From Far Afield
Written by: Jade Ryerson
Sharing the stories of America’s special places with the National Park Service (NPS) has been unlike any experience I’ve ever had. Everyday I can feel a cool gust of air across my skin…hear small critters crying out softly in the distance…feel the warm glow of the—wait, that’s not the sun.
It’s…the glow of my laptop screen. And…that’s not wildlife. It’s just my cat. Unlike some of the other ACE members who are out in the field this summer, I’m teleworking from home. And although I’m not applying treatments to historic resources at a park or collecting data on site, there are still adventures and excursions to be had in the digital landscape.
In fact, my job this summer is to devise a way to guide the public through that landscape—or at least the parts of it created by the Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education (CROIE) for NPS.gov. My project involves the intangible heritage of our nation’s past—the stories grounded in historic places (such as parks or listings in the National Register)—and making those stories accessible for visitors who aren’t physically at those sites.
I’ve been tasked with developing four thematic ‘Pathways through American History.’ These ‘Pathways’ are similar to subject-specific finding aids that guide virtual visitors through the copious digital content produced by CROIE and celebrate the richness of America’s diverse and inclusive past. The project is helping to lay the groundwork for the nation’s semiquincentennial (which is just a fancy way of saying America’s 250th birthday) in 2026.
But just because I’m working within 50 feet of my fridge doesn’t mean that this project isn’t putting me outside of my comfort zone. I’m much more comfortable researching and writing about historically excluded folks (and their associations with historic places). Because the ‘Pathways’ are associated with the 250th, my challenge is to figure out which stories best communicate what we need from the past to help America live up to its ideals.
Okay, I admit that that sounds pretty lofty, but accessibility is a critical part of the public historical endeavor. No one will be able to enjoy or connect with the stories in parks and at sites if they can’t find them on the Internet. And no one will care if they can’t relate to them either. So, this summer presents a new kind of challenge as I venture into this uncharted ‘intellectual’ territory. The project requires me to think differently about how virtual visitors are coming to the content on NPS.gov and what they hope to get out of it.
While I might not be braving the wilderness or immersed in a historic setting like some of my fellow ACE members, creating a way for the public to find those special places and their stories is still rewarding and invigorating. Hopefully, this project will show that America’s special places are meaningful whether near or far.