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Reporter's Notebook: Highlights from the 2007 OAH Convention: Day 1

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Day 1: Thursday, March 29, 2007

The weather was in the mid-fifties as historians from around the country poured into Minneapolis for the 100th anniversary of the Organization of American Historians.

Most of the meetings are taking place at the downtown convention center. The plus side to this is that the hallways are filled with lots of interesting people in attendance at other events. Early in the morning the halls filled with young people wearing bright red chef's hats. Later came the car aficionados.

The downside is that the place is less conducive to informal gatherings than hotels usually are when meetings take place there.

But at least no one at this convention is likely to get arrested for jaywalking. One of the chief features of downtown Minneapolis are its skywalks. Here you don't have to venture outside as you hurry from one meeting to another.

There aren't many meetings at this year's convention devoted to issues of major public concern. There are no panels on Iraq. The anti-war historians are all but invisible. If a Martian dropped down in the middle of the convention center he wouldn't know there's a war on unless he listened very very carefully at a select few panels. Unlike last year, there's no panel on the crisis of immigration.

As it is public issues with which HNN is most concerned we went in search of panels likely to shed light on current events. It was thus that we found ourselves in attendance at a panel on public history.

David McMillen traced the strange twists and turns in the history of the National Archives, noting that from 1950 until the mid-1980s it was part of the General Services Administration. The thinking seemed to have been, as he put it, that both bureaucracies deal with paper, so why not combine them! After years of pressure by both historians and genealogists the Archives eventually won its independence. McMillen then went on to discuss the problem of electronic records. They're not being saved properly, he says--and that's alarming.

Donald Ritchie, who works in the US Senate Historical Office, discussed the important work federal historians do. Of course, their good work does no good if it's ignored, as happened, he explained, at the outset of the build-up to the Iraq War:

Otis Graham, Jr., who faced off with David Gutierrez last year in a remarkable debate about immigration, bemoaned the Rodney Dangerfield struggles of Public History:

There were two panels on the subject of modern conservatism; both were scheduled at the same time. Coincidence or conspiracy? We report. You decide. If you wanted to hear from the old and established scholars in the field you went to room L100J. If you wanted to hear from young and up and coming scholars you went to room M100J, one floor above. We went to the latter panel. We'll have clips from their discussion later.

For now: it's time to sleep.