WHA Conference Day 2, Generic NyQuil Edition

A quick report on a few cool things I saw yesterday. I am quickly coming down with a bad cold so everything is reported through a bit of a generic NyQuil haze::

I went to one traditional academic session, Epidemic!: Disease Across time in Western spaces. A note for readers who may be innocent of the wonders of the academic history conference. By "traditional" I mean a session where historians read their papers out loud to you while you sit and listen. Really, they read their papers out loud. I am not sure why--maybe they think the audience cannot read? Anyway, then a commentator, typically a big shot in the particular subfield, provides a reaction. Then there are questions from the audience--unless the presenters went over their time, which they nearly always do, in which case there are no questions.

Given the format, Disease Across Time was an excellent panel:
  • Adam Hodge, a grad student at the University of Nebraska, explained how horses served as a vector for the spread of smallpox in the 1790s. His work helps to fill in some of the gaps in Elizabeth Fenn's Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, a great book but with some weak spots involving smallpox in the far west.
  •  Mark Allan Goldberg gave an a good is somewhat jargony paper, "Pushing Peyote: Healing, Nation, and the 1833 Cholera Epidemic in Mexican Texas" on efforts to combat the spread of cholera in northern Mexico. Desperate official authorities sometimes adopted an opium cure from native healers.
  • The best paper was Liza Piper's "The Great Flu of 1928: Creating a Geography of Isolation in Canada’s Northwest." She surveyed a series of Spanish flu and other epidemics in the Canadian north in the first half of the twentieth century. The 1918 Spanish flu in particular was a virgin soil epidemic that left a wealth of compelling primary sources, and Piper did a wonderful job of incorporating these and allowing the victims and survivors of the epidemics to narrate the story.
At noon I went to the lunch for the editorial board of Montana, the Magazine of Western History. The magazine treads that middle ground between scholarly and popular, a tough act to pull off but one that Montana does very well. Montana used to have a relationship with the Western Historical Association whereby WHA members received Montana and the magazine got some money. That arrangement has ended and Montana is looking for new readers, new sources of revenue, and how to make the transition to the digital age. I don't know that the editors figured everything out at lunch, but we made some progress.

Reading room of the DPL
After lunch some of us grabbed a cab to the Digital frontiers: A Digital History Workshop session at the fabulous Denver Public Library. I am on the WHA Digital Task Force, a committee that is attempting to promote digital scholarship and sessions within the organization, and we have sponsored a Digital Frontiers session at each of the last three WHA meetings. This year J. Wendell Cox of the DPL organized a session showing off some of their digital projects.

Though I missed the first presenter, I enjoyed the tour through the DPLs vast photographic archives of the American West, only a small fraction of which are online. Particularly interesting was the presentation on the DPL's Creating Communities, an effort to leverage technology to expand DPL's collection of more recent photographs of Denver and "to embrace participatory culture to create social archives which include anyone with an interest in helping to collect and preserve history." The tech end of the project is powered by a Drupal module that connects to the DPL's ContentDM database of digital collection. This enables the public to add their own photographs to the DPL site, to organize online communities to represent neighborhoods or interests, and to add metadata to existing photographs ("That is my uncle John Garcia," or whatever). It was a really innovative project, but what struck me most is how much time and institutional resources it took on the part of the DPL to enable community involvement.

Then, Dear Reader, I went back to the hotel and attempted to treat this cold with generic NyQuil, room service, and MSNBC. I am off to a slow start this morning, we will see how Day 3 goes.