Digital Public History

This week’s readings on public history raised a number of issues, namely defining audience and the “public,” building and maintaining that community of users, and the ability of digital exhibits to promote access, to encourage historical research, and to preserve museums’ collections. The issue that stood out the most was one that Sheila Brennan argued on her blog- that putting history on the web does not make it public. Defining the “public” in a digital public history project should be an integral part of the project’s conception, planning, implementation, and outreach. It must follow through from the beginning to the end of the project’s launch in order to be useful to a community of users and to remain that way. As Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig state in their chapter on Building an Audience in Digital History, the website/project’s creators should see the users as a community, not a monthly statistic of views, or an unidentified “other.” Additionally, the digital public history project must be flexible in adapting to new audiences.

The Histories of the National Mall is a great example of the public, the audience, driving the project. As Sharon Leon notes in her blog post for AHA Today, the project was driven by a need of visitors to the Mall to engage with the historical context as they traverse the site. Everything from the mobile platform to the content was planned and created with that audience in mind. As Sheila Brennan stated in her article, too, graduate students were sent to continuously test it on the Mall. The user is free to navigate the site from their mobile device wherever on the Mall and is free to explore the content.

The digital public history project, the Cleveland Historical Project, at the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University is an app that was created for and by the local community. In his article, “Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era,” Mark Tebeau states that they “moved toward curating the city in collaboration with the community, rather than curating it for the city’s many constituencies.” That project keeps the integral audience engaged by publishing new stories and reaching out to the new audience of educational leaders. This project is a good example of integrating the audience from the beginning and using their strengths and interest to build and promote it. It also is an example of adapting to new audiences, or extending the existing community of users, through the teachers and students using the app to create new content in the classroom.

More than once, communities of users appear that were not previously expected, and the project should foster that new audience. One example from Cohen and Rosenzweig’s chapter is of The Library of Congress digitizing and building a public history site of primary sources for researchers. In reality, teachers and students constituted their main audience. They, in response, adapted their website of digital primary sources to include digital tools and resources for those users. The digital public history project, whether a mobile app or digital exhibit, should define the audience in the beginning stages, integrate that audience into the design and implementation, and adapt to new communities of users.