What We’ve Learned: Primary Sources and Accessibility

The Clover Hill Tavern at Appomattox Court House. The porch hosts the park’s living history program, which was my first foray into interpretation. Here, the lessons of emphasizing primary sources and telling diverse stories were made clear. (NPS)

What have we learned since the Sesquicentennial? My answer is best divided into personal revelations and broader implications, but they tie together. For me, I’ve learned just about everything. Not EVERYTHING, of course, but basically everything that I know now I’ve learned since. As the anniversary wound down in the spring of 2015, I was graduating from high school. I certainly had an interest in the Civil War, but it was not the most in depth. I’d visited reenactments, vacationed to plenty of historic sites across the east coast, and read more than a few (mostly popular history or historical fiction) books.

That fall, I headed off to Gettysburg College, and that summer I got my first taste of interpreting to the public as an intern at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, primarily through living history. This was the first time I was giving programs rather than attending them, and the first time I understood all the preparation that is necessary behind the scenes. I spent days looking at primary source material and changed programs day-by-day as I reexamined what worked and what did not. Primary sources are the best way to learn history, and visitors love to hear the voices of the past. I changed how I interacted with the past to a form that was, somehow, both more professional and research based as well as more accessible. Just as I made these changes in my personal career, they are lessons that would help the field as it moves into the 160th.

We’ve all heard critics bemoan a “lack of interest in history” and snark about claims of declining visitation. I don’t necessarily see it as a strict decline, but rather a change in styles of visitation. Take Gettysburg National Military Park, for instance. Observing trends during my time there and chatting with longer-tenured staff makes it clear things have changed. During the pandemic, the Gettysburg battlefield saw increased recreation use as more people came to walk the park. Even before the pandemic, fewer visitors stayed in town for several days at a time, covering every corner of the battlefield. An increased proportion of visitors are simply stopping by for a day trip from another area or are passing through the area. As such, the length of their stay may be shorter than those in the past.

An image of one of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP’s Fit History Hikes. (NPS)

Theoretically, someone could try to tie that to broader themes of shortened attention spans, but I won’t. Instead I see a change in what people think is important. They may not pull out half a dozen maps and spend an hour trying to decide if a brigade was in one spot or five feet further to the left, but they still feel drawn to these important sites. Thus, we should be asking the new audience what is of interest to them rather than wishing we had a different audience. Perhaps that means we implement a program with emphasis on outdoor walking, while a ranger provides interpretation in the vein of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park’s “Fit History Hikes.”[1] We should also expand programming to tell new and different stories. The field has been moving in this direction, moving beyond generals and battle studies to examining social and cultural histories, and it should continue to do so. The wider a range of topics, the wider an audience we can reach and the more Civil War interest we can nurture.

In the vein of accessibility, digital programming should be an emphasis. It reaches thousands more people than solely in person programming and has an indefinite shelf life. COVID-19 has led to sites shifting, by necessity, to online programming. However, another thing I think is key is the classic adage, “quality over quantity.” As we look back on the early-quarantine “Zoom Boom,” I think we can agree that we were eventually burned out or overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content that could be viewed in a week, despite being very interested in the material. I’d rather have fewer finely-polished videos than dozens a month. Since videos remain online, they should always have well-researched and clearly presented information, though I think the videos these past months have been well-done and enjoyable. I think that even after we return to traditional in person programming (and I miss it greatly, don’t get me wrong), videos should remain a continuing part of historic institutions. Tying into my previous points, these videos should be firmly based in primary sources and present a range of topics. The 160th has potential, and I don’t believe any doomsayers; interest in the Civil War isn’t dying, it is just shifting. We should pivot with it.

[1] For more on Fit History Hikes, see the park website here. 

2 Responses to What We’ve Learned: Primary Sources and Accessibility

  1. Perceptive. Well stated. The key word going forward is “relevancy.” Making the Civil War relevant should always be at the forefront of teaching. For example, Civil War battlefields are ultimately a grim reminder of what happens when political leaders take the next step beyond arguing. Relevancy collapses time and space.

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