Sunday, January 4, 2015

Christian James on Digital History, Slavery, Food, and Archives on Day Two of the 2015 AHA

Christian James weighs in one more time.  Thanks, Christian!  It was great hearing from you this weekend! --JF

Saturday at AHA packed in more great programming on archives, digital history, and public history. I started with the Contested Archives panel about national and international archival controversies. Bruce Montgomery discussed Iraqi government archives that the U.S. seized from Baghdad in war, as well as missing Kuwaiti archives from the Gulf War and repatriated Kurdish documents. Erin Mosley discussed the Genocide Archive Rwanda as an example of an “atrocity archive,” “deeply political” collections that are created to help prevent war crimes but complicate context and authenticity. Todd Shepard discussed the Algerian national archives, its struggle with France for repatriation of colonial records, and national archives as sites for the construction of national identity.

These panelists were a welcome extension of Derek Peterson's talk from Session 1 that I wrote about yesterday, which addressed complicated origins and contexts to archival sources internationally. Commenter Francis X. Blouin, though, asked for more discussion of the evidential nature of these archives (what exactly do the records in question actually document?). I also wished that there was more discussion of digital records; might cyberwarfare in the age of Stuxnet and the Sony hack complicate any of the panelists' arguments, or underscore them?

Next, I got to see some of the Digital Histories of Slavery projects. (Some of these projects are still in development, and panelists asked not to link out to the beta versions they demoed.) These projects included a collection of runaway slave ads, a collection of mapped voting records to show the centrality of slavery to Alexandria, Virginia in the 1850s, a visual and conversational history of sexuality in slavery, and a collection of slave freedom petitions in Washington, D.C. I especially enjoyed how these digital histories enabled access to individual documents and narratives, but also allowed aggregation and distant reading. And, since the history of Washington, D.C. is one of my specialties, I loved that two of them focused on the region.

As I made my way through Times Square for lunch, it started to snow – definitely a magical NYC moment (even if it seemed fake at first). I returned to AHA for one more session on Food History and Public History, which are both central to my work in progress at the National Agricultural Library. This panel tied together outreach work, blogging, and organizing kitchen demonstrations and museum exhibitions.

The food history session emphasized that food connects to public audiences viscerally. Some public programming stakeholders might find food history to be “fluff,” but food ties into supposedly more 'weighty' topics like diplomatic history, and fears of “fluff” can sometimes speak to historians' anxieties or the difficulty of public history in general. If you are interested in the topic, check out two of the major online works discussed, American Food Roots and Not-So-Innocents Abroad. I left the panel with some great ideas but an expansive to-read list – surely an occupational hazard.

My thirty hours in New York were jam-packed with conversations on archives, libraries, digital history and public history. The diversity of programming was a great success, and while I couldn't attend any of the strictly academic history panels, the #AHA2015 hashtag and social media coverage have been amazing (almost overwhelming, in fact). Thanks to John Fea for the opportunity to contribute to it!