Digital history and public history

This piece by Joan Neuberger is getting passed around. In it, she notes a critical distinction in the realm of digital humanities that I struggled with in the development of the digital history class. In it, Neuberger notes that while digital technologies and products common to—for lack of a better term—academic historians have been well developed (blogging, archival digitization projects), digital tools useful to communicating academic history to the public are only now catching up. At least that’s what I think she’s saying.

Neuberger’s piece contains quite a number of fantastic history and public history resources that you should explore and mine for ideas and inspiration. But the thing that doesn’t fit for me is her apparent definition of what constitutes public history and public history projects. Namely, “any activity that makes high quality, professional historical research and writing available and accessible to the public.” Her examples of public history are academic projects with visually attractive elements. Now, I don’t disagree with this claim for public history. You, as public historians, are expected to uphold the highest disciplinary standards of history (and I will hold you to that as long as you are with me!) But this still smacks of the idea that what public historians do is communicate academic history. As we talked about last semester, there is a difference between the ways academics use history as a method of analytical inquiry and the way the public uses the past to create meaning, build community, and take social action. (Spoiler alert: Neuberger sort of recognizes this by the end of the piece.)

The digital history class began last night with a discussion about what kind of new world digital and social technologies are creating. Place-based communities are fractured and dissipating while online communities and other communities of interest are flourishing. We have a sense of complete networked connectivity through our social media—yet “alone-ness” and individualism demand that connection between people and institutions must be highly personalized and hyper-responsive. These questions about how to create meaning, encourage learning, and support dispersed communal life are questions that museum professionals face, but are not questions that you will be addressing in your 702 seminar when you talk about the dominance of unregulated corporate capitalism and the Depression of 1894. (And that is why the digital class is not talking about academic history projects, but applications in museums.)

So, I guess, two things. 1. Neuberger is not wrong and you should pay attention to what she says about data visualization and collaborative work among historians, but you should heed her own call for a better understanding of how museum professionals harness the visceral power of emotion to create meaning. That is the place you will live professionally after you graduate 2. What you are learning as public historians should absolutely inform how you ask questions and approach your academic history topics. Always be asking…”why does this matter now to the people out there?”

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