historian, author, film producer

First History Harvest Held–railroad materials gathered and digitized

On May 15, 2010 dozens of railroad history fans gathered at NET in Lincoln, Nebraska, to share their unique materials. Old maps, letters, photographs, and diaries were digitized at the event and will soon be up on Railroads and the Making of Modern America. For a radio broadcast of the event, go to NET Radio.

The History Harvest is

a joint project of



the University of Nebraska Department of History

The History Harvest seeks to create a popular and engaging movement to democratize and open the people’s and the nation’s history by allowing people to contribute their letters, photographs, objects, and stories for general educational use and study. This shared experience of giving will be at the heart of the History Harvest programming and movement: we seek nothing less than a public bestowal of our own history. In a time of increased privatization and commercialization of the sources necessary to do history, our project will raise visibility and public conversation about history and its meaning, as well as provide a new foundation of publicly available material for historical study.

In this way the History Harvest seeks to recover a public engagement with the past, much as did the New Deal did with the WPA history and writers programs. That public effort created the sources for a whole generation of scholars and teachers–from audio recordings of ex-slaves to photographs of migrant workers in the Dust Bowl. Our effort is public history with a similar spirit, making invisible archives and stories more visible, bringing them into the public realm for all to use, hear, and see.

The “harvest” of historical documents, sources, and materials will reveal large sets of important historical material that are currently buried in archives, attics, and basements. Both individuals and institutions can participate in this effort. A museum may wish to offer rarely seen items in its collection, or ones that often attract the most attention locally; a community history society may offer its materials; an individual or family may present their family letters or objects.

The History Harvest initially will take place in a series of communities across the Great Plains region and then the nation. Building interest and enthusiasm for the project through advertising and public awareness, we will run a major event in each community we select for the History Harvest program.

Because the History Harvest centers on the idea of asking the public to contribute to our understanding of the past, these community events would be celebratory and community building. Each would aim to explore our common heritage but recognize the real consequences of history for today. Some communities, especially native ones but also those of African Americans and immigrants, have had their histories expropriated and this program will seek to encourage dialog and preservation without appropriating the past or its material objects. The History Harvest will focus on the nature of the historical artifact and the stories that we tell from it. Much of what historians use in their scholarship comes from government or elite sources, but this program will seek to make other sources, especially family and local ones, more visible and accessible.

Individuals will be able to bring in their history, allow us to digitize it and make it available in digital form, and participate in a conversation about what these histories mean. The event will feature scanning and filming tables for print, art, and 3-dimensional objects, and the opportunity to follow up with on-site visits at other locations. We can imagine someone coming to the harvest with a homestead family letter collection, or a set of diaries from the first black principal of a school at the turn of the century, or a set of church records, or a Civil War uniform, or a railroad timetable.

Nearly every major digital history project underway at research universities has experienced the interest, generosity, and enthusiasm of the public. For the Valley of the Shadow project at the University of Virginia, one of the first such endeavors, local community supporters sent the project in 1997 a series of original Civil War soldier’s letters as a gift. In 2001 local African American researchers contributed to another University of Virginia project on Race and Place, a digital history of Charlottesville, Virginia in the era of segregation. Construction workers, who had read press releases about the project, subsequently found hundreds of letters in house they were about to demolish–letters and correspondence over twenty years from the first black principal in the county in 1895 and his family through World War I. At the University of Nebraska anonymous supporters have sent the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities hundreds of railroad timetables to be digitized and contributed to a digital history project on the subject–Railroads and the Making of Modern America. And letters about Willa Cather, Lewis and Clark, and Walt Whitman, come in infrequently but steadily to these projects. The public will to participate in history, to contribute and engage, remains strong, and the History Harvest will support, encourage, and channel that energy for future research and teaching.

Beginning in Nebraska, our program will take advantage of the remarkably diverse communities in the state, the reach and audience for NET, the excellent graduate history program at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the deep public interest in history across the state. Nebraska Studies, one of NET’s leading digital resources, offers a platform for expanding and developing the program. Numerous local history centers and libraries can be found across Nebraska. The state includes rich and diverse history of immigration, settlement, railroading, Native history, literature, and politics. From William Jennings Bryan to Gerald Ford, from Willa Cather to Aaron Douglas, from Standing Bear to Malcolm X, Nebraska’s stories and histories remain vastly important to the nation’s experience. But broader social histories of local communities and their people will only grow more important to preserve and understand.