Why Do a Ph.D. in Public History?

The answer to this question would probably be better as a retrospective 1, 5, 10, or 20 years after finishing this degree instead of a few months prior to graduation, but this is a question that I have often considered over the past five years. This morning, I read a tweet from someone who was looking at grad school and wondering what the point was of a Ph.D. if you aren’t interested in becoming a professor. Excellent question, @ATPublicHistory. My thoughts on this have been all over the place, but I want to share some of my thought process and the list of pros and cons I’ve contemplated over the years.

I first want to clarify that there are three types of doctoral degree programs in which public history Ph.D.’s fall. First, there is the traditional academic history program with candidates who have no interest in teaching or want a public history job as a Plan B. Or have candidates who worked in public history before going the academic route. Second, there are traditional academic history programs that offer a field in public history (West Virginia University, Arizona State University, Loyola University Chicago, and University of South Carolina rank among the more well-known institutions). This means that candidates will likely train to be academic historians with a better grounding in public history theory and methodology than the first program mentioned. Candidates may also have opportunities to do internships or assistantship work in public history. These programs likely have a robust public history MA program. MTSU falls into the third category, which offers a Ph.D. in public history. MTSU is kind of an academic unicorn in this regard. The only other program that offers this degree is NC State, which is a very recent development and I can’t speak to what that program is like.

At MTSU, working in the field is a given for most Ph.D. candidates. There is no need for uncomfortable conversations with your professor about how you will not be seeking an academic position. The program also has success placing students in academic public history positions. Candidates’ studies are grounded in public history theory and methodology and have access to a great group of faculty in various public history subfields. Furthermore, candidates can get exposure doing all types of public history work at three on-campus centers that offer graduate assistantships. The program is designed to be a four-year program, which is shorter than the average academic history doctoral program. Candidates also spend a year in the field for their doctoral residency, which is a great opportunity to gain more experience and expand your network.

The major drawback to our program is that we don’t have as much time to spend on our dissertations and can’t really seek outside grants.

Before I get into my thought process for why I wanted a Ph.D. in public history, I need to give a disclaimer. The decision to seek a Ph.D. is highly individual. I can’t give broad advice to anyone on this subject because you have to do a lot of self-examination to know if such a degree is right or wrong for you. The only piece of broad advice I will give is this: Do not get a Ph.D. for the sake of calling yourself a doctor. Get over yourself. The process of earning such a degree is empowering, but it is more so humbling. It becomes all too apparent how little you really know.


Master’s graduation at West Virginia University

Back in the spring of 2011, I was approaching graduation from my master’s program in public history. All through my master’s degree I worked very hard to get a permanent position with the National Park Service, but it didn’t happen and I felt lost. I had not spent a lot of time exploring other public history jobs because I was so focused on the NPS. Furthermore, the job market was utterly dismal that year. I decided to apply to MTSU’s program because it really was a perfect fit for me (based upon faculty, courses, graduate assistantship opportunities, funding, location, and alumni placement). I still kept applying to jobs and only came out with two interviews that entire summer after graduation. Thoroughly discouraged by the job market, I decided to firm up my commitment to the Ph.D. program. In retrospect, I probably could have found a public history job, but it would have taken me 6-12 months. In my family, “not working” just isn’t a thing, so the thought of being unemployed for that long seemed like a total non-starter (as I am sure is the case for most people). I needed to be doing something to stay in the public history field and a Ph.D. in public history remained appealing to me.

I tell this story because I maybe didn’t have the best reasons for enrolling in a Ph.D. program (i.e. fear of unemployment). However, I did have a number of real reasons to go for it. From my work in the NPS, I knew I enjoyed higher caliber projects that challenged my intellect and creativity as a historian and cultural resource manager. I love big challenges and thinking outside the box. I also saw myself as being a future leader in the field and working across disciplines. Furthermore, I had a research project in mind, which has kept me happily occupied over the past four years and has allowed me to make a contribution to the field.

You do not need a doctorate to do these things, but I think it certainly helps. Although I don’t know the eventual payoff for my degree yet, I can already tell that I have become a better public historian for it. I have demonstrated ability to plan and implement multifaceted projects with multiple stakeholders and I can synthesize complex information for public audiences and clients. I could do these things before, but now on a much bigger scale. I also feel like I have come into my own as a public historian, rather than just a graduate student or an intern. I also avoided the mistake I made as a master’s student by being hyper focused on a particular career path and instead have worked hard the past four years to keep my options open so I can be ready for whatever the job market has to offer.

