Thursday, August 12, 2010

Digital History is Public History

In this blog I will discuss various aspects of the practice of digital history. Work in this medium often focuses on the digitization and online presentation of primary source materials. Digital history activities also can include devising  software tools facilitating new forms of research, and creating of new ways to present historical arguments and evidence,. Others have produced online teaching modules and other materials helpful in pedagogy.

Much of the work digitizing and presenting primary source materials has taken place in libraries, and many academic historians interested in what one recent discussion has termed "the promise of digital history" (Journal of American History, September, 2008, 452-491) have set their sights on creating new forms of research and scholarship.William G. Thomas, III of the University of Nebraska has argued that "Producing `scholarship that matters' will be the driving criterion in judging digital history" ("The Promise of Digital History," 477). This in many ways mirrors developments in in other humanities, where scholars making use of new technology have principally devoted their attention to realizing its potential for adding to scholarly discourse. While I recognize that new technologies can and should inform a new scholarship, I believe that an approach to digital history devoting the vast majority of its energies to scholarship largely ignores the fact that the web and its attendant technologies provide members of the discipline with an unprecedented opportunity to share their ideas with the vast web-using public. An narrow emphasis on the development of research tools and new types of scholarship threatens to squander this significant portion of digital history's immense promise.

In all fairness, a number of participants in "The Promise of Digital History" round table mentioned the medium's potential for building new bridges to the public. But the discussion did not seem to get beyond raising the issue of public engagement, while participants engaged more fruitfully with the subjects of research tools and scholarship. I fear that professional inertia and powerful institutional factors, like the criteria for tenure and promotion, have and will inexorably push the development of digital history toward scholarly endeavors.

Broader dissemination of existing scholarship alone will not engage a public audience. Discussions of the crisis in scholarly communication have emphasized how mass-digitization projects like Google Books, as well as the use of open-source journals and institutional repositories, can allow scholars to disseminate the texts that they write to a far larger pool of readers. I would argue that this work only takes advantage of a small portion of the available technology's promise for reaching a larger audience and addressing what Thomas Bender has called professional historians' increasing isolation from the public ("'Venturesome and Cautious’: American History in the 1990s." Journal of American History 81:3 December 1994, 997). Although historians' books and articles can now reach more readers, they remain texts written with an audience of fellow scholars in mind, assuming a level of background knowledge that often renders the discussion largely meaningless to, and can serve to intimidate, the uninitiated. New forms of digital scholarship, by virtue of their status as communications written for fellow specialists, threaten to do the same.

I believe that digital history is, unavoidably, public history.  Materials available on the free-use web, unlike materials published in scholarly journals or databases requiring subscriptions, cannot help but come to the attention of users beyond the profession, especially through the use of Google and other search engines. Historians can take advantage of this situation to address what Steven Mintz has called "issues facing our society (which) have a fundamental, if largely unrecognized, historical dimension," effectively "combat(ing) historical illiteracy" ("The Promise of Digital History," 487), using new technologies to share their ideas and work with the non-specialist public. This can begin with practices as simple as videotaping a public lecture and posting it to a web site. In speaking to such audiences scholars routinely recast their findings in terms more likely to resonate with an audience that is, by definition, popular.

Historians can use the web to do more than make members of the public familiar with their findings, however. Several practitioners taking part in the Journal of American History's recent discussion of the promise of digital history mentioned the fact that the medium can furnish an opportunity for members of the general public to experience what Thomas called "total immersion" in historical sources, taking part in what educators would call active learning by beginning, in Thomas' words, to "build connections" for themselves and "form(ing) interpretive associations of their own" (Promise of Digital History, 454). I agree with this contention emphatically, but would argue that the provision of primary source materials in an online environment alone hardly stands to precipitate this type of use among individuals not pursuing advanced scholarship or taking part in an organized course of study.

In my work at Northern Illinois University Libraries, I have tried to take steps to help web users to experience the stimulation and challenge of  "doing history" for themselves. We have developed a number of online resource exploring topics that figure prominently in many users' historical memories, including Abraham Lincoln's life before the presidency and the Mississippi Valley that Mark Twain remembered and imagined in his best-known works of literature.

In addition to providing its users with a large digital library of primary source materials documenting Lincoln's life before the presidency and his historical context, the Lincoln/Net site ( ( that we have developed provides its users with a basic narrative of Lincoln's life before the presidency, linking his experiences to major events in American society and politics in that period. It also furnishes short discussions of eight major historical themes pertaining to his experience and context (in text and video formats). On this site members of the educated public can find historians' narratives and interpretations presented in a concise form largely free of the finer points of historiographical debate.

This approach can help members of the general public to understand and learn from the primary sources contained in our web sites' digital libraries. Lincoln/Net's interpretive materials provide users with a  sense of what the historical literature has to say about the sources at hand, as well as a basic grasp of the events and individuals that figured prominently in them. Graduate students training for the historical profession delve deeply into the literature before they begin primary research, and continue to read new interpretations as their research leads them to ask new questions. Students enrolled in history classes benefit from scholars' discussion of chronology and interpretations, be it in the form of textbooks or selected monographic works. With Lincoln/Net I have tried to juxtapose historians' interpretations and  narratives, expressed in terms similar to those employed for a public lecture, with large collections of primary source materials, with an eye toward letting users readily move back and forth between both sets of data, learning from each as they explore the past.

In realizing that digital history is public history, I would urge the historical profession to produce a series of web sites providing the Google-using public with, at the very least, ready access to concise summaries of scholars' interpretations of major historical questions, themes, and periods, pitched at the level of a public lecture. Ideally, these sites would also include collections of primary source materials enabling their users to explore the historical record for themselves. While I do not object to the development of research tools using new technology, or the creation of a new form of digital scholarship,  I believe that if we allow these pursuits to obscure dialogue with individuals outside the profession, they will serve to isolate academic historians from the public still further, and squander an unprecedented opportunity that this technology affords us.