The National Council on Public History (NCPH) dedicates itself to organizing work, activities, and understandings of what we call “public history.” The NCPH helps us to understand what is meant when talking about this particular field. They say
Public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world. In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues.
They also say that we can think of public history as “history beyond the walls of the traditional classroom.” While I think there is room to expand on what this means and how it contrasts with the idea of history in the academic world, this definition is useful because it sets the parameters we—you, the reader, and myself—are working in when discussing the subjects categorized as public history. And when discussing the added layer of digital public history, as is the goal of this post, this definition grounds us to starting point with which we can build upon so we can see what exactly the virtual technologies of our time have done to change this field.
But just like with any other field, “doing” public history involves being familiar with the theories, values, and practices as developed by those already in the field and those performing similar work in adjacent fields (because I believe in interdisciplinary approaches). To understand how the virtual layer of the digital age has shaped our “doing” of public history and the very way members of the public experience it, we need to discuss what makes up the field of public history.
Practicing Public History
Collaborative. Public history as a field still retains some ambiguity as to its exact meaning (even though we are working from a somewhat authoritative definition). However, what really seems to set this field apart into at least its own nebulous category is the relationship it shares to the general public—hence, “public” history. The field is typically characterized as a practical engagement with historical information and/or materials that involves, to some degree, a public audience (whether that be classified as the setting in which these historians practice their craft or if this relationship affects conventional historical practices). This means that the field and its practices are of a collaborative nature, both among practitioners and, perhaps more importantly, in the relationship between said practitioners and their audience.
This role of the practitioner—now more securely recognized as a public historian—was quickly identified during the early emergence of this field because of this relationship they have with the public. Indeed, Ronald Grele commented that the task of a public historian, broadly defined, “should be to help members of the public do their own history and to aid them in understanding their role in shaping and interpreting events.”1
Community-oriented. In 2003, the president of the NCPH and then professor of public history at Middle Tennessee State University, Rebecca Conard articulated the context in which public history is practiced. She noted:
Public historians engage in active collaboration, constantly reframing questions and improving interpretations in conversation with themselves and with their stakeholders. In this way, public history requires both “shared authority” and “shared inquiry,” a dynamic collaboration that ensures far more complex outcomes than simply engagement with matters of policy.2
Though Rebecca Conard was specifically identifying the collaborative nature of public history, she highlights the goal of this collaboration: stakeholders. Public history is a field encompassed by the community that comprises both the “public” and the “history.” These community-oriented practices are usually best seen in the creation of local history exhibits and the presence of local museums. For example, local history sites develop exhibits based around the history of that particular community. These exhibits are conceived and created by people who have lived the historical subject, descend from those who did, or identify strongly with the place that was shaped by heritage.3 Larger, more formal institutions work to create their exhibits by involving members of target communities the exhibition is built around. These creations are created with these communities in mind and should be representative of their voices.
Inter/multi-disciplinary. Because of the ambiguous nature maintained around aspects of doing public history, I think it is common to interpret the field as encompassing multiple disciplines in a de facto sense. But the reality is that practicing public history is to engage in interdisciplinary work by the very nature of the field, if not at least collaborative multidisciplinary work.
Creating works of public history and engaging with historical content in a responsive manner to the needs of the public involves a variety of work. It could mean a researcher becomes a journalist to report on recent events that have a historical component; it could mean a researcher explore museum curation to care for and preserve potential exhibit and collection items; it could mean a researcher dives into the natural world to understand the impact of historic actions; it could mean a researcher studies filmmaking and media to better present their materials; it could mean combining academic fields to create effective and responsive praxis. The practicing of public history work and the final products are often the result of researchers fulfilling multiple roles or making use of other disciplinary knowledge/methods to better facilitate an understanding of and for the public.
Layering the Digital
Now that we have a foundation with which to identify the methods particular to public history, it will be easier to see how these change when we add the digital layer to them. The pattern is clear: the public, whichever public it may be, are at the center of this kind of work (that’s going to be my take, anyways). As technological developments occur, it is only the next logical step to begin integrating these into how public history is perform and presented so as to meet the public where they’re at and provide them with rich, engaging historical content. Yet, the implementation of these technologies must hold true to the framework we’ve established: to be collaborative in nature, community-oriented, and inter/multi-disciplinary. I believe each of these characteristics are notable in the digital public history works produce today.
Community history. Digital public history projects centered around specific communities make use of technologies that provide a narrative comprised of information relevant to that community and allow either members of those communities or members of the wider public to explore the target community.
