Wow! A month has passed since I last wrote here, and just under a month since I left Washington, DC and my internship behind. As is so often the case with these things, I spent my last week and a half wrapping up (or at least bringing to a decent stopping point) many of the projects I worked on this summer. I spent much of my time in the Archives and was able to find a resignation letter of an officer who joined the Confederacy for Fort Union National Monument, information on WPA research done at Antietam National Battlefield, and early air force photos taken in Alaska for Klondike National Park. I continued to tweak and discuss the facebook page with my colleagues and mapped out a possible e-learning module for the Foundations course.

Now that I have completed my internship and am back in Cooperstown, I wanted to take an opportunity to reflect a little bit on my experience. When I was looking for my internship, I had a number of specific things in mind: I was looking for something paid, in an institution with national name recognition, that would allow me to do some kind of outreach, education, and/or research. All of this I was lucky enough to get. But I was also looking for an opportunity where I could see a single project from start to finish. There’s something exciting in that kind of project-based work, something fulfilling when you’re only given a short amount of time with an institution.

But it is also not realistic. I got a very different experience, and in retrospect, I am glad that I got the variety and experienced the turn-on-a-dime flexibility necessary in an organization like that. Instead of a single project, I would spend a day in meetings with National Park Service leaders, or researching in the Archives, or on conference calls with professionals across the countries, or designing workshops. Yes, sometimes I made copies, but sometimes I discussed the role of the National Parks with the Park Historian and walked away feeling like my ideas were heard. I was doing a little of everything, and that made me one of the team. And that is the best thing I could have gotten out of my summer experience.

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A couple weeks ago, I began thinking in earnest about the new NPS history facebook page and what, exactly, its role might be for my department. While I am still not quite sure what the answers to some of the questions I posed are, we here at Park History have been doing our best to pin them down. This past week was Joe’s last week with NPS history, and I will be leaving in less than two weeks, and as the (albeit sometimes reluctant) parents of the facebook page, we – along with the rest of the staff – are realizing that a more solid understanding of the page needs to be in place before we go.

All of us agree – this page should be a way to get the general public excited about the history that the National Parks interprets and about the institutional history of NPS itself. Though it is certainly a great way for employees and historians to connect, a different, internal venue for sharing ideas and problem-solving among NPS staff members might be better. That’s one question answered, at least. But the question of how to get people excited – of what getting people excited even looks like – has become more complicated than it might have seemed at first glance.

In addition to our department-wide meeting, Lu Ann and I also had an interesting conversation recently about how we might or might not engage people using facebook. Prompted by a different nonprofit’s use of trivial pursuit-style questions on their facebook page that she saw as tepid at best and disrespectful at worst, she observed (rightly) that we could not make our page merely about substance-less “fun facts.” While I agreed with her in this particular case, I argued that sometimes seemingly straightforward facts or relatively simple questions can prompt exploration and discussion in ways that a nuanced essay, presented in a format like facebook, might be ignored. It was a great conversation that allowed us to share our differing perspectives on what, exactly, our role is in sharing history with a broad audience.

But it also made me realize that instead of finding answers, I have only come up with more social media questions. Social media is important, but it has limits. No one platform can “spread the word” about an organization all on its own. Only when connected with websites, and blogs, and multimedia – where people can get at those more complex ideas, discuss in-depth questions, and explore the full measure of what studying history can be – can the full shape of an organization be found. More and more, I am thinking about the NPS history facebook page as a jumping off point, an inspirational tool that leads people new content they might not have found otherwise – and maybe even brings them back to discuss it. Hopefully we can begin to move it in that direction before I leave.

So far this summer, I have learned a lot about working for a monolithic, cross-geographic organization, and about the strengths and limits of a place that is so incredibly diverse and has so many competing interests. This has been all the more interesting because the department I work with directly is so small, but what we do is so intertwined with what NPS employees do all over the country – sometimes in ways we do not even realize until we start digging.