I entered the Ph.D. program with a good sense of optimism, but I had a mental list of pros and cons about doing a Ph.D. I have added to this list over the years and thought I might as well share. If you don’t believe me I suggest perusing the Professor Is In, Chronicle Vitae, Chronicle for Higher Ed, or Inside Higher Ed. These blogs mostly talk about the academic job crisis but they raise very real concerns with anyone in a Ph.D. program, whether your intention is teaching or not. I also recommend reading up on altac or postac literature and check out Versatile Ph.D. online forum. Most of these posts are about leaving academia, but I often find their job advice helpful because they are tailored to those with doctoral degrees.


  • At least four more years living near the poverty line. Living on a stipend sucks, kids. There is no getting around it. In fact, it has gotten increasingly difficult to live on a stipend every year. This is the one thing I wish I could have told myself before I decided to go for the Ph.D.
  • Four years of lost wages plus more student loans. I’ve read that the first five years are the most important in your career, because that’s when you make the quickest advancement. Here I am, 28 years old, and I haven’t started adding to my retirement fund yet. I was very conservative with the amount of loans I took out, but it is still a very stressful situation when you’re not guaranteed a high paying job.
  • Upon graduation you run the risk of becoming simultaneously overqualified and under-qualified. Because you spent the past four years of your life in school, employers might think you have too little experience for mid-level positions but have too much education for entry-level positions. Certain biases still exist among people who think academics can’t meet deadlines, communicate with the public, and so forth.
  • A doctoral program can wreak havoc on your personal life. Graduate school is hard on everyone, but it can seem especially acute in your mid-20s. I admit that it has been hard for me to see friends my age start awesome jobs, get married, buy houses, and have kids, while I’m still in school living on a stipend. It is difficult to start and maintain relationships when you don’t know what you will be doing from year to year. For a woman, graduate school may also mean delaying having children. Although, I must point out that I know a number of colleagues that have successfully married and had children while working on their degrees.
  • No guarantees. Having a Ph.D. in itself does not mean you will receive a huge payout. In fact, I think those of us with doctorates in public history should expect to start near the bottom like everyone else because of the skills gap I mentioned before. However, MTSU’s placement has heartened me considerably and given me a reasonable outlook on job possibilities.


  • Despite lost wages, I think once you have found a position you will be able to make up for lost time by advancing up the career ladder quickly.
  • No ceiling. Not having a Ph.D. will never be a problem.
  • Credibility. Despite my initial disclaimer, having a “Ph.D.” by your name does identify you as a subject matter expert and perhaps a leader in some circles.
  • Increased capacity to take on large, complex projects. Taking qualifying exams, planning and implementing a doctoral residency, and writing a 385-page dissertation have all prepared me well for these types of challenges.

This list makes it clear that the negative reasons for going for a Ph.D. in public history are more short-term issues, while the positive aspects I hope will pay out over the long term. I think that’s what makes the prospect of the Ph.D. so difficult to grapple. It is very much a gamble and requires you to have a long-term vision for yourself. Best of luck to anyone thinking through this issue.

If you are thinking about grad school to pursue a public history degree, also suggest checking out NCPH’s Public History Navigator, but I did help write that guide so I’m biased.

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Note on Revisions: Revised Edition

My blog feels as stale as a week old bagel. Or maybe a three-month old bagel since my last post was December 8. Gross.

