Electronic Resources and the Education of History Professionals

William H. Mulligan, Jr.
Department of History
Murray State University

The personal computer, but much more importantly the Internet and associated electronic communications developments that it has allowed to become widely available, have already transformed the museum and historical agency world in a variety of ways almost too numerous to enumerate in the time available here. These changes have also taken place in a remarkably short period of time, during the professional lives of still relatively young (at least I'd like to think still relatively young) people. These changes demand thoughtful attention of those of us who direct programs in public history, museum studies, and related fields if we are to train graduate students for successful careers in the field.

I recall learning Fortran and how to punch cards as part of computer science as a graduate student in the early 1970s and then staying up late into the early morning hours countless nights in the windowless, underground computer center while the computer center staff ran the deck-of- cards programs as "batch jobs." And, of course, correcting the minuscule errors that would lead to "fatal errors" and waiting for another batch run. Much of the data for my doctoral dissertation was punched onto cards and "run" this way. These are, for our students of course, the equivalent to the classic "I walked ten miles to school in the snow every day, uphill both ways" stories. They simply smile and allow us to wax nostalgic.

Beginning in the mid-1980s I was privileged to implement both computerized book and manuscript cataloging (using OCLC) and the administrative use of computers (at the time this meant word processing and accounting) while director of the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University. Such uses are now commonplace in all but the smallest historical agencies, at least those with paid staff.

The use of computers in a wide variety of historical agency applications, from collections management to membership and fund raising, has become increasingly "user friendly." It is now even possible to put together a reasonably attractive and effective web page without knowing a line of HTML code. The days when "the" computer lived in a special room attended by lab-coated acolytes have given way to the ubiquitous desktop -- most of which are more powerful than "the" computer of "olden days" ever dreamed of being. No one, it seems to me, can go forth claiming to be a public historian of any type without being thoroughly computer literate.

Today, listserves allow almost simultaneous communication among history professionals anywhere in the world. One's professional network can be much larger than a circle of acquaintances from grad school and people you've met at conferences, but can include a largely anonymous, at least initially, body of subscribers to subject specific lists who share your interests and concerns to one degree or another. I've recently judged a debate among public history students at Charles Sturt University in Australia, for example. The Irish Centre for Migration Studies at University College Cork just sent the papers from a 1997 conference as attachments to e-mail to those who participated in the conference.

The solitary professional or staff members at small institutions now have ready access to a large pool of colleagues on a daily basis with whom they can discuss professional issues and from whom they can seek advice. The isolation of small organizations is rapidly disappearing in part because of the ability to discuss professional issues through listserves and keep current with the profession. In addition, researchers can search on-line catalogues and web-based finding aides from their offices and discuss their work with colleagues in global dialogue from the same location. Museums and other cultural organizations can publicize their programs and activities in new powerful ways and virtual exhibits reach people who are far from the museum that mounted the exhibit. These are only a few of the powerful new tools computers and the internet offer historical agencies. Preparing people to maximize the opportunities these resources offer must begin during their professional training.

Today, I will discuss what I have done so far and plan to do in the future to integrate electronic resources thoroughly into the public history graduate program at Murray State University, which I direct.

The Murray State Public History Program began in the fall of 1993 when I joined the faculty. From the very beginning of the program, we have tied to integrate the use of the Internet as fully as possible into the training of our students. Initially, this largely involved their participation in professional listserves and reviewing web pages. As the university has made access to the Internet almost universal on campus and its use in classrooms easier, this aspect of the program has been steadily expanded. Within the last year interactive web pages have been developed for the basic syllabus for all six of our basic public history courses. (I have also developed web page syllabi for my United States history and undergraduate research methods courses as well). As each course is offered the interactive nature of the basic syllabus has been enhanced in a number of ways.

At the most elementary level e-mail is used, via a link on the syllabus, for students to ask me questions about assignments, arranging appointments, or otherwise communicate with me about the course. I have a course list, set up as a nickname in Eudora, that allows me to contact all of the students in the course whenever necessary. This type of e-mail is also used for announcements of on- and off-campus lectures and programs students as well as exhibits and programs on the array of history content cable channels. In addition to the communication and exchange of information I also want students to become accustomed to using e-mail for routine professional communication and develop facility with it.

