Over the course of two days (March 20 and 21), I had the privilege of participating in National History Day – Philadelphia. While I was a relative latecomer to the prep work involved, as I started at the National Archives in October, I became quickly immersed in the planning process. But, it wasn’t until the day that I saw the fruits of our collective labor.
First, NHD Philly supports students in making connections with history. For some of these students, they participated because they love history. It is their moment to shine. I remember quite vividly a group of middle schoolers finding out they won second place in their category, thereby going on to the state competition. It was as if they won the Super Bowl. The cheers, the congratulations…they soaked it all up. They high-fived and bumped chests, as athletes tend to do. In that moment, they were rock stars. Their enthusiasm was so infectious that I couldn’t help being equally excited for them.
For other students, even if history is not their favorite subject, they may at least walk away from the experience with an appreciation for history. For me, those are the kids I’m most interested in reaching out to. In my educational and career choices, I want to expose people to history. I’m not asking for you to love it but to give it a chance. You might learn something in the process. With these students, I may not ever know if they end up going into an education or history-related field. But I know as they get older they will grow to appreciate the experience. I speak from personal experience. There were things I’ve done that taught me many things about myself that I didn’t fully appreciate until I was an adult. Now, I look back on those moments fondly even if at the time I was scared out of my mind. I was a painfully shy and awkward kid. The bulk of my childhood experiences scared the crap out of me but now I’m glad I did them.
Second, NHD Philly was a collaborative process between many cultural institutions to bring this to the community. Volunteers, interns, judges were composed primarily of people from the archives, library, and history professions, teachers, former NHD participants, graduate and undergraduate students, general history/education enthusiastic and advocates. On this day, we were brothers and sisters in arms to make this event happen. These were people who willingly gave up a Saturday to receive training to be judges or, on the two days, arrived bright and early to help set up. Or, most touching of all, staying long after the competition was over to take the time and write positive, constructive comments to students on their judging forms. They wanted these kids to know they cared whether they went on to the state competition or not.
Most importantly, NHD Philly reconnected me to my dream. While I’m an archivist by choice, I am a historian by birth. I will always love history and want to share it with others. Ever since my AP history class in high school, I have loved history with a passion. In that class, my history teacher, Mr. Ervin, demonstrated the cause and effect of history. As somewhat apathetic high schooler, I hadn’t thought of history in that way…as having an impact on my life. That class awakened something in me. It was that class that lead me to pursue my Bachelors in History. And from there….well, the rest is history. 😉
I want to do what Mr. Ervin did for me but in a different way. I want archives and archivists to actively engage with the communities they serve. I could preserve documents all day long for the rest of my life. But, if no one ever visits the archives then my job is only half complete. I want to take a page from the library and museum fields. Libraries are engaging with communities in innovative ways through social media, public programming, and all-around friendliness. Museums take this responsibility seriously enough that they have created education departments within their institutions. Heck, they even have Curator of Education as a position. I want to see the equivalent in all archives. I want an Archivist of Education or an Outreach and Education Archivist. It takes a special type of person to hold that type of position. You must understand archives and how they operate and be able to communicate that to the public. I think those people exist. Like the NHD Philly kids, we’re just waiting for our moment to shine. It’s my biggest aspiration to make that happen.
That’s my dream.