Books in my office errwhere

Books errwhere

I would like to say that a lot has happened between then and now, but really I was just immersed in the dissertation grind. I submitted my final copy to my committee on February 27, celebrated my 28th birthday the next day, and have been trying to recover ever since. I felt bad for leaving my blog to sit idle and lose any flavor or freshness it might have once had. I had hoped to return with renewed energy once I unloaded that dissertation, but I didn’t know where to start or what to say. I’ve abandoned any hope of saying anything earth shattering or revealing brilliant insights that I had while I was away. I think today, in the spirit of “getting back on the horse,” I’m just going to tell you what these past few months of revising have been like. If there is a theme with this blog (besides landscapes, which I don’t talk about as often as I had intended) it is that I’m hoping to demystify the process of getting a doctorate in public history. Our program has a very detailed handbook that is supposed to outline the process very clearly and concisely, which it does. Our advisors want us to succeed, but they also want us to give us enough room to figure things out for ourselves, which I also understand. However, I’ve always felt something was missing. MTSU is a great program, but we are kind of lacking in graduate student culture. This goes beyond having a group of friends that will go out with you on Friday night (because who has the money for that?), but extends to the issue of not having very many students ahead of me in the program to really clue me in on what exactly goes into qualifying exams, residencies, portfolios, and dissertations. One recent graduate has been very helpful to me over the past three years, but not everyone has a Kristen Baldwin Deathridge. I even reach out to doctoral friends at other universities, but their requirements and expectations are different from our program, so their advice only goes so far and creates different types of anxieties. So anyway, if this post helps someone in the next cohort, I will consider this time worth spent.

If I could have done anything different when writing this dissertation, I wish I would have figured out my argument sooner instead of the third draft. The whole time I was working on this project, including all the way through the fall when I was drafting, I was most concerned about developing this framework for interpreting park landscapes. It wasn’t until Christmas break, after I had submitted draft chapters to my committee, that I realized that a framework isn’t an argument. I figured this out when I started reading other park histories that had been published in the past few years. I was like, “Wow, their argument is really interesting and I can pick out easily…Uh oh, what’s mine???” I sat down for a weekend and just made a short outline about what my real argument was and then I spent time developing that in the third draft. I am embarrassed to admit that it took me three drafts to figure it out, but I don’t think I’m the only one to experience this. Also, let this be a reminder that it is important to step away from your own work for a few weeks to read others in your field. I had a major breakthrough during this time.

Prepare for your timeline to change. Last November, my advisor and I worked out a timeline for completion that gave me instant anxiety. One deadline was literally on Christmas Eve. I won’t get into details, but let’s just say things didn’t go the way we planned. In January, I was mentally preparing myself for an August graduation. But, thankfully, I met with my advisor and we came up with a new game plan. And so far, I’m still on schedule for May graduation. But that time in January was tough for me; I am a planner and I work really hard to meet deadlines. Let me reassure anyone out there that it is not the end of the world if your game plan changes.

“Revising a dissertation is like moving,” a doctoral friend from another university said to me. So true. You move big things first and you feel like you’re making progress, but then you are left with all the little things and you think I’m never going to pull this off. Eventually you do. Just know that it is normal to feel like it will never be done even when you are close to the finish line.

Don’t take revisions personally. If I didn’t say so in previous posts, I’m saying it now. One reviewer made something like 365 comments on one chapter (the chapter was 60 pages long if that makes any difference). I don’t normally take revisions personally, because I know they make the final product better in the end. However, the sheer number of comments on one chapter gave me pause. “Where do I even begin? Is this even salvageable? Am I cut out for this?” This experience could have put me in an imposter syndrome spiral, but fortunately I met with this person beforehand so I knew the big picture changes she wanted. I started with the big structural changes first and then tackled the details. I wish I could say that was the last I had to revise that chapter but I still went through it a total or five or six times. It took a long time, but I think it is my strongest chapter now. But I realize how important it was that I didn’t give up after that initial shock. I would have never made it through if I let my emotions get the best of me.

Formatting is the devil. Speaking of the little things, give yourself plenty of time to figure out the ridiculousness that is formatting when dealing with two different style guides (Turabian and the College of Graduate Studies). Personally, I think they should give you a degree in Microsoft Word when you finish.

Perfectionism is both your friend and enemy. If you are in a doctoral program, I’m sure you have some degree of perfectionism in you. I don’t consider myself a perfectionist, but I do hold high standards. As I was nearing my February 27 deadline, I was waffling between the need to get everything perfect and the sincere desire for just pressing the send button. In the end, I did all I could with the knowledge that I’ll have two more levels of vetting before ProQuest gets its greedy hands on my dissertation.

