, there is good reason to think about making this its own entity, giving it its own name, and creating a public presence for it online. One of the things this conversation demonstrates is that there is a spot in the ven diagram between all of these organizations that are working with users of historical materials on the web and providers of historical materials on the web and it would seem to be valuable to put a name on that and create a kind of middle ground focused on fascinating conversations.

    Now in terms of unconference vs. planned event I think the best way to go here is to take individual features and think about what is most valuable. One nice example of a hybrid model is Code4Lib. They have a significant unconference component (that is where THATCamp got the idea for dork shorts), but they also have people submit proposals for short talks which the entire group votes on. Part of the logic behind the talks is exactly the issue that has come up in this thread. Many people cannot get funding to participate in a conference which they are not on the program for. Code4lib also publishes videos of all the talks on their website. Code4lib.org.

    In the case of a history and the web event I would suggest the following elements.

    1. A largely pre-planed set of sessions and workshops. In this case, I think a public open review of proposals makes a lot of sense. People post what they would like to talk about, or ideas for sessions, these are left for open comment, and a program committee could organize those into a schedule.

    2. A focus on sharing things online before the event. We don’t need to hear 3 twenty minute talks, or in the worst possible case someone read a paper and then talk about them for a few minutes. Post everything on the web before hand, tell us about it for five-ten minutes each and then lets have a more open conversation.

    3. Put some unconference-ish sessions on the schedule: Code4lib’s ask anything session is a great idea, people take turns asking quick questions to the group and people from the group offer answers. See their last list of sessions for more info on that. Similarly, the 5 minute dork shorts idea is a great way to get exposed to a lot of projects very quickly.

    4. Leave a lot of time between sessions for people to talk and meet each other. IMHO the most valuable part of any conference is the coffee breaks.

    5. While the idea of a virtual event has its charms, there is a lot of value to seeing faces, shaking hands and being exposed to other people’s projects. My experience with virtual events is that they tend to lack some of these critical components, largely because physically being at an event ends up commanding your attention and getting you to meet people and be exposed to other projects that you would not otherwise be exposed to. With that said, putting as much online as possible would enable a bit of a hybrid event.

  13. Wait, how’d it get to be Wednesday already…and also longish.

    Kate: speaking for myself, I’ve had to direct my travel funding towards conferences that give me opportunities for publications. I’m not sure how much that will change once I’m onboard as a faculty member, but it is one of those pressures of the academe.

    Sheila: I think CHNM is doing a bang-up job on all fronts. One of the concerns about the larger technology conferences is that the cost is often prohibitive, even with reduce rate registrations for “small” museums. Getting out to those smaller, regional meetings was also a important part of our success in Colorado. But I’m sure you have the same problem that we did – there were only two of us, funded on soft money – we couldn’t be everywhere we wanted to be.

    I’m wondering if this conversation isn’t surfacing a need for something beyond a conference. Because there is a fragmentation of people across different organizations/regions, etc. we may be missing each other. I wonder if some other history and the web online community might not be a good place to start making connections. Certainly twitter helps bridge this silos, but maybe some other point of connection would facilitate conversations.

    Perhaps this gets at Eric, Glynn and Maureen allude to: presentations/papers, etc. presented at various venues, but aggregated in one place focused on the issues of of digital history.

    Sharon says “Really what I meant was…I don’t think that we need a lot of the traditional scholarly organization mode of panels with a chair, comment, and three people blandly reading papers.”

    But is this the way it has to be? I know that this mode of presentation is often the norm for humanities conferences, but it is NOT the mode of presentations for many other conferences/disciplines. How do you encourage participants to move beyond reading their papers towards a more engaging talk? I would note that I’ve seen brilliantly read papers, and horrendously bland nap-inducing non-papers.

    Trevor: Code4Lib is a great model of a hybrid approach, plus an ongoing publication.

  14. I’m late to this conversation, but I’m thrilled to hear about this! I’m a history librarian and would love to have a chance to get together and talk about digital collections and how students and faculty can find them and use them. I see both how libraries digitize collections that then are essentially hidden for lack of use and discoverability–but yet could be such rich sources of materials for student papers.

  15. But the cost, in both money and to the planet, is making the face to face conferences prohibitive to a lot of interested parties. Small museums and libraries have fantastic collections which are often hidden from view to all but those who know they are there. (I have looked at lots of library back-room collections and there are some real treasures in them!) If the money spent on sending one representative to a conference (which often benefits just that one person) was put towards digitising collections, I think it would benefit the whole world.

    I am in Norfolk, UK and a lot of our collections are internationally important but can only be accessed by coming here, how fantastic it would be if they were available world-wide!

    One project I am working on at the moment, is indexing photographs in the early local newspapers of this area and family historians world-wide will benefit as there are photographs of people celebrating Golden Weddings in 1914, Centenarians in 1912 and Soldiers of WWI. What researchers need are more documents accessible online, not library and museum managers attending meetings!

  16. speaking for Museums and the Web (@museweb) — and coming late to the party — i’d just like to reinforce one thing about MW that hasn’t been mentioned here. Its strength is in the interdisciplinarity of the conference participants.

    MW in multi-disciplinary in both professional specialization and content area. creative ideas and approaches can be applied across disciplines, and it’s only when we meet that the stage is set for that kind of cross fertilization.

    there is a fair amount of history-focused work in the papers archive of MW (1997-) and ICHIM (1991-2007) ; maybe what’s needed is a different view of them. A specialized e-book? i’d be open to suggestions…


  17. The short answer is yes, there needs to be something like this and I think NCPH would be the best venue for this. I also think that in order to get more involved in the field there needs to be some concrete, hands-on training in technical skills. Although I teach a graduate course in digital history, I’m largely self-taught and my skills are way behind those who attend and present at THATCamp and Museums and the Web. I attended the latter this past April and while I enjoyed it I also felt overwhelmed at how little I know how to do, and how poorly I know how to do that.

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