The first time that I came across the name Roy Rosenzweig was in the textbook for a class titled simply, “Historiography.” The book discussed Rosenzweig’s 1983 book, Eight Hours for What We Will, as a key work in American labor history. Since Eight Hours is a history of workers in Worcester, Massachusetts, just thirty miles from where I grew up, I went to the library and checked out the book. As I read, I was captivated by how Rosenzweig had captured the lives and labors of working-class people.
Sometime later I had my first encounter with the Center for History and New Media, which was not yet named after Roy Rosenzweig. I was trying to create a website and couldn’t get it to look the way I wanted. (I am still terrible at CSS.) I wrote to a graduate student who was working at CHNM and asked if I could copy and paste the design for his website. He graciously said yes, introducing me to some of the key values of CHNM: collaboration and openly sharing with all.
One of the clearest examples of openness in RRCHNM’s history was the THATCamp movement. At a THATCamp, the schedule was decided on democratically and anyone could propose a session. They introduced thousands and thousands of people to the field of digital history—and the digital humanities more broadly—and they taught people to put into action the same values that Roy Rosenzweig had put into place at RRCHNM: openness, democracy, collaboration. While I was a grad student, I got to attend the second “THATCamp Prime,” held in Research Hall at GMU’s Fairfax campus. I still have the T-shirt, rather the worse for wear. When I got back to Massachusetts, I was ready to organize THATCamp New England three times.
Over its three-decade history, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media has brought compelling, democratic histories to millions and millions of people. And the founding purpose of Roy Rosenzweig to democratize history through new media, coupled with the founding values of openness and collaboration, has directly shaped the careers of the scores of people who have worked at the Center. I am lucky—and grateful—that RRCHNM has shaped my career as well, first as a graduate student at Brandeis and for the past nine years as affiliate faculty and one of the faculty directors at the Center. And as I step into the role of executive director starting this academic year, I hope that I can carry forward the same purpose and values that have defined its past.
As RRCHNM enters its thirtieth year, its fundamental mission remains the same. But now it has a new set of plans to accomplish that mission. Over the past three decades, RRCHNM has reinvented itself several times, including in the past few years under the leadership of Mills Kelly.
Here is where we are today and where we are headed over the next few years.
First, RRCHNM is a leader in creating educational materials for history, especially K–12 education. This year, two out of every three of our millions of website visits will be to one of our education websites. Our educational resources for world history and American history are critical in a period when history education is contested at every turn and its value is called into question.
Second, we create compelling narrative and interpretative histories for public audiences. This coming year our new podcast studio will release shows about the American Revolution and the history of American antisemitism, while continuing shows on women’s history and the history of the Appalachian Trail. RRCHNM is also working on producing interactive scholarly works on subjects ranging from art history to early modern history.
Third, we create data-rich histories. We know how to go from historical sources to data sets to rich visualizations. In many ways, these data-rich histories connect back to the Center’s origins in social history and to its practice of giving people the tools to understand history for themselves.
Finally, we train incredible digital historians. MA and PhD students in history who have graduated after coming through RRCHNM are educators, librarians, DH center staff and directors, professors, archivists, programmers, public historians, government officials, and a host of other roles. Thanks to RRCHNM, GMU’s PhD program has always been one which aims for—and achieves—a diversity of career outcomes with a great placement record.
RRCHNM has a strong team of historians, developers, educators, podcasters, scholars, administrators, and students. The credit for that goes to the previous executive directors, and I am grateful to have had the chance to work for two of them. Stephen Robertson led RRCHNM to create more interpretative histories, and he emphasized RRCHNM’s distinctive identity as a digital history center. Over the last four years, Mills Kelly has led RRCHNM through a major transition, hiring the majority of our current team to accomplish our new goals. He also extended RRCHNM’s reach through partnerships that we formed or continued during his tenure with institutions such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History, and the German Historical Institute. And as the host of The Green Tunnel, he led that podcast to over 100,000 downloads and an enthusiastic following among historians and hikers.
I am grateful to have worked at RRCHNM for the past nine years, and I hope to be a careful steward of the Center as I step into this new role. I’d invite you to browse our list of staff and read some of their bios. You’ll quickly get a sense of what I’ve felt daily over the past few years: that this group of historians is doing important work democratizing access to history with an open, collaborative spirit, just as Roy Rosenzweig founded CHNM to do.