Have something to look forward to and plan to give yourself a break. I held tight to the February 27 deadline because the best gift I could give myself on my 28th birthday was not worrying about my dissertation. My boyfriend kept asking what I wanted to do for my birthday, but I couldn’t make any plans. I just wanted to not work. And I didn’t and it was great! I had grand plans of taking a few days off before starting in my next project. But here it is March 12 and I haven’t done much of anything. I went home to West Virginia and enjoyed being with family. It felt like the first time in a long while that I could enjoy their company with no deadlines hanging over my head. I also realized that my brain needed a lengthy break. The few things that I did try to do after submitting my dissertation were kind of terrible.

Time to wrap up. I just want to point out one last thing. Some doctoral students take years to write their dissertations. I only had ten months between my proposal defense and my submission to my committee. My final draft is 385 pages, so I definitely didn’t skimp for the sake of time. I’m here to say it isn’t easy, but it is possible if you can work on it full-time. I very much treated it like a full-time job and even tracked my hours (because I’m weird like that).

My defense is scheduled for March 23. Wish me luck!

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Note on Revisions

If writing a dissertation is like running a marathon, then revisions are definitely the hills. Revising is an intense period of staring at words and wondering why you chose them and how you might say them better, or if you should say them at all. If you have a good advisor like I do (meaning one that cares), this exercise also brings all your poor writing habits to light. You can’t push these issues to the shadows anymore. You have to address them head on, and you can’t get mad about it, because they are all on you. Revising is stressful and frustrating, but it’s a learning experience. I’m learning a lot about myself as a writer.

I talked to two friends about the revising process when I first started about five weeks ago. I felt overwhelmed with the prospect of trying to finish six chapters in about five weeks with Thanksgiving and a trip to West Virginia thrown into the mix. They both told me the same thing. It’s manageable, but you just need long blocks of time to concentrate. They were right. I had to log off Facebook, Twitter, and almost all the Internet, and basically be in my own world for a few weeks. Even when I went home for Thanksgiving and had to work in the dining room, I had to (politely) block out my relatives to finish what I needed to accomplish. It wasn’t fun, but it was necessary. I still had a nice time with my family and friends. I did give up the gym for most of the past two weeks, which my body paid for when I went back today.

My brain hurt after I sent my chapters to my committee. Friends asked if I felt relieved. I just replied with a hesitant, “I guess so.” I am beyond thrilled to have time again to do the things that fell to the wayside, like cleaning my house. But I see more hills in the distance and more revising in my future.

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Always be Working (On that Dissertation)

My dissertation writing buddy. She doesn't care about word limits. Just walks and treats.

My dissertation writing buddy. She doesn’t care about word limits. Just walks and treats.

I had the opportunity last night to share my dissertation research with MTSU’s newest group of doctoral students in their Introduction to Public History class. I recalled sitting in their seats my first semester three years ago, when the thought of doing a dissertation was far from my mind, although I knew it was something I would have to figure out at some point. Over the weekend, I hit another dissertation writing milestone when submitted my last draft chapter to my chair. While I am far from finished, I thought now might be a good time for a post on dissertation writing, particularly because November is Academic Writing Month.

First, I should point out that MTSU’s Public History Ph.D. program is unlike most traditional history programs where it takes students almost eight years to complete a doctoral degree. Our program cuts that time in half.* As other programs are struggling to reduce time to completion, MTSU public history faculty are pretty adept at mentoring students who produce high quality scholarship in just four years and then turning them out into the world.

I am one of those people trying to finish in four years. Fortunately, I have a fellowship that allows me work on my dissertation full-time this year, but it also requires me to graduate in May.** I found that I had to be pretty strategic in the courses I selected and how I designed my residency to maintain that timeline. I had a rough idea for a dissertation in mind after my first year of coursework, and used my time in the classroom to figure out my framework before settling on my topic: Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. I turned three seminar papers into four draft chapters. If I had a motto at the time, it should have been “Always be Working (On that Dissertation).” By the time I started writing in August, I had drafts for all but two chapters.

I began writing full-time in August. Like I said, I had drafts, but they weren’t very good. I had written one draft two years prior and a lot of my thinking had changed by then. So those chapters I had already written needed considerable revising. The two chapters that I started from scratch were a bit easier to do because I was not trying to rework a structure I did not remember devising a year or two ago. I kept a pace of finishing two draft chapters a month, and immediately sent them to my chair for comments. I found that I liked working on two chapters at a time. It was a manageable amount of work and I could switch easily between the two. My chair is pretty quick at returning draft chapters with her extensive comments. Upon receiving them, I read through her comments briefly and then put them aside until I have finished drafting all my chapters.

