Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

New Possibilities

The following panel discussion took place during the Encyclopedia’s Civic Partnership and Planning Workshop, held April 16-17, 2009, at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Please join in the discussion by adding your comments below.

After chair Bill Adair of Heritage Philadelphia introduced the panel, Sam Katz was the first to present. Katz discussed the eighteen-part documentary on Philadelphia that he is currently working on and detailed how digital content and institutional linkages are being used to support the project. The documentary is scheduled to include fourteen chronological episodes and four thematic ones and will begin by going back to 1575 with the history of the Native America Lenape tribe. Katz described the documentary’s focus as capturing the people of Philadelphia and their stories and providing “goosebump moments” when telling that history. He cited the public’s connection to history as key and spoke of the desire to communicate that history is “made in one’s backyard” in communities across the city. To this point, Katz plans to solicit personal histories on the documentary’s website and, much like the Encyclopedia itself, is focused on generating new knowledge and collecting the stories that are not recorded anywhere else. Katz described how the documentary will capitalize on the collection and presentation of this new knowledge with a series of webisodes made up of material cut from the main documentary, as well as a series of podcasts of material not included in the webisodes. Katz also detailed the project’s efforts to create a unique flash player for the website, which will allow for central control of the web material; additionally, he cited the use of a general release form and standard compensation agreement as tools that have standardized the process of working with different institutions and collections. Finally, Katz spoke of co-fundraising with WHYY and working with them to lobby for the documentary to air on PBS.

The next speaker was Joan Saverino of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, who spoke about her work on the PhilaPlace project. Saverino cited neighborhoods as a way of engaging communities and building co-constructed narratives. She described her work with the neighborhoods of South Philadelphia and Northern Liberties, which are generally outside of the traditional historical grid. Saverino underscored the use of place to chronicle history and described how landscapes can provide links to culture and memory, as well as act as bridge between the past and the present. She emphasized the importance of asking community members how they want to tell their story and related her experience of a generational divide between older residents who favored guided trolley tours and younger people who wanted a virtual experience. Saverino described how her project has worked to bridge media, art, and disciplines to ultimately create co-authored and interactive narratives. She cited neighborhood meetings as vital to this process and encouraged the embrace of disparate voices while decrying the idea of one authentic truth. Saverino described the project’s web site, which will launch in September 2009, as a multi-ethnic project that connects places across time through primary source documents, audio visual clips, oral histories, photographs, maps and digital models, and downloadable mp3 tours. The web site will also allow for user-generated content through an ancillary site. In her presentation, Saverino also emphasized the need for adequate staff to process the information collected from the neighborhoods and teacher workshops that aided the creation of classroom guides for the project.

John Gallery of the Preservation Alliance was the next panelist. Gallery spoke about the preservation plan that the Alliance is testing out with a strategic plan over the next ten years for a citywide survey of historical resources. He described the use of historic atlases and existing property maps to determine what historic resources are still in place throughout the city. Gallery identified the Alliance’s central focus as determining what preservation issues were overlooked in the past and if historical integrity has been maintained. He described the creation of a kind of mosaic map that shows both the past and present views of a space and emphasized the importance of neighborhood clusters and thematic studies. Gallery also spoke of the grassroots perspective on preservation and what people on the ground value about their neighborhoods or view as historical.

The next speaker was Veronica Wentz of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, who spoke about various tourism initiatives and the development of gophila.com. Wentz summarized highlights in the city’s development as a historical travel destination over the past twenty-five years, including the President’s House project, the Museum of Jewish American History, and the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. She emphasized the national and international audience looking towards Philadelphia and the 3.5 million visitors who come specifically to visit a historic attraction and are very interested in history. Wentz spoke of efforts to market historical areas collectively as a walkable whole, as well as give museums an online presence. She also referenced her agency’s new initiative focusing on African-American themes, Philadelphia 360˚, and described 200,000 photographs of city attractions and video vignettes that her agency could make available to the Encyclopedia. Finally, she offered assistance in promoting and marketing the Encyclopedia project.

The final speaker was Melissa Clemmer from the Civil War Consortium, who related her experience coordinating projects and resources among the consortium’s sixty-five member organizations. Clemmer spoke about the consortium’s plans for the upcoming Civil War Sesquicentennial in 2011. She emphasized the importance of partnerships and described the planned use of transit posters and bus stations as interpretative spaces to tell the stories of everyday people. Clemmer referenced the difficulty of maintaining public interest in the Sesquicentennial for four years and detailed the consortium’s proposed Freedom Month program, which will establish one set time to focus its marketing every year and hopefully achieve high-impact programming. Additionally, Clemmer described the consortium’s efforts to create new knowledge both from their own collections and beyond through the creation of a shared inventory of collections, mailing lists, and other digital media and initiatives. Finally, she spoke about the use of social networking tools to discuss and identify information needs and share information through sites like Craigslist.

Dialogue: Following the panel presentations, the discussion initially focused on the challenges of collaboration, specifically how to efficiently share resources and avoid redundancy. Participants suggested taking advantage of the connectivity of the web to find existing resources and connecting those little bits to a larger web project. To this point, others suggested that redundancy is difficult to avoid given the extensiveness of the web and that, in establishing a web presence, the editors need to ask “what do you have that no one else has?” and “is anybody else doing what you are doing?” In terms of existing resources, one participant suggested using maps from the Philadelphia GeoHistory project. Participants also discussed the tension between historians’ assumed credibility and grassroots efforts, asking who will have authority in this project and will one side ultimately win out over the other. Participants advocated for the inclusion of different perspectives and multiple voices and asked whether this framework will require that notions of “authority” and “history” be re-defined. Finally, the issue of African American history was raised and participants underscored of the importance of telling the stories of ordinary people, overcoming negativity in historical collections, and increasing historical awareness among the public, particularly as it relates to their own neighborhoods and communities.

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