What Your Local History Conference Can Do for You

It’s conference season here at Hack Library School, and this weekend I dipped my toes in the conference pool for the first time. Well, almost the first time—20+ years ago I went to a comic convention for a day and a half with some friends of mine. I hated every minute of it, bailed early, and haven’t been back since. A library conference sounded like a comic convention with more slide presentations and less binge drinking, and I was not looking forward to that aspect of the library life. But since it’s a professional expectation, like joining a book club and wearing dresses with pockets, I figured I’d better start getting used to it.

I live in the middle of nowhere, where even small library conferences are a three- to five-hour drive, so I found something more local: the 70th Annual Upper Peninsula History Conference. “But Emily,” I hear you saying. “How can going to a history conference help my library career?” It depends on your specialty, of course, but if you’re going into reference or archiving, it’s a good idea to keep abreast of the latest local history finds. It’s also a way to learn who to contact when a patron comes to you with an obscure question. If you’re already settled in the region where you’d like to be a librarian, history conferences are great for networking. I had on my dress with pockets and I somehow acquire a stack of books wherever I go, encouraging several librarians to approach me for small talk. I met people from major museums who come to the area every year for vacation. No one offered me a job on the spot, but everyone was nice and I was proud of myself for remembering to keep a pleasant look on my face.

This was a public history conference, not an academic one. There was no poster presentation and only one of the speakers was a professional historian. Everyone else was either a museum professional or an enthusiastic amateur—an especially memorable talk was about a notorious mining disaster, given by a retired safety official from the local iron mines. Another was from a retired salesman, who told the conference about an early entrepreneur he admired. Both were topics that put me to sleep, but the speakers felt so much passion for their subjects that I couldn’t help but be interested.

Two of the events I attended were about Native American history in the area. One was a bus tour to the Potawatomi Heritage Center, where I learned two things. The first is that the Heritage Center is in the shape of a turtle, because turtles are good at remembering. This fact enriches my life in a way I can’t really describe. The second is more nebulous- the talk and tour was given by a tribal elder, and his primary emphasis was on buildings that had gone up within the last thirty years, and on seemingly minor infrastructure improvements. I was bored and kind of puzzled, but I thought to myself, wait, this guy thinks it’s important to tell us about this stuff. It’s not boring to him. He sounds really proud of that clinic and that sewage treatment facility.

The elder, Earl Meshigaud, Sr., had in fact told us why it wasn’t boring- because until the 1990s, there wasn’t any sewage treatment, any clinic, or even any road besides a two-track that was impassable after it rained, in a climate where it’s only not raining because it’s snowing. I just didn’t catch his meaning because I was used to only hearing about the terrible things that happened to the Native Americans. Any action they took on their own behalf was in the context of federal lawsuits and appeals to Congress, not the basics of building a tolerable life. Meshigaud was telling us about the basics that I had been taking for granted.

The second event was a talk given by an archeologist with the National Forest Service about how local Native Americans had used the early logging industry to their advantage. He had been interested in logging sites since early in his career, and for a long time he used the standard framing of “industry arrives and destroys local culture, and here’s what was lost.” Over the years, though, he became friends with people from the neighboring tribes, and he realized that he was looking at their history the wrong way. The narrative shouldn’t be about what was lost, but about how people adapted and survived.

This is how a history conference can be important to a librarian—by helping us to understand the viewpoints of our patrons and potential patrons, what they need and what’s important to them.

Featured image is by the author.

Emily is an almost-first-year MLIS student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She welcomes suggestions of short answers to “so where are you going to school?” since “University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign” takes forever to say. Responding with “Illinois” does not work—it only leads to the follow-up question of “so where in Illinois?” and she’s really tired of this conversation.

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