Graduate students become adept at spitting out a twenty page seminar paper in a couple of days, but dissertation writing is a different process if you are doing it full-time like I am. Graduate seminar paper writing is a sprint. Dissertation writing is a marathon. All of a sudden, you have weeks devoted to writing (rather than a weekend) and you are the one setting the deadline (not a syllabus). I know colleagues that are really good at just sitting in a room and hammering out a thesis or dissertation in a matter of weeks. Not me. I prefer slow and steady. I usually try to write about 750 words a day. I start in the morning, go to the gym at lunch, and then pick up again in the afternoon. I take time to walk my dog, cook dinner, and spend time with loved ones. I rarely work on weekends, unless I am trying to meet one of my self-imposed deadlines.

A note on deadlines: You should meet them. Always. It is easy to push it back, but very difficult to make up the time. If you are late on one, then you are late on them all. I was few days late meeting my October deadline, but that was when a chapter turned out to be fifteen pages longer than I originally intended. I can’t be too hard on myself when that happens.

I have to say the isolation of the dissertation is very real. MTSU has a poor graduate student culture, in general. Most of my cohort is no longer on campus, although we try to check in with each other every once in a while. I have tried to start writing groups to help with accountability and combat isolation, but with little success. Recently, I have started attending a faculty writing group once a week at MTSU, but I don’t see many people there. I usually go just for a change of scenery. This group also provides forms that we can fill out each week to mark our progress. They then give the forms back to us at the end of the semester so we can see how much we were able to accomplish. However, I have found excellent support through Twitter, where I can reach out to my network at any time of the day or week. Also, going to the gym every day at noon forces me to interact with other (sweaty) human beings. My gym has a strong sense of community, which has helped me throughout my doctoral program.

The only fancy tool I use to help me write is Scrivener. It is a program designed for writers. I prefer it to Microsoft Word, because it is easy to switch between chapters and notes. Your footnotes are conveniently on the right side of the screen. I tested Scrivener out on smaller papers before using it on a 200-page report last year. I suggest doing the same before using it for an important document like a thesis or dissertation. I still track my time using Harvest, which I wrote about in my project management post.

My final bit of advice to students getting ready to tackle their thesis or dissertation is to just write. Don’t worry about perfection. You can’t get feedback on a blank page.

My goal for this month is to complete the first round of revisions based on my chair’s comments so I can send the revised chapters to the rest of my committee. I set my #AcWriMo2014 goal to revise ten pages a day. Honestly, I do not know if that’s an attainable goal, but it is worth a shot. Ask me in December how it worked out.

In the meantime…always be working!

*Public history faculty have designed the program to be completed in four years. However, that is only possible if student is doing the program full-time and does not need to take on an extra job or experience any major life events during that period. However, many students do finish in four years.

**There is no greater motivator to finish your dissertation than running out of funding.

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Co-Creating Narratives in Public Spaces Symposium Review


I took a break from dissertation writing to attend a symposium called, “Co-Creating Narratives in Public Spaces,” jointly held by the National Park Service and George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Why does the NPS need this symposium? Well, where to begin? To keep the answer short, the NPS has over 400 units that collectively embody the American experience. However, for the majority of the agency’s history, most of these sites contribute to a narrative that is dominated by a white, male, hetero perspective. The aim of this symposium was to find ways that sites already in existence can broaden their story to include other perspectives. It also calls the NPS to expand its consideration for future sites to be included in the system. The NPS is not alone in its struggle for relevancy and inclusion. Other cultural institutions face these issues as well, which might account for the fact that approximately half of the participants were non-NPS.

The symposium began with two webinars and concluded with a two-day symposium at GW. All events were free to the public and NPS and accessible by webcast. I participated in the webinars and I decided to travel from Tennessee to Washington, D.C. for the symposium event. The webcast was a great offering, but I am glad I was able to attend in person.

Of all the sessions, the first webinar, “The Bison: Going Beyond the Symbol,” was my least favorite. I think I was turned off by the western-centric attitude that has pervaded the agency since its creation. The bison symbol is a good way to bring Native Americans and natural resource professionals in conversation with historians, archaeologists, and interpreters. However, it left a colleague of mine, American Indian program specialist and member of an Eastern tribe, feeling left out. She pointed out that bison was a Plains Indian symbol that did not relate to her.

