Sheila A. Brennan
As a public historian who has practiced in both analog and digital modes, I am attuned to the articles in the Chronicle and conversations—on Twitter, at meetings, and at conferences—from traditional and alt-academics who see digital and online projects as a means for sharing academic research with “the general public.” Skeptics ask why academics have lost their publics, while proponents point to popular digital humanities projects (Bender). It is important to recognize that projects and research may be available online, but that status does not inherently make the work digital public humanities or public digital humanities. Public history and humanities practices—in either digital or analog forms—place communities, or other public audiences, at their core.
Digital humanities scholars and practitioners are defined by the digital, which makes the difference in their humanities scholarship. Public historians and public humanities scholars are defined by the “public,” even when definitions of these practices are contested (National Council on Public History; Lubar). Suzanne Fischer offers a useful way of describing public history as “cracking open history as a democratic project, and doing it transparently, in public.” She also suggests that while public historians work with specific audiences on projects, they also have “a duty to serve particular communities” (“On the Vocation of Public History”). Public digital humanities, then, should be identified by the ways that it engages with communities outside of the academy as a means for doing digital humanities scholarship.
Research projects, online textbooks, tools, course websites, online journals, or social networks are not inherently “public” digital humanities projects merely because they have a presence on the Web. Working in public—an intentional approach to working and sharing research and practices—does not equate to doing public digital humanities. Similarly, launching a project website or engaging in social media networks does not necessarily make a project discoverable, accessible, or relevant to anyone other than its creators. Doing any type of public digital humanities work requires an intentional decision from the beginning of the project that identifies, invites in, and addresses audience needs in the design, as well as the approach and content, long before the outreach for a finished project begins. Public historians and other professionals working at cultural heritage institutions have learned that by not seeing “the public” as real people they have sometimes viewed “the public” as an unidentified “other.” By examining the roots of public history, scholars interested in creating public digital humanities projects can avoid these pitfalls and see their work as part of a long tradition of publicly engaged scholarly work.
Public History Roots
Public digital humanities, digital public history, and digital public humanities all have strong roots in public history. In the United States, the practice of public history can be traced back to the early nineteenth century, when white women and men of means volunteered their time to save and preserve community stories, objects, and places (Kammen; West). The federal government got involved in the history business in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Federal history and museum programs, such as the National Park Service and Smithsonian Institution, were grounded in practices borrowed and adopted by scientists and naturalists and used in publicly funded spaces (Meringolo). Government civil servants assumed responsibilities to care for, interpret, and collect materials on behalf of citizens. Many of these practitioners also belonged to professional organizations in equal numbers with academic historians, such as the American Historical Association. Technological advances in preservation and research materials during the mid-twentieth century (e.g., microfilm) led to standardizing and specializing practices of archivists, for example, and to a growing divide among academic historians and practicing public historians (Townsend). These practitioners often did not identify their work as “public history”; rather, some referred to this work as “applied history” (National Council on Public History). Their work was, and still is, service-driven, carrying with it a significant amount of intellectual labor and institution building. Individuals practicing within or collaborating with cultural heritage institutions and university libraries, as may be the case for digital humanities scholars, continue this tradition of service-driven work that shapes and contributes to new forms of scholarship.
The public history movement that we know today emerged in universities in the 1970s, responding both to the employment crisis in the United States (and the marketability of history majors) and to the social and labor history movements that engaged communities in questioning existing social, political, and cultural structures and inequalities (Stanton, xiv)—including those embedded in cultural heritage institutions. In the late twentieth century, many self-identified public historians continued to view the “public” as generalized and passive. Public history may have offered scholars new ways of communicating (e.g., through museum exhibits), but as Denise Meringolo observed, many scholars did not rethink the structures and relationships involved in that communication flow (Museums, Monuments, xxi). Oral historians, like Michael Frisch, filled that gap by encouraging all historians to think of their role as facilitators. By recording conversations with the unfamous, they could save and make available for the public record the lives and histories of ordinary citizens. Frisch popularized the term and philosophy of “shared authority,” as integral to public history practices before the birth of the modern web browser (Frisch). Tom Scheinfeldt has argued that because these public history practices from the mid- to the late twentieth century were “highly technological, archival, public, collaborative, political, and networked,” they represent another branch in the broad genealogy of digital humanities (“Dividends of Difference”).
A key figure in this genealogy is labor historian Roy Rosenzweig, who saw potential to broaden and diversify the historical enterprise using digital means. Roy’s passion motivated him to found the Center for History and New Media1 in 1994 to use digital media to democratize history by incorporating multiple perspectives and inviting everyday citizens to contribute their own stories for new digital collections built to document major events and the histories of their own communities.2 To some, this mission may have sounded utopian, but Roy was practical. He believed that all scholars, but historians in particular, shared responsibility for documenting, saving, and preserving historical evidence in analog and digital formats (Rosenzweig). This meant historians could, and should, build digital projects and platforms that would be used, and useful, and never isolated from the larger networks of libraries, archives, and museums. This foundation in public history makes the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) different from most digital humanities centers; as a result, most of its projects are created for and with audiences outside of academia and serve as models for public digital humanities work.
