How Theories/Methods of Public History affect Digital Public History Practices

In the past four weeks in DH 694, we have been reading about different genres of digital public history, from community and local histories, to oral histories, to place or time-based history projects. I have had the chance to explore a wide range of digital history sites, ranging from Outhistory to Cleveland Historical to the Nevada Test Site oral history project. The National Council of Public History defines public history as the practices through which “historians and their various publics collaborate in trying to make the past useful to the public.” Digital public history then is the use of computer and digital technologies to achieve this end of collaborating with the public to make the past useful to them. But digital public history efforts encompass a wide range of goals and the underlying theories or methods of public history that different actors embrace shapes the kinds of digital projects that they pursue.

Perhaps the biggest methodological debate that public historians face is the question of how much authority they are willing to share with the public. On one end of the spectrum are groups or institutions that believe in and engage in “indigenous creation,” where the community itself is creating and curating their own history from their own perspective. As Tammy Gordon writes in her chapter “Community Exhibition: History, Identity, and Dialogue,” in community exhibits, the community is active in the creation of its own history and that history typically serves their contemporary identity needs. Community-created histories may not adhere to professional standards or be objective. On the other end of the spectrum would be public history that is created for a community by professional historians. Most public history organizations fall in between these two extremes: they seek to create history in collaboration with a community while still maintaining historical rigor and standards of accuracy. In her article on Outhistory.org, Lauren Gutterman suggests what a difficult balancing act this can be. While Outhistory aspires to “engage the public in history-making,” it has opted more towards curated content created by scholars and professionals for fear of promoting inaccurate histories.

The various sites that we’ve explored in class suggest that bringing in the public effectively as history makers, not just history consumers, requires oversight, planning, and training. Cleveland Historical, for example, has the goal of involving the community “in actively participating in remaking understandings of place and community identity.” To do that, they use a method they call “community sourcing,” where members of the public are trained in teams on how to collect oral histories, how to log and index interviews, and how to select audio segments that can be used in building interpretive content (Mark Tebeau, “Listening to the City”). The Occupational Folklore Project, which aims to collect oral histories from American workers, has designed new technology that helps members of the public do and log interviews that adhere to professional oral history standards. Their tools are allowing them to expand the pool of interviewers—to bring more members of the public into the work of collecting and making history—while maintaining high standards. Of course, one might consider these practices more a form of “crowdsourcing” than community collaboration—the Folklore Project is essentially spreading the work of creating an oral history collection that meets professional standards to unpaid members of the public.

Public historians are also using digital tools to help build collections and to make those collections more accessible. Many sites encourage the public to contribute their own stories or to submit materials to an ever-expanding digital archive. These materials are made more or less useful depending on the practices of the public history organizations. The DC History Center, for example, collects stories from residents of Washington, DC, but those stories are not available on their website. The Bracero Archive collects all kinds of materials from people who worked as braceros or their descendants, but there appears to be little oversight or active curation of the material, so most of it is uploaded without any metadata or even short descriptions, which makes it difficult to search. Other sites, however, are using tools like OHMS, or the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer, to enhance the searchability and accessibility of the audio recordings of oral histories.

Different digital history projects also reflect divergent views on the nature and use of oral histories. Many sites transcribe oral histories and it is those textual transcriptions that are searchable. But some public historians insist that it is the very orality of oral histories that makes them such valuable historical sources and that hearing an interviewees voice makes the past immediate in a way that the written word alone cannot. The Cleveland Historical Project has perhaps made the most innovative use of oral histories in their digital work. They create multi-layered neighborhood tours which incorporate images, text, and audio clips from oral histories of community residents. This practice, Mark Tebeau writes, allows users to “experience memory within the landscapes where the stories were lived.”

Public history institutions have also turned to digital tools to help communicate the importance of place, to make history relevant, and to help the public put the past in conversation with the present. Phillyhistory.org, for example, allows users to see find images of historic buildings by location, so they can see the image while standing at the site where the building was located. They have gone even further by using augmented reality software to enable users to transpose historic images on the current-day google street view of a building. The goal here is to enable the public to juxtapose past and present. Tweet-enactments are another way public history institutions have sought to bring the past into the present, in this case by tweeting about historical events in real time. These kinds of digital projects seek to immerse the public in the past and they can also be collaborative by bringing in the public as partners in researching and tweeting about a historical event.

Digital tools offer a wealth of choices to public historians, but I wonder too if there is a danger in thinking that the existence of digital tools means that public history must tailor its work for every user individually. In “Beyond the Screen: Creating Interactives that are Location, Time, Preference and Skill Responsive,” the authors urge museums to use digital tools to engage in “responsive design,” so visitors can go through a museum or use materials in ways that match their learning style, their interests, and even their emotional state. While public history institutions should recognize that users come to their institutions or websites with a variety of different interests and agendas, I fear that trying to craft individual experiences for every user is both a Sisyphean task and that it may contribute to a fracturing of the public or a loss of a sense of collective experience. Might there be a happy medium somewhere between trying to cater to every potential individual desire of members of the public and to creating content–often in collaboration with the public–that encourages visitors to engage with the expectations and practices of public history?

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