On the Prototype Process and Digital Public History

This is my final blog post for HIST 694: Digital Public History, and is supposed to reflect on the process of building the prototype for my digital public history site, the work of doing digital public history, and my learning during the semester. The beginning of the semester feels like a long time ago, so I hope I can remember enough to write (somewhat) intelligently about these topics.

The process of building the prototype was similar in many ways to web projects I did in library school or while working as a librarian. Figuring out who the audience is, what its needs are, its ability to work with or preferences for using technology – this sort of information gathering is quite familiar to me, as are the tasks of thinking about site architecture, labels, text, usability, and project evaluation. I had not worked with Omeka extensively prior to this project (my project for the previous class focused on text mining/topic modeling using the HathiTrust Research Center) but I found it fairly straightforward. If I had questions, I was generally able to find the answer through the documentation. For my project, which focuses on collecting user submissions, Omeka was the perfect tool; it was easy to set it up to allow users to create accounts and submit items. I can see, though, how Omeka can also be limiting for other types of public history projects and can act to standardize public history projects (scholars like Sherratt point to this). However, it’s great to have tools like Omeka that make digital public history projects possible for smaller staffs/individual library, archive, museum workers/non-programmers. This democratizing ethos is really central to the practice of public history, and is enabled in many ways by digital technologies (e.g. with my own project, the collecting of materials is democratized).
For my project, I focused on the history of Detroit since 1945, which I am fairly familiar with already, but it was challenging to craft a succinct version of that history that was accessible (not the best way to put it, but I can’t think of a better word) but also didn’t cover up the complexities of that history, particularly in regards to race. This is something I’ve been thinking through since I began the course, as the dominant narrative around the history of Detroit is incredibly racialized and used to prop up white supremacy. How does a public history project challenge dominant narratives but not preach to its audience? How can it instead move the audience towards engaging with history and memory, even if it is uncomfortable for the audience? This is also something I think about in regards to librarianship and my own instruction. I don’t disagree that research tools should be easier to use (finding a journal article from a citation is stupidly difficult) but on the other hand, research is hard. The materials we use for research have complicated histories, and negotiating that complexity is part of research. Thinking critically and reflectively about history is also hard, and history is complicated and uncomfortable and unpleasant. I find this tension between giving users what they want and expect and pushing them to move beyond that to also be key to the practice of public history, and it’s something I want to think and do more with. I imagine that might happen in the next course, which is about teaching and pedagogy.

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