Loyola University Chicago

Department of History


“Public History Is In My Blood”

“Public History Is In My Blood”

"I feel like public history is in my blood," explained Karen Sieber, a first year student in the joint doctoral program in Public History and United States History. "I come from a long line of genealogists, and was raised in a household that celebrated and explored history. I grew up in Chicago and my mom and I would take the train into the city to explore neighborhoods or go to museums. Yet for some reason, when it became time to go to college, it didn't occur to me that "being a historian" was a thing."

Like many of her colleagues in the Public History program, Sieber hopes to apply her passion for history to a career outside the traditional parameters of "being a historian." Loyola's pioneering Public History program prepares both masters and doctoral students to work as educators and researchers in museums, archives, historic sites, and other mediums beyond the classroom. Graduate students in the program take both traditional academic history classes as well as hands-on coursework in museum studies, historical preservation, and archives and record management.

Sieber explains: "For people who think the humanities are dead or question the usefulness of a degree in Public History, I think they'd be surprised at the variety of opportunities a degree in this field affords. And if jobs are limited when I finish my program, the hands-on experience I add to my resume while at Loyola will give me a leg up against other applicants in the future."

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Sieber's decision to join Loyola's History Department and earn her PhD came from years of interest in all things history. "I attempted, quite poorly, to go to college in the 90's, but ended up dropping out. I worked for almost twenty years as a chef, restaurant manager, and farmers market manager. But history was always my hobby. Whenever I traveled I would go to historic sites. I continued doing genealogy. I devoured old books, old movies, old music."

In recent years, Sieber's history hobby led her to get involved in various public history endeavors. She gained certification in the preservation of gravestone and cemetery monuments from the International Preservation Studies Center in 2014. She worked as a volunteer conducting historic house research for a preservation website in Durham, North Carolina from 2012 to 2015. And through that work, Sieber became involved in community outreach in East Durham with a new local history museum:

"Despite its large size and rich history, Durham, North Carolina did not have a history museum. When the museum was still in its incubation, I reached out to the Executive Director, Katie Spencer, to talk to her about my career change and return to school and what I could bring to the table. I'm a big believer in seeking out opportunities and making smart, calculated decisions. Choosing a smaller institution with a limited staff allowed me to gain experience in a variety of different facets over the past few years because I was vocal about the skills I wanted to learn."

While working with the Museum of Durham History, Sieber completed her undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC), where she received her BA in American Studies and Urban History in 2015. At UNC, Sieber's next public history initiative was her work with Digital Loray, a digital memory site that curates the history of the iconic Loray Mill in Gastonia, NC:

"I had designed a walking tour through East Durham for the Museum of Durham History and met Dr. Robert Allen, who led the Digital Innovation Lab at UNC. This was when I was returning to school and needed an advisor, as I was creating my own major. Dr. Allen began my advisor, and I joined the staff of the Digital Innovation Lab shortly after to expand on some mapping I had done of the Loray Mill village. This extended into work in the community acquiring photographs and other ephemera to create a community archive. Our tiny team also created a history center in the recently renovated mill. I lived and breathed Gastonia for the past few years and am changed by this project and the community that contributed so much to it."

After the success of Digital Loray, Sieber embarked on her first independent digital humanities project, Visualizing the Red Summer, which served as her senior honors thesis: 

"The Red Summer of 1919, a series of at least three-dozen riots and lynchings throughout the United States over the course of one summer, is one of the most significant yet rarely told stories in American History. Thousands of primary documents exist on the events of that summer but are difficult to find, scattered in collections and archives across the country in dozens of locations, and not digitized, making it difficult for scholars to get the big picture. I created Visualizing the Red Summer in hopes that it would facilitate further, more comprehensive research on the race riots of 1919 by putting all of the available information and documents in one place, the Internet. I traveled 7,500 miles during the summer of 2015 to collect over 700 primary documents related to the riots, from court records and newspaper articles to photographs and telegrams. Over 25 cultural institutions provided material for the archive I created. Users are able to filter results to only look at documents related to a particular city’s riot if they wish, but are also able to filter the archive by topic to help better gauge the interconnectivity between the riots, or to look at regional trends."

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Sieber is currently halfway through her first year of coursework at Loyola University and looks forward to building on the skills she's honed in North Carolina and applying them to new projects in Chicago:

"I can't imagine a better city to be studying urban history or public history, my two loves. I was looking for a Public History program that was both established and yet cutting edge, with lots of hands on experience. Loyola fit to a “T.” The fact that the History Department had specializations in urban, public and digital history was what solidified the deal for me. I think that the education I am receiving at Loyola, combined with the education and skills I seek out on my own, will prepare me for many positions umbrellaed under the Public History field."