Reflections on our Digital Public History class

As this Digital Public History course comes to an end, I’m reflecting both on how much I’ve learned and on how much the material we covered in this class resonates with classes that I’m taking in Museum Studies and issues that I’ve dealt with during my own forays into public history. The “public history” part of this course was quite familiar to me—I have researched, written, and taught about public history, and have been involved in a number of public history projects—though I was very pleased to do readings and to think more deeply about the issue and challenges of shared authority, the practice of indigenous curation, and different models for constructing narratives in public history. I also greatly appreciated the introduction the course offered to the wide range of different kinds of digital public history projects, from those designed to index and make oral histories widely available, to those that seek to teach or interpret a specific historical event, to sites that invite community contributions in order to create an online archive of a place or event. I found the digital public history projects that are bringing together text, audio, and maps in walking tours to be especially exciting in how they are using digital tools to offer an experience that could not easily exist in other forms.

But perhaps what I learned most in this class was that public history projects (whether digital or not) need to be collaborative from the start and creators need to begin by thinking about the needs and desires of their audience and design sites with those needs in mind. I had never gone through the process of creating personas before, and I found that doing so helped me focus much more clearly on the fact that this site was being created to be used and that decisions about content, design, and user features needed to be based on the interests and needs of our target audience. The process of storyboarding was also very instructive. It encouraged us to think about the project holistically right from the start. It also reminded me that designs on paper can’t always be easily achieved using pre-existing tools like Omeka. But we found ways to achieve much of the functionality we wanted, even if we could not replicate our original design, which taught me that there’s nothing to be lost (except for time!) by spending an afternoon or evening experimenting with different options and losing oneself in the rabbit hole of the Omeka user forums.

The trajectory of the project that Megan and I did for this class reflects how public history adapts to and changes to meet the needs of a community and target audience. We had originally planned to create an Oberlin walking tour, but we quickly discovered that there were already many different walking tours of available in several different formats (various apps, on websites, as PowerPoints). What was lacking was a centralized way to find or access either these tours or the large body of materials related to Oberlin’s history. So our walking tour became instead the Oberlin Community History Hub, a site that consolidates existing materials, encourages community contributions, and makes everything searchable by topic or keyword.

This past week, Megan and I began introducing the OCHH to members of the Oberlin community, including the kinds of people we had described in our personas. We did six user tests over zoom, where we watched users navigate and explore the site. Those users tests helped us recognize things that needed to change. We discovered, for example, that nearly everyone was confused by the language of “Quick Takes,” which we’ve now changed to “Learn.” We found that users did not realize the different ways that they could search or browse the collection, so we offered clearer language that outlines exactly how one can browse or search on the “Discover” page. We also learned that different users were drawn to different areas of the site—some spent a great deal of time exploring the map, while others were excited about the newspapers, or the ability for community members to contribute photos and stories.

What was most exciting about the user tests is that they revealed that people with a variety of different interests all found the site engaging and useful in their own way. Two users who research and write about Oberlin’s history were thrilled to see so many materials in one place and they have been sending us more primary sources we can link to ever since they tested the site. They want the OCHH to be a kind of one-stop shopping for anyone interested in researching Oberlin’s history. The collections manager at the local historical society loved how the OCHH works to amplify the reach of the materials that appear on the historical society’s website and immediately began thinking about other content they could share. A teacher at the college left her user test asking if the OCHH would be public in time for her to build an assignment using it for her first year seminar. And perhaps most gratifying, a local resident who tested the site got really excited about the exhibit about and pictures of the painted Oberlin Rocks and talked about how she could imagine herself going down rabbit holes exploring the community contributions to the site. In short, we found that the OCHH has something to offer to people who come to it with a variety of different purposes and interests. In class, we learned about designing digital public history projects that aim to meet users where they are and to appeal to people with a range of interests. I think that our prototype of the OCHH is doing that. I’m excited to take the next steps to move from prototype to fully realized project.

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