Audience, Engagement and Co-Creation in Digital Public History

When I started thinking about Digital Public History in regards to my final project for class, I kept coming back to the question of “What is this project for? Why do it?” Although that sound awfully nihilistic, the question was very useful. As I’ve progressed through my academic career, I’ve often found myself wondering why academics labor for years over a project when the product will only be view by an insanely small audience and realistically have little impact on society. The readings of my class gave words to my rather amorphous thoughts- what I was contemplating were the issues of audience, engagement and co-creation in scholarly work.  I found I wanted to take on a Digital Public History project in order to meet the needs of a public.

Any scholarly project must be delivered with audience in mind. In my career, that has mostly been a professor or TA grading a mass of final papers. I’d like to think that some things I’ve argued are worth the attention of a wider audience. Public History implies an audience in its name- the public. The particular publics that projects cater to is crucially important to success. I am trying to create my project with my audience front-and-center. My chosen audience, Christians of Hebron, CT, is one that I’ve never written for before. I think my greatest obstacle will be creating accessible text. I struggle with conciseness and writing clearly. My audience won’t be able, much less want, to use my website if the text is filled with jargon and muddied with clumsy prose.

Additionally, I have found through interviews and research that people who use websites about religion are often looking not for a single answer, but want to explore a topic.  They seek an engaging experience. I don’t want people to just visit my website, I want them to use it as a resource. Therefore, I want make the resources I will draw from cornerstones of my project. Not only will highlighting sources frame the website concretely as a scholarly project, but users will have a wealth of additional information to sate their curiosities. I don’t want to merely provide a bibliography, but somehow integrate my sources into the engaging elements of my project.

I would like to engage my audience by soliciting their help. Co-creation is the most exciting concept I’ve learned thus far from class. I’ve always felt that the work of archaeologists or historians have limited impact without public involvement. For me, that means making the public stake-holders in the project and, harkening to Michael Fisch, sharing authority. In the case of my project, my public won’t be involved in the construction of the ancient history side, but when I approach church members for their expertise on Hebron’s Baptism traditions, I want them to feel they are part of a continuing story that started over one thousand years ago and that I am coming to them as an eager student.

I want my project to make the residents of Hebron, CT feel part of a long history of Christian Baptismal traditions. I want them to come away from my project with an understanding that the history of Christianity lives in their parishes and congregations, and they can engage with that ancient past in their own churches, without traveling to the Holy Land. Most importantly I want my audience to see that they are part of a complex history of interpretation that has never been monolithic. Although Baptism is perhaps the only universal Christian ritual, users of my website will understand that the practice has never been uniform and in co-creating the project, they will see in microcosm how congregations recreate and reinterpret the ancient rite of Baptism every time they observe it.

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