I am glad I stuck with the series, though. The next webinar on relevancy, diversity, and inclusion was much more interesting and was an appropriate segue to our discussions at the two-day symposium. I am grateful to the program committee for bringing together excellent speakers from sites like Manzanar, Cesar Chavez, Rosie the Riveter, Fredericksburg, Fort Smith, National Museum of American Indian, National Holocaust Museum Memoroial, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and others. They told riveting stories and the audience felt the emotion between these speakers and the sites they interpret more than once.

We were not a passive audience and spoke up when the panelists asked us questions. What were the roadblocks to more inclusive storytelling? What are some possible solutions? Audience members noted the lack of resources is a major detriment. I absolutely agree. But I also noted two issues in the agency’s culture that are at odds with incorporating shared authority into its practice. Both issues are so ingrained that no congressional appropriation can fix them. First, I have noticed in my professional work and academic research that NPS staff are reluctant to let go of authority and exhibit an attitude that the federal government (through them) holds the ultimate authority. Second, it is very difficult to build trust and momentum with community members when NPS employees change jobs so frequently. They advance in their careers by moving to different parks and offices. On one hand, I like that this philosophy allows NPS employees to have diverse experiences. On the other hand, it means that those employees who cannot really afford to be mobile for a myriad of reasons are left to stagnate. This leaves the possibility that those in higher positions will not be in one place long enough to solve long term issues.

So, how do you go about changing the agency’s culture and loosening its grip on authority? I definitely think it requires a generational change that embraces the notion of shared authority more liberally. This change cannot come solely from the top or bottom. I think it is partly up to academia to train emerging professionals for this kind of work and public historians in the academy are definitely teaching students the theories behind shared authority. Hopefully, the NPS hires these graduates with the right kind of training and give them the institutional support to pursue shared authority. Julia Washburn, NPS Associate Director of Interpretation and Education, gave a blanket statement during the symposium that NPS employees are given permission to do this kind of work. It seems to me, though, that an authority figure giving permission kind of defeats the purpose of shared authority. Baby steps, I guess.

I am not entirely sure how to solve the mobility issue. I feel that the current system discriminates against women and minorities in ways similar to academia. I hope that the NPS can find ways to incentivize those employees that are instrumental in maintaining community relationships or seeing a project through to completion.

What are some of my other takeaways?

Lu Ann Jones rightfully noted that Imperiled Promise was absent from the symposium, but dealt with many of the same issues. I wonder, though, if the lack of reference meant that the speakers and panel organizers agreed with the report’s findings and were trying to move the conversation forward. There seemed to be a new buzz or electric energy at GW that was different than other meetings in the wake of Imperiled Promise a year or two ago. Mike Reynolds declared in the final minutes of the symposium that a “new NPS” was underway, which seemed to get the crowd excited. In the same vein, I wish the program organizers worked more closely with the NPS Cultural Resource Academy, which is working towards educating non-historians in the NPS to think historically.

I found that the conversations over diversity, broadening site narratives, and citizenship could have benefitted from some self-reflection of the agency’s own history. I have been feeling kind of frustrated lately that the agency and public historians seem to be disinterested in its own history. There is a lot of interest in moving the NPS forward, but I think the NPS and public historians need to take a hard look in the rearview mirror.

I was also impressed by Dr. Joy Kinard, District Manager of National Capital Parks-East. Her presentation showed how important it is to have a history Ph.D. with public history working at national park sites. I got the sense that her doctoral training helped give her the capacity to manage a large collection of sites and think critically about how they connect to one another and different audiences.

How do we move the conversation forward?

We did not have much of an opportunity to flesh out how to move this conversation forward at the end of the busy symposium. To me, it seems clear that those in attendance must start reaching out to the public to have these conversations. The NPS must do a better job in identifying these audiences. One possible way of reaching out is to have community workshops on difficult topics. Pop up museums or salons might be alternative ways to experiment in engaging visitors at national park sites.

As far as creating dynamic university-NPS relations, I think the best partnerships are those in which each party is a stakeholder in the final product. The NPS is responsible for keeping archives accessible to researchers and should incorporate findings into its own interpretation, educational, and administrative policies and programs. Researchers should keep NPS management issues in mind and write in a manner that is accessible to them.

