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Digital History

ERR Diary to NARA and the USHMM

The Rosenberg at USHMM

The Rosenberg at USHMM

Alfred Rosenberg headed the Third Reich’s Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, or ERR, the main agency for the systematic looting of art and cultural treasures in Nazi-occupied countries. The greatest works were intended for Hitler’s planned private museum at Linz, and the ERR’s 39 albums recorded many of the stolen artworks and served as catalogues for Hitler. The Monuments Men discovered the albums in 1945, using them to restore artworks to their owners. But investigators at the Nuremberg Trials were aware of Rosenberg’s diary as a valuable source of information about the Nazi regime and its bureaucratic operations.

However, most of the diary disappeared after the trial, apparently preserved in the collections of Robert M. W. Kempner, a German-Jewish attorney who later immigrated to the United States. The diary was stolen from Kemper’s home, and many years later it was recovered through a joint effort between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Justice. After preservation at the National Archives it went to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It contains more than 400 pages of loose-leaf pages covering the years 1936 through 1944. It has now been scanned and transferred to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The public can read it in German online at A translation project is under consideration.

THATCamp at 2012 NCPH-OAH MeetingJoan M. ZenzenI attended my first THATCamp at the recent 2012 NCPH-OAH annual meeting in Milwaukee, WI, and learned the most important thing I need to know about digital history—to not be afraid to try it. THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp, originated in George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media ( This camp is all about collaboration and learning by doing. Campers sign up ahead of time, usually pay a small fee (to cover the cost of the space used for sessions), and share online before meeting in person what they would like to learn with regard to digital projects. Humanists and technology geeks are welcome, of all skill levels and interests. When campers convene at a physical site, they can suggest more topics; then everyone votes on which topics appeal to them. The organizers take these topics and votes and put together a schedule of sessions right then and there . . . and off the campers go!Nearly everyone at my THATCamp had a laptop/tablet to take notes and look things up on the Web. But, electronic devices really aren’t necessary. Instead, participants talk and share ideas and learn from each other in a freewheeling, collaborative setting. This point was reinforced early on. One group had gathered for one of the first session topics. But no one immediately took control of the conversation. They all just looked at each other, waiting for the “teacher.” Finally, one person got up and went to another room where an organizer sat in a different topic session. “No one is here to start us. What do we do?” the novice asked the organizer. “Just start on your own,” encouraged the organizer, “start talking.” Each topic session may have had a person who suggested the topic and may have initiated the discussion, but all participants contribute, and some may eventually lean the discussion to related areas of interest. The goal for each session is to address a problem or an idea in the humanist digital world and find a resolution that may lead one to a definite approach or answer or lead one to follow another path toward exploration and discovery.I attended a session about web writing, and the discussion quickly veered to blogging and questions of authority. We talked about how the blogger may initially assert authority, but that the audience becomes a kind of peer reviewer who might debate or reshape a post beyond what the authoritative blogger had anticipated. Bloggers, we decided, need to be willing (brave enough) to put themselves “out there” and accept that they might get embarrassed or “shot down” by some readers. The advantages are potentially great, though. Bloggers become more comfortable writing the more they blog, and the feedback from their “community of readers” often helps sharpen ideas or lead to new and promising avenues of research and analysis. One participant at the session had been using a blog site to gather additional information for an online U.S. history textbook he and others had written. He wanted readers to share local or regional history stories that could be added to the online text for a particular school district. He also used the blog to uncover inaccuracies or develop nuances in some topics. The blog also served as an online advertisement and marketing tool to garner attention. We ended our session with a brief discussion about Twitter, whose 140-character limit provides a place to easily share short posts or links that may get lost on a blog site. In blogging and twittering, once you are comfortable with the medium, you open yourself up to regular conversations and ideas that in the past were only possible at annual conferences.

Another session on large-scale digitization projects hammered home the advisability of publicly using trial-and-error processes in digital work. One mantra shared by some of the more experienced THATCampers states that people should release their digital projects early and often. This iterative process allows for public use and feedback that strengthens the project and makes room for possible changes. Project developers can fix problems before an official “launch date” when the site would “officially” open. Plus, digital projects have the capacity to grow over time and encompass larger themes or data with such a flexible approach. Perhaps all digital humanities work benefits from such give and take, trial and error, or learn-as- you-go styles. I left my first THATCamp enthused with the desire to jump into digital projects—reflective, and daring to accept blunders and revisions as they may appear. It’s a whole digital world out there, and THATCamp helped me to appreciate it and use it.

Joan Zenzen is an independent historian who has recently written administrative histories about Fort Stanwix National Monument, Minute Man National Historical Park, and currently Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. She can be reached at

Founders Online to Debut in June

A major project is underway to make the papers of the Founding Fathers available online at no cost to the public. These are the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison.

Editorial projects at several institutions, such as the University of Virginia (for Washington), and the Massachusetts Historical Society (for Adams), have been collecting, editing, and publishing these papers for decades, so this undertaking has required not only extensive negotiations for cooperative licensing agreements but new technical advances that allow users to search across the various collections.

