How I Spent my Summer Vacation: A Historian’s Report

By Jacqueline D. Antonovich, PhD Candidate, Department of History

Jacqueline D. Antonovich

I’ll be honest with you. One of the best perks of being a historian are the summers. While grad student historians toil away the school year teaching, reading, writing, and attending lectures, we have the unbelievably cool perk of traveling all over the world during summer break. For historians, summer means hopping in a car, train, or airplane (often a combination of all three) and spending weeks, even months in archives and libraries in cities across the globe. We get the chance to meet interesting people, investigate historical documents, and explore unfamiliar places. I am an American historian by training so my travels have been somewhat limited, but I have spent my last five summers in places like Oregon, Colorado, California, Massachusetts, Canada, and England.

What interesting destination did I find myself in this past summer? Well readers, for eight glorious weeks I spent my days in the exotic land of . . . Lansing, Michigan. Sparty territory. I know what you are thinking: not quite as exciting as England, right? Yet, my time in the state capital proved equally rewarding and challenging as any trip to the archives.

As a Mellon Public Humanities Fellow, I had the opportunity to work at Matrix Center for Digital Humanities & Social Sciences, housed at Michigan State University. I’ve long had an interest in digital humanities – I edit an academic blog on the history of medicine, I’ve attended classes on digital methodologies, and even integrated some of what I have learned into my dissertation research. For me, working at one of the top digital humanities centers in the country seemed like a natural progression in my DH education.

Matrix is an organization devoted to exploring new technologies for teaching, research, and outreach. They partner with museums, libraries, archives, and other community organizations worldwide to digitize collections, preserve resources, and present them online for teaching, research, and public access. Matrix, I think, is a great example of how DH can provide opportunities to connect the academy with the public. For that reason alone, I was thrilled to be part of the team.

I was even more excited when I learned that my assignment for Matrix would be working on their website, “Oral History in the Digital Age” (OHDA). A joint venture between Matrix, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the American Folklife Center, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the American Folklore Society, the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, and the Oral History Association, OHDA is a website that provides extensive oral history resources, including essays, case studies, videos, and guides on best practices. Currently, the site generates over 15,000 unique visitors worldwide every month and in the seven years since its inception, OHDA has proven to be an invaluable resource for individuals and organizations interested in all facets of oral history.

OHDA has proven to be an invaluable resource for oral historians, librarians, archivists, and museum professionals. Yet, my challenge for the summer was to explore how the site could be made accessible to not only oral history professionals, but high school teachers, community college students, or any member of the public interested in doing an oral history project. Essentially, my job was to imagine OHDA as a community meeting space where anyone, regardless of their training, could find accessible information and interactive resources on oral history. A tall order in eight short weeks!

I have to admit, I felt a sense of trepidation approaching this project. As a doctoral student in history, I am familiar with the field of oral history; however, I feared I lacked the skillset needed to expand and improve upon the OHDA website. In other words, I know how to do oral history, but I am not an expert. Furthermore, I had no idea how to manage a large digital project like OHDA. Frankly, I didn’t even know where to start.

At the various workshops I have attended at Rackham over the years, someone always makes a point of talking about how humanities students have a set of transferable skills. I quickly learned that this is true. Despite my initial misgivings, my background as a historian prepared me well for working on the OHDA project. After all, historians are trained to ask questions, conceptualize a project, conduct research, gather data, and write persuasive analyses. By the end of my eight weeks in Lansing, I had completed an in-depth report for Matrix on how OHDA could improve its public outreach and site functionality, including some fancy charts, survey data, and grant suggestions. Along the way, I also got the opportunity to meet with leaders in both digital humanities and the field of oral history Who knew?

Now, I am not going to lie and say that working at MSU for eight weeks was as exciting as a trip to England, but I will say that my internship at Matrix taught me new and exciting things about myself. I learned that I have the knowledge and expertise to comfortably manage projects outside my field of expertise and that it is important to step outside of your comfort zone every once in a while. Even if it is in Sparty territory.

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