In terms of geographic scale and ambition, the professional education modules (or the Foundations courses as they have come to be called) are certainly the largest and most complicated project that I have worked on this summer – and very possibly yet in my entire career. The basic goal manages to be both simple and overwhelming: to give employees across the Park Service a greater understanding of and appreciation for Cultural Resources in NPS, and to help them understand the role they play in managing cultural resources. The courses that have been discussed since I have been there, taken on in bits and pieces by my department and others, include everything from how-to-research, to why-history-matters, to tutorials on paperwork and career categories. While I have been helping out on the edges up to this point (some research there, some culling of educational videos here), this week I got to meet with leaders of all the modules being developed and got a better understanding (or as good an understanding as anyone does!) of what the larger project being undertaken here is.

Along with learning a lot myself about what is included in NPS cultural resources and coming to understand more about e-learning (thanks to a consultant that came to the aforementioned meeting), I am also coming to appreciate the limits of teamwork, especially in an environment where people are so widely scattered and so much needs to be done. Lu Ann and I have been working the most with the introductory module that is meant to present a broad swath of cultural resource roles, and a history module focused on teaching basic research practices to non-historians. But what do you do when most of the people working with you are in another state, especially in these early stages when roles are not yet defined? We have had conference calls and have heavily used a great tool called Writeboard, but that only goes so far. At a certain point, Lu Ann and I agreed after a particularly long conference call a few days ago, you have to decide what people are doing and get to work individually. Sometimes “process talk” can get dangerously sticky. It sometimes seems like collaboration is about how to talk to one another and share ideas, but sometimes it is even more about knowing when to stop talking and get to work.

Earlier this summer, Joe, my fellow Park History Program intern, worked with one of our historians to get a facebook page started for National Park Service History. This came about as a direct result of some of the things uncovered in the Imperiled Promise study. According to historians, interpreters, and other NPS employees who engage with history, few visitors know what, exactly, historians in the NPS do. On a professional level, many of the people who “do” history in the NPS feel isolated where they can share ideas with colleagues, spread information, and otherwise connect history across the National Parks. Thus, the facebook page could be just one small step in better connecting people to history in the NPS – and, of course, can help give NPS history the social media visibility boost that is all but required of businesses, federal agencies, and organizations of all types in this day and age.

Up until this point. Joe has been experimenting with the page mostly on his own, but this week he was out of town. This gave me the opportunity to play a bigger role in shaping our new facebook, but also brought into stark relief a lot of the questions about what, exactly, NPS History wants to do with facebook. What is our goal? Which audience are we focusing on? How do we expect people to use the facebook page? How will they use it? What is our facebook’s relation to other park sites? As with any tool, it is not enough to have a facebook. It must have a purpose, or it merely languishes and, worse yet, reflects negatively on one’s organization. Nevertheless, making that purpose concrete is not easy, even for someone familiar with the ins and out of the admittedly strange and sometimes maddening social media monolith. As I continue to play with our new page, this week and in the coming weeks, I hope to explore these questions. In the meantime, be sure to “like” us at National Park Service History!

Ah, the National Archives. The vault of democracy, the grand collection of government paperwork, the research capital of the country, open and available to all – assuming, of course, you have a reader’s card, leave your pencils behind, and can learn to navigate the sometimes inexplicable organizations of record groups, series, and entries that divide the millions of government documents kept inside. Since the beginning of my internship a month ago, one of my main jobs has been to fulfill research requests for parks across the country who might otherwise not have the opportunity to use the resources available in the Archives (or the Library of Congress). But this week, the scavenger hunt began in earnest.

By coincidence, I received two requests last week from two separate national parks as far away from each other as you can get and still be in the lower 48 states, both requesting information on nineteenth century lighthouses. What luck! I’ve been knee-deep in Record Group 26 (the papers of the Coast Guard and the Lighthouse Service, for those playing along at home) ever since. For Acadia National Park in Maine, I have been unearthing 1850s photographs and original plans for a lighthouse on remote Baker Island in order to help with restoration. From the other side of the country, I’ve been handed an even more colorful project, researching the sometimes notorious history of the lighthouse keepers stationed at Point Loma, now part of Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, California.

