Survey of the Field: Analyzing Digital Public History

For this activity, I looked at eleven different digital public history websites, ranging in birth date from 1998 to 2014. These sites reveal the broad outline of digital public history work. In the first phase, there is a sense of trying to figure out what digital public history sites could do. Should they be the digital equivalent of a physical exhibition, like the Library of Congress’s Progress of a People site? Should they seek to capture memories from people who lived through an event, like the Blackout History Project? Should they take a reflexive approach and represent not just an historical event but how it is later remembered and interpreted, like the Great Chicago Fire and Web of Memory site? Some of these sites, like the Blackout History Project, try to do too much – not just collect and present oral histories, but archive media coverage and government and corporate documents. Others don’t take full advantage of the medium and just reproduce physical exhibitions. In this phase are the beginnings of some of the markers of good digital public history work: the site should be clearly focused, take advantage of the medium, and promote some form of public engagement.

The second phase of digital public history work is more coherent. The sites I reviewed in this phase are more focused and take advantage of the medium by linking and using multimedia extensively. Links allow users to chart their own path through the material and engage with the site more actively. These sites make historical thinking more obvious by foregrounding a multiplicity of primary sources and perspectives and promote other forms of public engagement. The Smithsonian’s site, A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S., includes a section for users to reflect on the site and to think about the site within the context of contemporary events. The Raid on Deerfield site, unlike the others created during this phase, takes a Rashomon-like approach to history, presenting five perspectives of a single event and asking users to decide. These sites are more clearly focused on a particular theme or event and primarily take the form of an exhibition of primary sources surrounded by traditional historical narrative. The reflexive and educational element of good digital public history emerges in this phase, as these sites try to get their users to engage in historical thinking.

The third, and current, phase of digital public history work is characterized by the differentiation of sites. The Lincoln at 200 site is similar to A More Perfect Union and Jasenovac: Holocaust Era in Croatia; it’s essentially an interactive exhibition of primary sources. The Bracero Archive returns to the goals of the Blackout History Project by soliciting oral histories and other materials from users. In both cases, this is a very good way to use the web, as individuals involved are likely dispersed and primary materials from both events were not likely systematically collected. Manifold Greatness is also an exhibition site, but it more extensively incorporates multimedia and interactive elements for specific user populations (in this case, children). It emphasizes reflectivity and historical thinking by incorporating a section on subsequent uses of the King James Bible with the more traditional narrative of its origins. Operation War Diary brings a new and promising form of public engagement: crowdsourced transcription work. This allows users to directly engage with primary sources and to essentially “do” history in a way that other forms of interaction may not have. This is really neat in a lot of ways, but I have reservations about outsourcing labor that really should be adequately funded (I do understand the types of fiscal constraints cultural heritage institutions operate under, and I understand thinking strategically, but it’s important not to forget this point either).

Tl; dr: Good digital public history work is clearly focused, is reflexive, models or allows users to engage in historical thinking, takes advantage of the medium, and promotes public engagement and interaction.

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