A Public History Newbie's Thoughts on Everything and Nothing

Public History. Comments. Questions. Sarcasm. Maybe Some Hippie Rants.

On How We Are Digital

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“Digital history possesses a crucial set of common components—the capacity for play, manipulation, participation, and investigation by the reader. Dissemination in digital form makes the work of the scholar available for verification and examination; it also offers the reader the opportunity to experiment. He or she can test the interpretations of others, formulate new views, and mine the materials of the past for overlooked items and clues. The reader can immerse him/herself in the past, surrounded with the evidence, and make new associations.” – William G. Thomas III


The very nature of digital history is characteristically different from what has been considered standard history. It simply lacks the sacred feel of physical testaments of time. Scrolling through over bright screens filled with distractions only a click away cannot beat the satisfaction found in the solace of the stacks or the smell of old books. Am I dating myself as a product of the Millennial generation? Maybe I am. After all I am someone who will always have one foot in the physical library but also someone who has an innate finesse for digital history.

While digital history doesn’t have that desired sense of touch or smell that historians love, there is is an infinite amount of reasons why it’s here to stay. This example of digital history melding lost objects together that had been broken is lovely and proves that digital history is can be wonderful.

“Over the past century, artifacts initially found in the Dunhuang caves and other ancient silk road sites have been dispersed among museums and private collections around the world. The International Dunhuang Project has begun to reunite—virtually—tens of thousands of these artifacts on its website.”

To read more on that case please see http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/exploring/3.php

Virtually every historical source or location its own website. They have to in order to be relevant. Whether a museum for example, has a website seriously makes a difference on whether a visitor will come. If the website is not impressive then that dramatically affects how many people will make the effort to see the location in person. If a visitor accepts the quality of the website, they are more likely to trust the quality of the history. That is not a proven fact however- just a strong hunch based in experience.

Many history websites allow for a certain amount of dialogue and feedback (through options like links to Facebook pages or Email) which creates a tricky window of shared authority. As historians we cannot bow our heads to any ‘internet pedestrian’ or amateur historian but if they ask for certain information we have an obligation to ask ourselves, is this history being told to its full potential?

This case happened at my place of work in late 2014…

In an email sent to the museum a complaint was made against the content of the museum’s website’s historical narrative. The email’s writer, whose name I will not share, was dismayed that the ‘official narrative’ explained the historic significance of the arrival of minority workers into the region’s agriculture but was not clear about how local, white, youths were still eager to work in the fields.

His reasoning for reaching out to the museum via its website’s email option was heavily racist and I will not go into details. Regardless, I had to look beyond his personal sentiment. He was clearly upset that the narrative, updated by myself to include minorities in the history (which I had patted myself on the back for nine months previously), did not mention the history of labor that was still done by the local white kids.

So, ignoring the clear racism of his email, I asked myself if I let down the history of the group of workers that I had assumed was common knowledge. I had. He was right, it is time to address the ‘official narrative’ presented on the website once again. This time, it will be more thorough and certainly delicate.


Author: greengoddesshistory

Public History Masters Student. Museum Director. Trail Runner. Gym Lover. Dove owner.

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