The project emerged from congressional hearings of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary ( in 2008 that directed the Archivist of the United States to expedite public access to these founding documents through online publication. The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) partnered with the University of Virginia because of its leadership in exploring digital publication of the papers of several figures of the American Founding Era through its electronic imprint, Rotunda ( An NHPRC grant to the university’s Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and its developmental program Documents Compass enabled the transcription and posting of 5,000 unpublished documents from the Papers of James Madison and the Papers of John Adams ( That successful pilot program provided valuable lessons for the larger project.

The Commission then planned, through cooperative agreements with the University of Virginia, for the launching of a “Founders Online” web site by June 2012 that would make available all published material for the six Founders (about 120,000 historical documents) as well as all the unpublished and in-process materials (about 68,000 documents) over the next three years. Researchers could view transcribed, unpublished letters as they were being researched and annotated by the editors and staff. When fully processed, those letters and materials would be added to the published collection. Users could thus have full access to all that was available. They would also have access to all annotations and background material and be able to search and identify materials across collections. Some 188,000 documents are projected to be on the Archives’ Founders Online site by early 2015. This project promises to be of immense value for the public’s ability to understand the world and intentions of the Founding Fathers. It will also provide a bold economic, educational, and technical model that will provide important lessons as we plan future efforts for online publication of historical materials.

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Blogs:  A New Tool for Public History

By Joan M. Zenzen

Blogs offer us as public historians new opportunities to practice and hone our craft. What is a blog? The word “blog,” which is short for weblog, dates to 1999 and signals a new communication revolution on the World Wide Web. Individuals share their opinions, ideas, thoughts, research, and personal recollections with anyone who cares to read and listen. Those audience members then have the opportunity to post their own reactions to the blogger’s postings, creating a dynamic conversation for the world to witness. The blogger and the occasionally flamboyant responder garner their few minutes of fame with each blog posting. Blogs can certainly deceive participants by sucking up precious time while feeding narcissists with that extra bit of attention and adulation they crave. But blogs are also powerful tools for exchanging information and ideas in what could be called one big electronic seminar room.

Blogs can help public historians sort through and make sense of new research. John Hennessy and his crew of historian interpreters at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, for example, contribute to two blogs, “Mysteries and Conundrums” and “Fredericksburg Remembered,” relating to the Civil War and public history in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania area. These blogs provide regular postings about new research finds and thoughtful commentary that extends beyond the geographic focus to issues of interest to public historians. Some postings analyze newly uncovered photographs for what they might reveal about troop positions or the lives of civilians. Others might examine maps and documents about park development and the choices made for placing visitor buildings or roads. Many of the postings go to the heart of current public history debates, such as commemoration and memory. Hennessy welcomed Christmas this past year with an impassioned post (December 21, 2010) about the dichotomy of how one slave may have enjoyed the holiday but still abhorred slavery because of the restrictions and gross injustices imposed by law upon slaves. Hennessy closed with the reminder that the distinction between finding joy as a slave and yet hating slavery was worth remembering, both for historians and people of conscience.

Other blogs benefit from lively discussion and exchange, extending research beyond the finding itself to the “so what” at the heart of public history. Linda Norris on her blog “The Uncataloged Museum” provoked a range of responses and discussion from her September 2010 posting “Are County Historical Societies Dinosaurs?” Comments shared how some historical societies have adopted new practices, often digital in nature, to avoid extinction while others delved into the value of these small institutions. “Museum 2.0,” authored by Nina Simon, examines participatory museum experiences and pushes pubic historians and museum professionals toward an acknowledgment of the audience and its reactions to a museum exhibit, as opposed to the content and design only. People commenting might widen the subject of the original post to include issues of funding, organizational structure, bureaucratic limitations, regulations, and other mundane but essential matters. Overall, these two blogs (and others) gain attention and value from the combined postings of original blogger and readers to the blog.

Blogs have a free-wheeling and up-to-the-minute quality that distinguishes them. Books and journals rely upon long timetables between idea and publication. H-Net and other e-mail listservs offer a closer comparison to blogs, with both nestled in the electronic landscape and capable of immediacy in proposing and discussing a timely topic. The two differ in terms of platform. Listservs use e-mail as their platform, whereas blogs are web sites where single or multiple authors can post. Culturally, blogs have a reputation for being opinionated, “out-there,” and edgy in their language and approach. Listservs generally strive for reasoned discussion taking into account other perspectives without offending. Blogs are the creation of the blogger, or organizational entity (loosely defined sometimes), and the personality, interests of, and research focus of that creator sets the stage for a blog. Comments can come fast and furiously on some blogs, and readers need to exercise their analytical and critical skills to assess the value of blog postings and their associated comments. Just like a seminar room in your favorite history class or a session at a public history conference, though, the back-and-forth talk often leads to new ah-ha moments and valuable connections that help make up for time spent and weeding done in following favorite blogs.

That fast-and-furious nature of blogs makes them akin to citizen journalism, providing an open mechanism for getting information and opinions out to a wider world. Blogs (and Twitter and Facebook) have proven their worth in making history—not just recording it and discussing it— in the latest surge of unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other countries. Blogs as tools become blogs as documents for tracing historical events and issues. More reason to join the blog wagon.

Joan Zenzen is an independent historian who has recently written administrative histories about Fort Stanwix National Monument, Minute Man National Historical Park, and currently Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.


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