Compared to my work last week, this week’s research has been solitary and removed from everyday operations of parks and human interactions, but I am enjoying the contrast. For all I love to teach, I also love being able to dive into history like this, to bury myself in primary sources and disappear. And I feel honored for the opportunity to help parks with projects that might otherwise never be finished and to improve the research and programs that will eventually become available to the public. What will these documents I have unearthed become someday, I wonder. Will plans for a lighthouse show up in an exhibit? Will stories of a lighthouse keeper’s dramatic resignation excite visitors? Who will see these photos of the California coastline, not far from where I grew up, taken over a hundred years in the past? Maybe I will have the chance to find out someday, but for now I will just have to imagine.

It goes without saying that flexibility is an important trait in just about any profession. In my experience, though, working for nonprofits and government organizations requires a special kind of flexibility. And when nonprofits and government organizations come together, the ability to turn on a dime and adjust to circumstances becomes even more important still. I would like to think that Lu Ann and I rose to that challenge this week when we left for the Capital Parks East Resource Center this week for our much-anticipated oral history workshop.

What waited for us when we arrived was not exactly what we had been expecting. The facility we had been planning on using was still locked, a problem that, according to the leader of the Urban Archeology Corps, had been going on all week due to a miscommunication between NPS departments. All of this led to Lu Ann and I beginning our workshop perched on a windy park bench and attempting to shout over the sound of the summer camp programs going on nearby. Lucky for us, the four students at the workshop were committed to being there and willing to bear with us marvelously.

Even after we were finally able to go inside, it was this great group of students that really made our workshop go as well as it did this week. Ranging from an outgoing graduate student who really helped keep discussions going to a quiet high schooler who, when pressed a little, always had a new idea or interesting perspective ready, they were the perfect group to introduce to the idea of oral history. Lu Ann and I made a pretty good team, too, jumping between our PowerPoint presentation and brainstorming sessions about how the students might conduct oral histories in their neighborhoods. Last week, I was kept busy with planning, but this week I was reminded that teaching comes down to presentation, to that ability to adapt on the fly and rely on the people around you – your colleagues and your students alike. Though I love the research and behind-the-scenes work that we do back in the office, I am glad I had the chance a chance to return to my interpreter roots a bit and do this vital on-the-ground work with the Park History program. I’ll definitely been keeping in touch with my park history colleagues in the future to see this project and others like it go.

When I first spoke to LuAnn during our initial interview for this internship and she was telling me about some of the things that Park History would be working on for the summer, one project leapt out at me above all others: creating a two-day oral history workshop for the new Urban Archeology Corps with a local DC nonprofit, Groundwork Anacostia. I have already spoken a little bit about the project and the inspiring things said during the initial planning meeting, but until this week, I hadn’t had the opportunity to begin my part in earnest. With LuAnn back in town and (by mid-week, at least!) my computer access finally granted, the time to create the workshop had come.

Knowing that oral history would be only a small part of the Urban Archeology Corps and that we had only limited time to work with the students, Lu Ann and I started with a basic PowerPoint presentation that she had used for previous NPS oral history training sessions. As it stood, the presentation was geared towards adults and largely focused on explaining NPS protocols to employees, so I was able to heavily edit it to better suit the workshop we were planning. As straightforward as this task seemed at first, it became a great learning experience in adapting teaching to fit a particular audience, as well as a wonderful way to explore how to go about explaining why oral history matters to someone who might never have thought about it before.

My favorite part of this process was being able to confer with Lu Ann about many of the complicated questions that oral history presents. As Lu Ann herself put it, she is a big partisan for the slave narratives and other proto-oral history projects done as part of the WPA in the 1930s. Aware of many of the sticky moral issues that surrounded that project (most of the historians were white and the narrators black, good notes were not always taken, many narrators were paid or expected payment), I had previously approached these oral histories a bit more skeptically. When Lu Ann suggested we use them as examples in our workshop, we ended up having a very fruitful discussion about the limits of oral history, as well as their power to preserve stories that might otherwise have been lost, however imperfectly. In the end, she had me sold, and now I think that, if anything, the flaws in the oral histories that came out of the WPA make them an even better learning tool for a workshop like the one we are planning.

I can only hope that when we do the workshop next week, the students are half as excited and engaged as Lu Ann and I were just putting this thing together.