• Reflections on My First THATCamp

    Earlier this week I had the good fortune of attending THATCamp Jersey Shore at Richard Stockton College’s Carnegie Library Center in Atlantic City, NJ. It was my introduction to THATCamp and the strange animal that they bill themselves as – the ‘unconference.’ It all sounds very anti-establishment and even satirical – especially when the lunch session is called “dork shorts” – but the last conference I attended featured an assembly of museum professionals galloping around a ballroom dance-floor with a plush stuffed pony named “Diamond” (Diamond was nominated for a seat on the board the following morning). How bad could THATCamp really be?

    THATCamp turned out to be one of the most insightful and uplifting experiences that I’ve had thus far in cultural resource management. You may say, “What about that cemetery you helped save from destruction? And the smiles on those kids’ faces when you made history fun? And that young lady you helped get into college? All of those things pale in comparison to some ‘unconference’ of humanities hippies sticking it to the man in the home of Snookie and The Situation?!” No. No, they don’t. Those are everyday battles and everyday victories, though. THATCamp is like an “It Gets Better” for the humanities. It’s hope and insight on how to do the things that we know we could and should do to help facilitate these little victories, but don’t have to know-how to carry out.

    Standard conversations at the workplace and in the standard conferences tend to focus on our shared obstacles in the humanities. This ‘gathering of the minds,’ for lack of a more popularly understood description, was all about the solutions to bypass or barrel through those obstacles. The BootCamp component of THATCamp offered vital perspectives and solid footing with which to further broaden the discussion and application of these solutions.

    The Technology Consumer session concentrated on the fundamentals o: purchasing a digital camcorder. Roberto Castillo, of Richard Stockton College’s (RSC) Computer Services department, led a great discussion identifying what criteria to look for in making this purchase and how certain characteristics are more significant for some projects than others. While I am no stranger to digital cameras/camcorders and shopping online through CNET reviews and the like, I am new to having to justify these purchases to a third party or superior. This will help me to put things in perspective on what bullet-points to focus on and how to present them in a language that less-experienced shot-callers would understand.

    Dan Gambert, also of RSC’s Computer Services department, offered a Boot Camp session introduction to “Photoscape , the Photoshop Alternative.” While Photoscape doesn’t pack quite as much punch as Photoshop, the session’s title neglected to include “free” in the description, which definitely presents this program as a viable alternative for any budget-minded professional/student/hobbyist dabble with image-manipulation. Though Picasa has been my chosen poison for several years, this program offers a broader range of features that I may use to supplement my growing suite of free editing programs.

    Beyond the image-editing capabilities, Photoscape offers other nice features, like instant calendars, lined/graph paper, etc., which can make life a bit easier in a quick pinch for any of the above. I couldn’t help but let a smile creep from the inside out when he unveiled the calendar feature. I’ve been battling with Office Suite for some time in an effort to find a quick-and-easy calendar for any given month/year without having to build it myself or filter through templates.

    Above all, the most exciting BootCamp sessions for me were Amanda French’s Introduction to Omeka and the Introduction to VisualEyes led by Bill Fersher, from SHANTI at the University of Virginia, and Lisa Rosner, of RSC. Life can be overwhelming – especially life as we know it today, with all of the processing that the internet tasks us with. Students and professionals in the humanities are no strangers to this numbness bought on by information overload. Both of these sessions and their featured programs offered remedies to help in coping with these strains and challenges.

    Omeka is an incredible program available for the digital management and presentation of collections and data. It’s incredible because it exists and works, but even more so because it’s, again, FREE. Omeka allows you to organize your objects and information in an intelligible online format where you can search and sort your holdings without creating a mess of your office or holdings facilities. It also allows you to share these holdings, images, documents, information with the public and present it in the form of an online exhibit (if you feel so inclined).

    Omeka is exactly the type of program that I have been searching for to supplement an exhibit at work for teachers to use interpretive materials in the classroom and allow their students to contribute to the exhibit themselves. Did I mention it’s FREE? Oh yes, I did mention that… but did I also mention it’s historian-friendly?! You don’t need training in web development and HTML to utilize this program. It could certainly help to add that touch personal panache, but you can generate a beautiful and professional site for the public with the standard tools offered with Omeka.

    In the same light of “information overload,” VisualEyes offers a way to process that information and…well… visualize it through the magic of new-fangled computer technology! If I had a nickel for every time I thought to myself something along the lines of “I just wish that I could SEE where these people lived and traveled” or “If only I could find a clean and comprehensive way to actually map and distinguish the nature this person’s various relationships and then be able to access everything associated with those relationships at the click of a button,” well, I’d probably have enough money to pay someone with the proper training to make that happen.

    I have not been justly compensated for those thoughts, though, and that is why VisualEyes is yet another blessing from THATCamp’s BootCamp which is going to drastically alter my world. I may actually be able to see my office now after I get all of the maps, census records, letters, and photographs off of the floor, walls, and furniture and into some VisualEyes programming. VisualEyes comes from the same people behind Valley of the Shadow, which I’ve been pitching for several years as an example for the potentials of historical research and presentation. This program not only helps our audience make sense of what we’re working with – it helps us to makes sense of what we’re working with! While VisualEyes is a little more challenging to conquer than Omeka, it’s still the same low price – FREE to non-profits and academic institutions – and the BootCamp session outlined the basics and the tutorial in such a manner that I can approach the task with eager confidence.

    My first THATCamp experience has been an invaluable one and I hope that it will be the first of many. The BootCamp sessions provided me with an introduction and perspective that will help me play an even more active role at future THATCamp events and within my own field of cultural resource management. THATCamp is changing the humanities for the better and I’m happy to be a part of it in any way I can. I would like to thank the Mellon Foundation, the Kress Foundation, and IMLS for making it possible for me to attend these BootCamp Sessions through the generosity of their Boot Camp Fellowships. I would also like to thank the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University for beginning and supporting the THATCamp movement, and Richard Stockton College for hosting this event at the Carnegie Library Center. Finally, I would like to thank ‘Diamond,’ the plush stuffed pony, for staying home in the stable this time around. It was great meeting and working with everyone! Good luck! I hope to see you all again in the future!

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