For my interview I chose Brandi Burns. Brandi is the Historian for the Boise Department of Arts and History. I have had the opportunity to work with her in developing some of the pieces of the Boise plat walk tour in July. Since Brandi is so well spoken, I shall let her responses serve as their own introduction.
ZB – You are a city historian which means you are involved in lots of stuff. If you could boil down what you do in a sentence or two—or a paragraph—what would you say?
BB – I serve as the Boise City Department of Arts & History’s Historian, which means that I see to the day-to-day operations of the History Division of the Department, as well as work on a variety of projects, including overseeing the publication of a weekly article for the Department’s blog; various projects for the BOISE 150; answer research questions from the public and other City departments; and maintain the oral history collection at the department.
ZB – What types of projects do you work on? Are there those that you feel are more successful? How do you measure the success of a particular project?
BB – Some of the projects I have worked on in the last six-nine months include a large digital tour of historic locations around Boise, which will be unveiled in April 2013; preparation and planning for a walking tour of the original Boise City plat for July 2013; a lecture about the love lives of Boise residents that I presented in February 2013; and preparation for an exhibit in the BOISE 150 Sesqui-Shop in April 2013. I’ve also worked on oral histories, content for the website, other exhibits, and collection management. The most successful projects in my opinion are the ones that the public and/or participants enjoys the most—I like oral histories for that matter because the narrator always seems liking having someone sit down and listen to their stories. Our blog has been very successful as well, and I attribute that to our writer’s voice, the sound historical research, and the medium the content is delivered through.
ZB – What issues do you run into in completing, or initiating a project?
BB – One of the biggest issues is that every project takes longer than you think it will, and you are often juggling several projects at once. It’s important to have progress deadlines, and to report about the tasks that you have completed. A project can also become more complicated when you have more than one person working on it, but it is so wonderful to be able to have interns at the Department to help rely on. We get to work on such a variety of projects that it also helps interns gain the experience that they are looking for.
ZB – While we’re on the topic of projects…do you get to pick your own, or are they assigned, or a blend?
BB – Projects are a blend of being assigned and picking your own project. So far I have not worked on a project that I haven’t enjoyed, even if it was assigned. I have also had the ability to work on projects that I have specifically picked, including a series for Preservation Month about the Homestead Act, presentation topics, and the blog.
ZB – Do you work with a particular demographic, social class, or an occupation?
BB – We try to have a wide appeal and tell inclusive histories. But I think we tend to appeal to the traditional history crowd, which tends to be a little older, while the twenty- and thirty-somethings are not as engaged. I think we are widening the crowd however with the great things we are doing with the BOISE 150. The Sesqui-Shop appeals to many groups and we are reaching people who didn’t even think that they would like to become engaged with local history. Our Think & Drink event in February drew a large crowd, and our big event planned for July 7th to commemorate the founding of the city will bring in a big crowd. Our Sesqui-Speaks lecture series is also bringing in people we have never seen at our other events, so the BOISE 150 project is really reaching new groups in the community.
ZB – What would be your ideal project? If you could choose (and had the money for) any project, what would it be?
BB – Remnants of Boise, the project that will be unveiled in April, has been my ideal project. It has combined digital history, research, interpretation, and traditional experiences like exhibits. It has been exciting, and I can’t wait to see what everyone thinks in April.
ZB – How is your position funded? how are your projects funded?
BB – My position is funded with money for the BOISE 150 project right now, as are many of the projects that we are working on.
ZB – I know you work a lot with digital history. What do you see as the future for public history in the digital realm?
Digital history is very exciting! We have this great opportunity to create new ways to engage with audiences in meaningful ways. It makes public history easier to disseminate, and to help the audience engage with during their busy schedules. But it is just another tool for historians—we can’t forget the traditional tools of brochures, and interacting with a human being who can tell the stories of a place during a tour, or an engaging presentation. Everyone does not have a smart phone, and who can tell how long QR codes and other things of that nature will remain popular? Just as an example, I went to Spokane for a conference, and I really wanted to experience the city as a heritage tourist. But I could only find one brochure for the downtown core that was a self-guided walking tour. They had other tours online but I had no way of getting to the brochures while I was on foot, and when I tried to print them, they would not print in a usable way. It was terrible and frustrating. I kept thinking “how would someone not familiar with how to find resources like these tours experience the history of Spokane on their own?” “What would they do? Where would they go? What if they were like me and incapable of accessing online material on the go?” For me it was a real lesson in making sure our online content can be supplemented with paper, and thinking of how our paper can be supplemented with online content. We need to remember to create content for these two types of ways to experience history…much of it can be the same, but it should be presented in a way that each audience can gain something from the experience, and preferably not get frustrated.
ZB – What does your organization look for in hiring for a position such as yours? What level of education do they require?
BB – I know when I look for interns, I like to see an interest and a passion in local history (and that local history does not necessarily have to be Boise). If they have this interest and passion, than the skills that they bring can be transferred to create really great projects about Boise. Being an intern/part-time employee or contractor, you need a BA in history or some related field, and an MA/MAHR can really set you apart. My position needs to be filled with someone who has a Master’s.
ZB – Any advice for someone entering this field?
BB – Be flexible. Be flexible with both where you work (location and/or institution) and even where you volunteer. You never know when or where your volunteer hours could lead to a more permanent position. Concerning where you work, history positions can be anywhere, even if they do not specifically call out history in the job description—you have to really watch this in positions that appear to be doing digital history work. Historians can be great content providers in the IT field. I also like to remember, and it applies equally to anyone entering the field, that I don’t have to be trained in everything—like GIS mapping, or how to code a website, etc.—I’m a historian, and I can provide special analysis, interpretation, content, and point of view that may have been overlooked. Historians are great to have around, even if they are not fulfilling a traditional role. Your skills are marketable beyond the history field, so don’t sell yourself short.