Social Media for the Cautious Historian

Mark Dunn reports on the PHA NSW CPD event for May, Social Media for the Cautious Historian, conducted by Yvonne Perkins. This was a welcome, hand-holding guide through the world of social media and what it offers to historians, many of whom have been a bit slow on the uptake of these new means of communication.  Consequently we have missed the advantages and opportunities that sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in and WordPress can offer.

A quick survey of the twelve attendees  found that while about half the room was using social media in some format, no-one was overly confident they  were utilising it to its full capacity.  For the rest of us who weren’t on it at all, it was a case of feeling it had passed us by or wasn’t particularly relevant.

So why should historians be on social media?  Isn’t it mainly for footballers to keep us up-to -date about their latest indiscretion or for teenagers to post things they will later regret?

No it’s not (as it turns out).

Social media gives us, as historians, the opportunity to connect to a new and ever-growing audience, locally, nationally and internationally.  Historians are communicators and educators; we want to tell other people about our research and publicise our work and the work of our compatriots.

With this in mind, social media is now an essential tool in the communication process and a space where more historians’ voices are needed.

Of course the PHA NSW has been on board for a little while now with the PHA blog and the members’ profile sections of the website.  So this is where we started.  First was an opportunity for people in the room to update their profile.   The website is for many, the first point of contact with us as historians so a snappy profile is professionally a good idea.  If you are reading this and haven’t updated your profile through the members section of the website, get cracking!

The second session was devoted to Twitter and Facebook.  Yvonne talked us through the Twittersphere and its great strengths for historians as an international web of contacts and information.

Twitter is all about the conversation.  For historians this can be fantastic and with a growing number of historians in Australia and overseas getting on Twitter, the conversation gets more interesting.

There are some things to be wary of.  Twitter is about support and generous acknowledgement of other people’s information and talents, so best not to talk about yourself too much, or go on about your Sunday café brunch, or get involved in tit-for-tat arguments, at least not if you are wanting to use it for professional purposes.

Workshop participants set up Twitter accounts left right and centre and tweets were flying by 3pm!

Sadly, so engrossed had we become that we ran out of time for Facebook .   Never mind, we can organise another CPD to cover that later.

For those keen to explore, Yvonne has put a series of instructions, Twitter links, Facebooking historians and bloggers on the PHA website in the members section. Go to

Thanks to Yvonne and Laila for organising the event and Paul Ashton for getting us the computer lab at UTS.

The role of history and historians in government

by Francesca Beddie.

I believe professional historians can play a more active role in the public policy debate. Many PHA NSW members are working on issues of public interest, for example: social inclusion; migration; native title. Their challenge, along with that of academic historians and those working in the public sector, is to encourage decision makers to include historical analysis in their evidence base. I have written about this before. One of my articles is posted on the Australian History and Policy Network website ( I mention this site to draw attention to the network as a resource for PHA NSW members, both as a repository of information and also a potential outlet for their work.

Professional historians also have an opportunity to air these matters at the Australian Historical Association conference in Wollongong in July ( ).  PHA NSW will be presenting a panel at the conference titled Public service: the role of history and historians in government. Laila Ellmoos will chair a discussion about issues faced by historians working at Commonwealth, state and local level. I will explore how historical analysis can be useful for national policymakers. Christine Yeats will discuss the role of historians in ensuring sound archival policies and practice across government. Ian Hoskins will talk about the challenges of presenting complex historical narratives to the public. Emma Dortins will show how historians can help provide a sound basis for legislative reform and Caroline Ford will discuss some of the challenges involved in writing government history from the inside.

If PHA NSW members would like to comment on any of these perspectives, we’d be delighted to hear from you. Your insights will certainly enrich the panel’s discussion and help us to showcase what professional historians have to offer.

This photograph by Robert-Eede is titled A Very Brief History of Time. I chose it because I think we have to be pragmatic and patient about the influence history can have on policy: one drip at a time.


Understanding migration

Debate in the United States over immigration has hotted up as the Senate prepares to debate a new bill, which includes a proposal to caps the number of foreign workers businesses can hire and to introduce requirements for certain wage levels. Sound familar?

To inject an historical perspective into the debate the American Historical Association sponsored a congressional briefing last month. The History News Network reported that Tyler Anbinder, professor of history at George Washington University, pointed out to congressmen and women that political parties in the United States have long struggled with immigrants’ political power, and ‘nativist’ fears of that power. Anbinder also noted that Irish immigrants in pre-war America had substantial savings. Like immigrants from many other periods, they lived in undesirable neighbourhoods and wore tattered clothes in order to boost their savings. Despite popular perceptions, few were actually destitute or dependent on handouts.

Such briefings are part of a project called the National History Center (see The historians who present at these briefings avoid making recommendations to Congress, but discuss previous paths taken and their outcomes.

It would be interesting to hear from PHA NSW members what stories of migrant populations they have uncovered, especially those that, like Anbinder’s, cast new light on popular misconceptions.

Francesca Beddie

(Photo by Victor L Antunez)