Directions in Digital Public History

As I discussed in my last post, there has been a rift between academic and government/industry historians at least since the New Deal, but digital public history might be a much needed bridge. Although a young field, digital public history has already undergone many changes, including  collaborative projects between the ivory tower and public offices. These projects, I think, will benefit academics, public sphere historians and the public at large.

Early digital public history projects focused on delivering historic collections to the public. These tended to have a heavy archive component and made efforts to evoke a feeling of listing in on the past1.  Projects such as Blackout History Project and The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory also made a point of demonstrating how history is constructed and were early attempts to encourage the public to engage in historical thinking. At first, digital public history projects were published by either academic institutions (the Blackout History Project was created by George Mason University) or public institutions (Progress of a People was created by the Library of Congress). By 1999 collaborative efforts of public and academic historians began to create projects (The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory was produced by the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University). Already, at this early stage, the new field began to break down traditional professional barriers.

In the early 2000’s  historians began to use digital publishing as a way to tell the stories of traditionally subversive histories. The United States Holocaust Museum published an on-line exhibit about the lesser known Croatian concentration camps2, the Smithsonian produced a digital exhibit about the interment camps in the United States for Japanese Americans3, the New York Historical Society published a website about slavery in New York to accompany a physical exhibit4, and the Potcumtuck Valley Memorial Society created a narrative of the raid on Deerfield highlighting Native American voices as well as those of the white settlers5.  These provided the public with challenging historical perspectives. They required the audience to engage with uncomfortable facts and highlighted under represented voices.

More recent digital public history projects have been explorations in fully exploiting web-based projects. Although previous projects used crowdsourcing (Blackout) and multimedia (The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory and A More Perfect Union), new projects are focusing on creating projects that do history in a way not possible in an exhibit space or printed media. Manifold Greatness6 and Lincoln at 2007 act as permanent exhibits, whereas physical exhibits must be taken down for new. The Bracero Digital Archive8 functions in much the same way as Blackout, but rather than simply collecting stories, attempts to disseminate that information through exhibits and teaching tools. Operation War Diary9 engages the public in historic research by crowdsourcing transcribers. The project allows the public not just to hear up-to-date historic narratives, but be part of creating them.

As the field moves forward, creators should strive for scholarly excellence and public engagement. Although guidelines for reviewing digital public history projects already exist10, new projects need to constantly be thinking of how the project can actively engage the audience in historical thinking and how the creators can receive not just the feedback, but the interpretations of the audience. Digital public history should be about construction history with the public, not for the public. Therefore, content must be accessible (in both design and  writing style).

These concerns open the field to new, exciting directions. I would like to see greater collaboration- between institutions (public and academic), and between historians and the public. There should be feedback between historians and the public. The creators of these projects need to be aware of what the public wants from these services and of the public’s interpretation of the site. Crowdsourcing projects have also encouraged the public to actual do history, which is empowering. The internet has been a way to pool resources, and I hope that, moving forward, the academic and public sector create projects together. Increasingly, humanities research has been fighting to assert its relevance in a world increasing dominated by STEM research. Digital public history projects can be powerful examples of the impact humanities has on society if people from the public, government, the private sector and the academy work together.

1. “Introduction.” Progress of a People. Library of Congress.  <>. Accessed 2/2/2017.  
2. Holocaust Era in Croatia 1941-1945: Jasenovac United States Holocaust Museum. <>,
3. A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution. Smithsonian Museum of American History.
4. Slavery in New York. New York Historical Society. <>
5. Raid of Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704. Potcumtuck Valley Memorial Society. <>.
6. Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible. Folger Shakespeare Library. <>.
7. Lincoln at 200. Newberry Library and Chicago History Museum. <>
8. Bracero Digital Archive<./em> Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Brown University, and The Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso. <>
9. Operation War Diary Zooniverse, Imperial War Museums and The National Archives. <>
10. McClurken, Jeffrey. “The Journal of American History.” The Organization of American Historians, (September 2013).

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