For example, the OutHistory.org project “falls within both realms of public and digital history as it deploys digital technologies to make the history of sexuality accessible to a broad public audience, aspires to make the history of sexuality useful in the present, and engages members of the public together with academics in the collaborative writing of that history.”4 This is done through implementing exploratory digital collections and interactive timeline models placing history relevant to this community at various locations. This project also allows for members of the public to contribute to the works on the project, making room for community input and create a collaborative environment.
Oral history. Collecting oral histories is a large part of work for many public historians. When collecting oral histories, it is best to produce a transcript of the work. But as anyone who has worked with oral histories before could tell you, a well-crafted transcript does not mean it will automatically see the light of day. What I mean by this is that some collections of oral histories are so large, either by length of interview or amount of interviews or even both, that they can become a hassle to use when their searchability is inadequate.
To resolve this, the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries launched the Oral history Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) “to inexpensively and efficiently enhance access to oral history online” by providing “users word-level search capability and a time-correlated transcript or indexed interview connecting the textual search term to the corresponding moment in the recorded interview online.” This technology can be utilized by those with authorized accounts, meaning volunteers can make contributions. This involves those with an interest in oral history to collaborate with the project, even if they themselves are not professionally trained in this work.
Space and place. Historical sites like museums and cultural heritage sites are meant to help a person feel connected to the history of that particular place. Often, they also want you to impart that feeling of authenticity so you can feel like you’re not only in that place, but with that place. Thus, great care is given to the appearance of the site. This approach is altered when we digitize the efforts surrounding space and place. While physical exhibits depend on visitors to be there in-person, many institutions and organizations want to expand the capability of sharing their particular history with the wider public who might not be at those physical exhibits. To accomplish this, many have made use of mobile technologies to allow those on-the-go to access the history outside the walls of a specific location.
Spokanehistorical.org is such a site. Here, the history of the City of Spokane is plotted onto an interactive map that visitors can engage with when they are, for example, roaming the streets of Spokane or wanting to see the history of a particular spot in the city. This means that the very landscape of the city can be transformed into the exhibit as entries display photos of what used to be there. To make this project more accessible, the website is mobile friendly. It also utilizes stories from residents of Spokane to round out the information, acknowledging that this community has a right to describe their own history of their own place.
Social media. Social media has made perhaps one of the largest impacts on how public digital public history has become. Not only can social media outlets be used to advertise and broadcast projects and activities, but it can be used to engage the public in real-time with historical subjects, providing unique experiences for potentially millions of users and getting them more acquainted with how history can be more personal.
For example, the @9Nov38 Twitter account was created to commemorate the 75th year of the Kristallnacht by giving an hour-by-hour update of the unfolding historical events, as if they were playing out live in our day. The platform itself with its settings and limitations was the defining feature of this project, making the impact of the event more personal as people today relate to the technology being used.
It is clear that the technology of our day has changed how public historians approach their work and how this work is then presented to the public. From augmented reality to annotation tools, from mobile sites to social media platform utilization, public history can now be experienced in ways that break the convention of the analog exhibit. Though it should be noted that many times, this digital presence isn’t meant to erase the in-person experience of visiting historical sites or museums. Rather, they can be used to attract visitors who get only a taste from the digital experience. Digital public history is about making history more accessible by the public and target audiences, not to replace where it comes from. History—whether academic, public, or digital—is a Humanity. It is meant for the enrichment of our existence and the goal of digital public history is to provide another facet for which this can be achieved.
Digital public history projects build upon the methods and values embedded in more conventional means of doing public history. Actually, I would reckon that they manifest these characteristics in a more direct manner. Digital public history projects are almost always products of collaboration and inter/multi-disciplinary efforts and many become community-oriented through the purpose they are made for. Large scale projects often have a team of collaborators: historians, social media experts, web designers, consultants, and so on. And in cases of limited funding or a wide range of skills, many of these roles overlap and see someone performing very different duties. These technologies have also bred novel interpretations to the material being presented or explored. Through use of these technologies, we can analyze and research in ways that were not possible before or that would have been very arduous without them. Thus, it is important to know that whether digital or analog, public history benefits from both the technologies we have developed in our modern time and the traditional means of “doing” public history.
1. Ronald Grele, “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981): 47
2. Denise Meringol, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), xxiii.
3. Tammy Gordon, “Community Exhibition: History, Identity, and Dialogue.” In Private History in Public: Exhibition and the Settings of Everyday Life (Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2010), 33-57.
4. Lauren Gutterman, “OutHistory.org: An Experiment in LGBTQ Community History-Making.” The Public Historian 32.4 (2010), 100-01.