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Public Historians on Digital Humanities: NCPH Reflections

By Katie and Megan Woods

Katie and Megan Woods recently graduated with their Master of Arts in History with a Concentration in Public History. They also obtained a Certificate in Digital Humanities with their project From Grateful FriendsTheir travel to the National Council on Public History’s 2019 annual meeting was partially supported by a NULab travel grant.

As we met with various public historians, graduate students, and other professionals at the National Council on Public History’s Annual Meeting, we quickly came to discover an enthusiasm for the Digital Humanities. In this post, we’ll reflect on some of the trends, concerns, issues, and excitement we noticed while attending sessions and speaking with individuals about the relationship between public history and the digital humanities.

Know before you teach. One workshop focused on Digital Public History Pedagogy. Since the field of “digital public history” is quickly growing, we found it valuable to attend this workshop in order to understand how digital public history is being approached in the classroom. We quickly realized some of the takeaways of this workshop can be applied to teaching digital humanities in general. Frequently, professors tell their students to make a digital project without understanding the digital tools involved. As a result, professors fail to provide their students any assistance or guidance. This needs to change in order for students to become effective and successful digital public historians. Recognizing this fault, this workshop highlighted the necessity for professors to work on their own technical literacy and to create assignments with expectations clearly defined. Most importantly, professors should be willing to allow their students to take risks and fail, since that is one of the best ways to learn and grow while working with digital tools.

Making the archives digitally accessible. Various notions of accessibility and audience were addressed at the conference. At the session “If you build it, will they come?” professionals from different archives discussed their successes and struggles with making their materials available and accessible to the public. An archivist from NPR discussed their soon-to-be-public database, in which they are working to make some radio programs’ text searchable so researchers may be able to quickly identify programs that will be useful to them. The Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project has struggled to make its materials easily accessible to audiences. The archivists discussed how they have had to primarily focus on collecting and preserving oral histories since they get an influx of oral histories from volunteers every month. However, this means they can’t spend as much time ensuring the consistency of oral history descriptions made by volunteers, which affects overall accessibility. They admitted that sometimes the best way to find something in their collection is through a Google search. The Veterans History Project sees a need to use digital tools to make their materials accessible despite these hurdles, but until they can create a better system, they are currently using social media to make audiences aware of their collections. Lastly, Dr. Caroline Frick, the founder of The Texas Archive of the Moving Image, spoke about this archive’s audience. While she has been collecting film across the state and digitizing the materials, she still does not know who is using her materials.

Reaching/expanding new audiences. Many sessions showed professionals’ dedication to increasing engagement with new or unlikely audiences, as well as previously under-recognized audiences. Knowing these new audiences can help dictate whether or not digital forms are the best platform for engagement. In this exploration, professionals recognized the need for a constant dialogue between an institution (or creator) and the audience. Public historians are searching out stories that may reach different audiences and debating ways in which these audiences can engage with these stories. Public historians and organizations have used digital projects as an avenue for engagement; encouraging audiences to contribute in content creation, crowd-sourcing, program participation, and user feedback. One of the most creative examples of this intentionality in reaching different audiences was The Enchanted Archives, a platform that dives into the history of Disneyland and Disneyworld. Throughout the platform’s creation process, founder Sasha Coles enlisted the help of Disney-fan social media groups for feedback, user-testing, and new ideas. The Enchanted Archives hopes to provide a bridge between academics and Disney fans in the telling of Disney history. While having the audience in mind has always been a cornerstone for public historians, especially in the use of digital content, digital projects appear to allow public historians to become more creative in reaching out to particular audiences and expanding their definition of audience.

Using technology intentionally. While many professionals we met and talked to were excited by our interest in digital public history, a consistent concern that arose, particularly among historians in museums, was the level of intentionality in using technology. “Technology for technology’s sake” is a pit that many popular museums and institutions have fallen into over the past few decades as institutions feel pressure to incorporate exciting new digital tools without having a plan for use or implementation. Professionals expressed past trends that came to the detriment of historic sites and museums, such as mobile apps and digital tours that were rarely used by visitors. These institutions became invested in digital projects without considering why they were creating digital content and who would actually use it. Even today, technology can sometimes be seen as the “new, shiny object” that every institution has to incorporate in some form. Now, it appears that many institutions have taken a step back and re-evaluated the use of technology in their physical spaces, as well as their general digital presence. Museums and historical institutions are considering whether digital tools are the most appropriate to use depending on their content, message, and audience.

How long and for how much? The final concerns of public history institutions (especially small ones) are the sustainability of digital projects and their cost. As technology continually improves, how can institutions keep up with the fast-paced nature of the field? If they create a project with one platform, how long will it last, or how long will their institution be able to support it? Many smaller institutions have to conduct a cost-benefit analysis when developing new programs, projects, or content using digital tools. Many small institutions cannot keep up with changing technology or merely cannot afford to develop digital projects due to a lack of financial support. While the excitement for digital projects is clearly apparent, these concerns are significant barriers for many historical sites and organizations that correspond with their hesitation towards using digital tools in interpretation and programming.

From our observations and discussions at NCPH, we can say there is considerable excitement regarding the use of digital tools as institutions and organizations seek to become more accessible and expand their audiences. While there are general concerns about sustainability, cost, and intentionality, many public historians see“digital public history” as a valuable addition to the field.

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