When Public History Goes, Well, Public

As I addressed in a previous blog post (my very first one, I'm pretty sure), there really isn't just one definition of "public history". The use of history in a public context comes in many forms, and one of these forms happens to be via social media.

Social media in its most rudimentary form has existed almost as long as the internet itself. It's taken many forms, from things like LiveJournal and MySpace to the more current Twitter and Facebook. One of the more popular forms of social media today, whether it be for personal use or business, is Instagram.

Ever since I got involved in the field of public history in my second year of undergrad, I've been following NCPH on Twitter. I've had my current Twitter account since 2012, but there were several accounts before this one that adds up to using it for the better part of a decade (I feel very old saying this). I've had my Instagram almost as long, so when NCPH announced that they were creating an Instagram account earlier this year, I followed pretty much immediately. The cool part about the NCPH Insta (which is @publichistorians, by the way) is that while it's ultimately governed by an NCPH staff member, its content is pretty much solely created through the means of "takeovers" by members of NCPH. Basically, members are given access to the account and for the week, they post pictures and stories about their day to day activities, whether it be work related and some hints of personal too (especially all the #publichistorypets. Those are important.). This gives followers and NCPH members a glimpse into the work that public historians do, because it's super varied and there's really no such thing as the "typical day" at work.

My first involvement in one of these takeovers is when my boss at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre Krista McCracken (who I've mentioned here before, and will probably continue to mention) did one for themselves. I was in a couple posts, namely our group staff photo and one of me and my colleague Jenna working on transcription guidelines. I also contributed to a few stories, and it was really neat to see people interact with the work we were doing at the time and to connect with those interested in it. Also got to see a few extra pictures of Krista's cats, which is always a bonus (I am a really big fan of #publichistorypets, okay?). So, at the beginning of September when NCPH put out a call for people interested in doing member takeovers, I jumped at the chance.

Until my takeover (I think, anyway) they'd all been done by people currently working as professionals in public history, or as interns while finishing up their degrees. To do one as a (very fresh!) public history student was different, and because it was different it was really challenging. From September 30th until October 4th, updating the NCPH account was my responsibility. When you begin the takeover, you're given a personal password for the publichistorians account and a set of guidelines to follow that outline what kind of content you should be posting, how often, and when. It's pretty straight forward and simple on paper, but sitting down to it is really kind of intimidating.

The week before my takeover, I sat down and physically wrote out a social media plan, a skill I learned in a volunteer role as a youth spokesperson for Scouts Canada back in the day, which may have been the only thing I retained from that program and I'm grateful for it. I wrote out the prospective captions for my posts, and the basic content I was going to include. The plan for the stories was a little more haphazard, because those I kind of updated as I went along and they were more "in the moment" things.

I post stories on my personal account all the time, and barely think anything of it. I've even got them sorted into "highlight" groups on my profile based on what's in them (mostly my dog, Spotify song updates, and some of my public history work). On the NCPH account, I posted about doing homework, going to class, Western's campus, my dog Harriet, and some things we've already done in the public history program. I also included my trip to a provincial park on my day off class (parks have their own form of public history, but that's a blog for another day). I also included (as per the guidelines) an introduction and a farewell post, and I feel like overall, it went okay.

Posting and updating the stories on the NCPH account felt like a whole different ballgame. For one, the followers on this account, in theory, have no idea who I am. Most of my followers on my personal account I've interacted with at least once, so they know what they're getting from me. The challenge of coming off as a professional and creating interesting content slapped me right in the face. Especially since I feel like my day to day activities aren't exactly the most exciting. I enjoy them, don't get me wrong, but I'm not sure that the followers of NCPH who are used to seeing professionals and their work would be as interested in my life as me or my friends are. It's probably some form of imposter syndrome, and I powered through it, but at the same time it was incredibly nerve wracking having my work and life become more "public" feeling, I suppose.

Social media for history and public history is a really useful tool, as it allows more ways for people to engage with the public, and expand audiences for your museum/archive/subject/whatever. You just have to figure out how to do it right (ie. The MERL, who are reigning supreme over museum memes), and how to properly engage the audience you currently have. I hope I did it at least semi-correctly. I know a good chunk of my friends ended up following the NCPH account because of me and still do, which is cool.

If you're on Instagram, you should definitely give NCPH a follow (and check out my posts and my story highlight while you're at it).

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