I look forward to seeing how attendees apply these ideas at their sites in the next couple of years, and if there is truly “a new NPS.” Much gratitude goes out to the program committee and those that made the symposium happen.

Where to learn more

If you missed the symposium and want to know more about what was discussed, all of the webcasts are being archived and will be posted online. You can also read through the Twitter conversation with the hashtags #NPSNarratives, #NPSBison, #NPSRelevancy, #NPSExploringtheFrontier, #NPSSitesofWar, #NPSBroadeningtheStory, #NPSBeingBetterCitizens, and #NPSDiversity. You can also follow conversations on the event’s Facebook page and Twitter account (@NPSNarratives).

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Using Newspapers.com for Historical Research

Like many researchers, historical newspapers are my bread and butter. I use everything from national publications like Washington Post and New York Times to small local newspapers to help fill in gaps in historical narratives that other sources leave out. Most newspapers are on microfilm and there has been a large movement in the past decade to digitize these records. I can access historic issues of the New York Times and Washington Post through my library’s electronic resources. The Library of Congress has been digitizing historic newspapers from 1690 to 1922 in its Chronicling America project. Some state historical organizations have also started digitizing state papers.

But if all else fails, I can usually turn to Inter Library Loan (ILL) to get my hands on a reel of microfilm that I need. For my Cumberland Gap research, I needed access to the Middlesboro Daily News. I’m sure many of my colleagues can attest that ILL can be hit or miss. When I requested the Middlesboro Daily News, it turned out to be a miss. I had two options: travel to Middlesboro, where there is the only complete collection of the newspaper; or, try a new subscription-based service, newspapers.com.

Newspapers.com has emerged out of the same industry as Ancestry.com. It’s a service that combines digital tools for making sense of big data with historical resources. It sells itself primarily to people interested in family genealogy, but professional historians may find the tools useful as well. I purchased a six-month Ancestry membership while working on my residency project for Catoctin. The interface was much more friendly (no more eyestrain looking at microfilm!) and far more convenient (i.e. working my couch and not some uncomfortable library chair). Ancestry was worth the money, so I became interested in Newspapers.com. However, my research budget is minuscule and my resources are precious. The benefits must outweigh the costs before I buy into it. It was worth it to me to do a seven-day trial if it meant I could avoid wasting precious research time looking at microfilm in Kentucky.

So for seven days I got to know the website very well. I very much enjoyed the interface of Newspapers.com. No more eyestrain looking at tiny print. No more motion sickness from trying to skim microfilm as it moved by. I could enlarge articles no problem. The search function was easy to use and I could limit by geographic area, publication, and date. Furthermore, search terms were highlighted on the newspaper page so they were easy to find. I like that search results came with the entire newspaper page, and not just the individual article. I could browse the rest of the issue if I wanted to. You can “clip” an article to save it for later and it lets you make notes on it. When you save an article it includes the publication’s name, date, and page, which is useful for organizing files and recall later. There was even a social media function so you could share articles via Facebook, Twitter, or email. I liked that feature when a particular find excited me, because I could share it with my friends in a click. From a more practical stand point, the email option is good when you’re collaborating with someone else.

Unfortunately, Newspapers.com did not save me from expending precious research time in Kentucky looking at newspapers. I noticed that for most of my range of research, the database was missing the very first page of every issue. That is a huge blow, because usually the most important news of the day is listed—you guessed it—on the front page. I also noticed that the database listed the wrong page numbers for articles. When I realized this, I began to make a note which page the article actually appeared on. That was a minor annoyance.

Because the database was missing the first page of the paper, I did not purchase a subscription. Subscriptions run $79.95 a year or $7.95 a month. That’s cheaper than a Netflix account. I still had to go to the Middlesboro Public Library to use its collection of microfilm. However, I was able to be more strategic in my search while I was there. My newspaper.com research at least clued me into key dates.

I was a bit disappointed with the service, but other graduate students and historians may find it useful. I’m really surprised that these sites don’t do more to target graduate students. It is awfully hard to go back to microfilm after using these fancy tools, particularly when you are pressed for time and can’t afford an expensive research trip.

