Lehigh University South Side Initiative - man recording

Public History is central to the mission of SSI. By exploring the rich histories of our city, Lehigh students, faculty, staff and community members develop an appreciation of the vitality and complexity of our neighborhoods, as well as an ability to understand the particular challenges and opportunities that Bethlehem shares today with other post-industrial communities in the U.S. and around the world.[more about Bethlehem]

The Public History working group hosts lectures, forums, conferences, and courses that integrate the most sophisticated historical scholarship with inclusive democratic conversation about our community. We invite leading historians to bring their research into dialogue with conditions on the ground here in Bethlehem, and we invite community members to share local forms of knowledge and historical memory with faculty, students and visitors to the university.

We sponsor community partnership courses, team taught by Lehigh faculty and community members, to facilitate the reciprocal exchange of historical knowledge and to promote experiential learning about the dynamic relationship between past and present.

Working closely with Lehigh’s Library and Technology Services, the Public History working group is developing a state-of-the-art digital media platform to make oral histories, photographs and videos, and primary source documents available for interactive use by people throughout our community and around the world.

Lehigh University South Side Initiative - woman listening

Technological advances in digital history have reinvigorated documentary filmmaking, and SSI, in partnership with the Southside Film Festival and the local PBS television station, is embracing socially-engaged documentary film-making as a means of exploring topics such as the rise and fall of Bethlehem Steel, the history of industrial labor and the past and present of the American labor movement, immigrant communities on the South Side, post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and the effects of the gaming industry on urban communities. During the 2013-2014 academic year, SSI is also introducing a documentary film and lecture series, Community Studies through Documentaries. This series works to engage academics, filmmakers, and community members in an exploration of documentary film as a medium of community action and social justice.  

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is a remarkable microcosm of North American history. From Native American settlement, colonial immigration, and religious utopia to the industrial revolution, steel making for world war, and de-industrialization – this small city, and especially its densely-populated South Side neighborhood, provides an ideal environment for democratically motivated historical inquiry and learning.

We pursue democratic public history as a practice of community-building.

For more information, contact John Pettegrew at