Doing Public Digital Humanities
Each public digital humanities project must begin by identifying audiences outside of the academy. To help see audiences as people with interests, lives, agendas, and challenges, some digital project teams borrow techniques from user-centered design and create user personas. The Smithsonian Learning Lab3 offers a good example for the process of creating named personas that represent real teachers, the primary audience for the Learning Lab’s new digital initiative (Milligan). Understanding audiences is not a skill most humanities scholars are taught in graduate school, but it is a key element for successful digital projects.
Identifying and collaborating with specific audiences helps public digital humanities projects be relevant, useful, and usable. This means working with those groups to identify the needs of a potential platform, assess its functionality, and then measure its effectiveness for communicating ideas. The Histories of the National Mall project team from the Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media identified tourists and individuals new to the D.C. area (e.g., summer interns) as the primary audiences for its mobile public history project.4 Before customizing an Omeka site, the team tested the site architecture, content, functionality, and terminology with different users using paper mock-ups. Once the site was prototyped in Omeka, the team spent time on the National Mall with friends and family members to test different iterations of the site before the beta launch. This type of audience identification and evaluation is even more important for software projects. During its original grant, the Omeka team surveyed museum professionals before, during, and after the beta release and conducted focus group testing to gauge needs, assess the effectiveness of the software to meet those needs, and explore the usability of the Omeka software.5 While time-consuming, these steps are necessary to include in the work plan of any digital project to ensure its success.
Projects must be accessible to those identified as potential audiences in a number of important ways. First, any public digital humanities project should be designed such that people of all abilities can use and access it on the Web. Second, projects should be built in ways that reach primary audiences on the platforms they regularly use. This may mean designing a light mobile framework to reach people who only access the Web from handheld devices. If users communicate on one specific social media space, the project should be there. If users speak multiple languages, the platform choice must allow for that content to be accessible in those languages. Third, the language, symbols, and navigational paths embedded in the digital project must be understandable by its users and participants. A public digital humanities project should never make the audience feel dumb or unwelcome in that space. Fourth, names are important. Projects should be named after something meaningful to the targeted audiences, or something that is intentionally not associated with a familiar term. Omeka, for example, fits into the latter category. The Swahili term embodies what the web publishing platform is designed to do: display or lay out wares; to speak out; to spread out; to unpack. Because the word itself was unfamiliar for most users, it could take on the meaning of a new piece of software. The name of Histories of the National Mall, on the other hand, directly tells tourists visiting the National Mall that the site is about the history of that public space. Acronyms and clever naming can work for some digital humanities projects, but it is best not to alienate or mislead users.
Developing a public digital humanities project is a challenging process that requires building a team with many different skills sets. When a team lacks expertise in public humanities, it should find public humanities scholars with whom to collaborate. There is often a public historian or a community activist who is eager to share knowledge and experience with audience engagement. Digital humanities project teams that incorporate and invite voices from user communities in the early stages will build fabulous new digital things that are relevant, useful, and productive for those targeted users. To do public digital humanities, the “public” needs to come first. Always.
Bender, Thomas. “How Historians Lost Their Public.” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 30, 2015. http://chronicle.com/article/How-Historians-Lost-Their/228773/.
Fischer, Suzanne. “On the Vocation of Public History.” #alt-Academy: Alternative Academic Careers, May 7, 2011. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/pieces/vocation-public-history.
Frisch, Michael H. A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
Kammen, Michael. Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture. New York: Knopf, 1991.
Lubar, Steven. “Seven Rules for Public Humanists.” On Public Humanities (blog), June 5, 2014. https://stevenlubar.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/seven-rules-for-public-humanists/.
Meringolo, Denise D. Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.
Milligan, Darren. “Our Personas: Introducing Naomi, Javier, Samantha, and Nicole.” Smithsonian Learning Lab. Accessed March 25, 2015. http://learninglab.si.edu/news/2015/03/our-personas-introducing-naomi-javier-samantha-and-nicole/.
National Council on Public History (NCPH). “What Is Public History?” http://ncph.org/cms/what-is-public-history/.
Rosenzweig, Roy. “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.” American Historical Review 108, no. 3 (2003): 735–62. http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=6.
Scheinfeldt, Tom. “The Dividends of Difference: Recognizing Digital Humanities; DiverseFamily Trees.” Found History, April 7, 2014. http://foundhistory.org/2014/04/the-dividends-of-difference-recognizing-digital-humanities-diverse-family-trees/.
Stanton, Cathy. The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.
Townsend, Robert B. “The AHA on the Path to Public History.” Public History Commons, March 9, 2015. http://publichistorycommons.org/the-aha-on-the-path-to-public-history/.
—. History’s Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880–1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
West, Patricia. Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America’s House Museums. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1999.