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Building a Regional Context for Cumberland Gap National Historical Park


My primary objective this summer has been to flesh out a regional context for the creation and development of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. It is easy to treat parks as islands by only looking at what occurs inside the boundary. I think one of the hardest challenges for administrators is to reach outside the park to forge meaningful relationships with surrounding communities, while also guiding regional environmental and cultural policy. That is why when I research park histories it is critical that I understand the various historical drivers in the surrounding region that shaped the park. Furthermore, understanding these drivers and past relationships can help guide a park toward better public engagement and resource policy in the future.

Cumberland Gap NHP poses a unique challenge because it lies within three counties in three different states. My research looks at the relationship of social reform, environmental conservation, and historic preservation–charting changes in these relationships over time. My time frame covers three major periods of twentieth century reform: the Progressive Era, New Deal, and Great Society.

This post is about methodology. How am I building this regional context? Well, first I turned to secondary sources and those historians who have already written about the area. Next, I scoured the local newspaper, looking for important events in Bell County, Kentucky, Claiborne County, Tennessee, and Lee County, Virginia. I focused mainly on articles relating to New Deal and Great Society programs. Park records often include newspaper clippings related to the park, which I have already scanned. I was looking for less obvious connections to the park.

For example, I learned through the newspaper that the Bartlett Park area was developed in the 1920s by the local chapter of the Playground Association of America. It was subsequently developed as a Works Progress Administration project during the New Deal. This is important information, because it was later developed into the Gap Job Corps Center. To me, this shows that the Bartlett Park area was heavily shaped by human conservation ideas as early as the 1920s and continued until the 1960s.

Bath House (no longer extant) constructed by Works Progress Administration at Bartlett-Rhodes Park, originally established by Middlesboro Chapter of the Playground Association of America in 1920s. Photo courtesy of Kentucky Digital Library, Goodman-Paxton Collection.

Bath House (no longer extant) constructed by Works Progress Administration at Bartlett-Rhodes Park, originally established by Middlesboro Chapter of the Playground Association of America in 1920s. Photo courtesy of Kentucky Digital Library, Goodman-Paxton Collection.

Cumberland Gap NHP headquarters located in Bartlett Park. Section of building was part of the Gap Job Corps Center. Later expanded for Federal Highway Administration.

Cumberland Gap NHP headquarters located in Bartlett Park. A section of building was part of the Gap Job Corps Center. It was later expanded for Federal Highway Administration.

I also sought out local historical organizations in each county for help. Unfortunately, only the Bell County Historical Society responded to my inquiries. I spent some time at their museum and the Bell County Public Library. Much to my surprise, the library had a whole folio of Job Corps material, mostly camp newspapers. I have talked to historians at Lincoln Memorial University, which have helped in understanding the Claiborne County perspective. However, my understanding of Lee County is thin and no one from the Lee County Historical Society answered my messages.

What could I do? Well, I took a drive. I left Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, and drove through towns I have seen in the records: Rose Hill, Ewing, Jonesville, and Pennington Gap. I stopped briefly at Wilderness Road State Park, which interprets the frontier period. I gazed upwards to White Rocks. It’s a good four to five hour hike to the top—well worth it I hear. I stopped at the Thomas Walker Civitan Park, which serves as a trailhead to White Rocks and Sand Cave. The Civitan group developed the park in the 1960s, and later I found a newspaper article reporting the club’s opposition to the NPS’s 1967 wilderness proposal.

Thomas Walker Civitan Club Pavilion in Ewing, VA

Thomas Walker Civitan Club Pavilion in Ewing, VA

I drove a bit further outside of Lee County to Big Stone Gap in Wise County to explore Southwest Virginia State Park. Although the museum mostly focused on Wise County, the exhibits gave me a better picture of the region’s history of absentee land ownership, coal mining, conservation, and historic preservation in the area. It was well worth the stop.

Southwest Virginia State Park

Southwest Virginia State Park, housed in beautiful 1890s mansion.

Many of my questions have led to new questions, but at some point I have to remind myself to not lose track of my objectives. The challenge now is to pull all these threads together in a narrative that enriches the complex history of the park. It is easy to feel overwhelmed when trying to understand so many different aspects—some of which may not appear to be related—but I find it works best when you are able to ground these ideas in the landscape.

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