I am also concerned that students learn about the value of participation in professional lists. While I recommend full, appropriate participation in the list, I only require my students to "lurk" because I think there is already too much clutter on list without a bunch of "I'm a student in . . ." messages (sorry folks). They also write an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of listserve participation for the area of the profession we are dealing with in the particular course. I do require them to submit a copy of the acknowledgment of their sign on and sign off messages. There are a number of purposes for this assignment. I want them to know more than that the listserve exists. I want them to be familiar with its character and personality, and each list I've ever been on for any time has a personality, so that when they graduate they will have realistic expectations of what list participation can provide. I also think that simply observing the various lists is educational. It allows students to see the professional issues that are of current concern and the types of questions and answers that exist. They also get a sense for nature of professional discourse although the level of civility on most lists is somewhat below that we would all hope for as a minimal level.

Course syllabi also provide links to national and state professional organizations, government agencies and offices, and other agencies that students draw on for course assignments and general professional development. I try to include every organization I think students who will work in public history generally or the specific aspect covered by the course will need to be familiar with whether there is a specific assignment using the link or not. I tell students that there is information on the syllabus they may not need during the semester, but might need later in their careers. They seem to explore these links and learn about the organizations pretty thoroughly. My sense is that they do in fact explore the links, whereas in the past when I would pass out brochures they would be filed away. We have more discussion both in and out of class about these organizations now than we did when we relied on brochures for information.

There are assignments that involve heavy use of the web For example, in my Historic Preservation course students either prepare a National Register of Historic Places nomination or a lesson plan following the Teaching with Historic Places model as the semester project. Links in the syllabus allow them to obtain all the forms and manuals they need directly from the National Park Service for either assignment either by downloading them or by ordering them via e-mail. Additional links are provided to bibliographies and other resources, either existing web resources or ones created by the instructor for the course or another public history course. In addition these links are intended to make students aware of the services available from various organizations so that when they enter the profession they know where to go with various questions and needs that arise. We have links to the NPS as mentioned, but also to the National Trust, Main Street, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Society of Architectural Historians, the SHPO, etc. Reviewing the links and accessing the various organizational and agency web sites has also proven to be an effective way to introduce students to the structure of historic preservation as a professional field -- the identity of the various agencies, offices, and organizations involved, their role and function, publications, services, etc.

Also, since I assume many, if not most, of our graduates will work for small organizations, I want them to know what is available through the web from the IRS, for example, about the tax code and related forms as they related to not-for profit educational organizations and 501( c )3s. Similarly in our Administration of Historical Organizations course we include links to sites that deal with the Americans with Disabilities Act, NAGPRA, and an array of other every day administrative concerns. For someone in a small organization without an extensive reference collection nearby this can be very useful knowledge. Similarly designed syllabi exist for all our public history courses. I've also incorporated web resources into the United States history courses I teach, but that experience, while also positive is not relevant to this paper.

Our students go out and function in the real world. Several have implemented computerized cataloging of artifacts at the museums they work in., others have developed web pages for their institutions. They communicate with one another and the larger profession by e-mail and through listserves. It appears that our effort to help them see computers as a necessary and natural part of the world of the historical agency is working.

William H. Mulligan, Jr. is associate professor of history and director of the Forrest C. Pogue Public History Institute at Murray State University


1 William H. Mulligan, Jr. "The Family and Technological Change: The Shoemakers of Lynn, Massachusetts during the Transition from Hand to Machine Production, 1850-1880," Clark University, 1982) - forthcoming Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellon Press.

2 We have graduated eleven people so and will graduate two more this spring. Each of our graduates who has sought a job (one was and remains self-employed in the field and another went on to study for his Ph.D.) was offered a professional position. There are currently four full-time students in the program, a bit smaller than we would like.

3 These can best be accessed at http://campus.murraystate.edu/academic/faculty/Bill.Mulligan/mull-pers.htm#courses.

4 In the United States history courses links are provided to on-line exhibits and other resources that supplement the lectures. In the research methods course there are links to web pages with source material on the topic of the seminar --usually Salem Witchcraft.

5 The syllabus for HIS 592 Historic Preservation is at http://campus.murraystate.edu/academic/faculty/Bill.Mulligan/592syl.htm .

6 The syllabus for the Administration of Historical Organizations course is available at http://campus.murraystate.edu/academic/faculty/Bill.Mulligan/666syl.htm.