Analyzing Digital Public History

The 1990s saw the advent of the internet and with it, the first projects in digital public history. Many of these first projects were largely experimental. The creators seemed curious about the actual mechanics of how history might be presented in a online format and how internet users might respond to history presented in this way. Most of these early site focused on specific events in history and featured eyewitness accounts and primary sources. They used the online environment to present traditional texts with the added benefit of images and documents. The textural content provided on the sites seem to be geared toward a more educated audience and seemed to be based on solid research. Even so, the interfaces on these early sites were very simple and sometime hard to navigate. The sites were also not practically visually appealing. Nevertheless, they should be applauded for opening the door for future web-based sites by demonstrating that history could be presented in an online format.

In the early 2000s, historians and museum professionals realized that these online sites could be used memorialize the lives of those affected by major world event such as wars and genocide. Sites like “Jasenovac: Holocaust Era in Croatia 1941-1945” (2002) and “A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S…” (2002) emerged. In addition to serving as a somber memorial of sorts, these sites also sought to to educate the public about these tragedies, in hopes that something like these events will never happen again. These site incorporated oral histories, personal stories, and images of artifacts in order to provide their audiences with a personal connection to these events.

Next, museums and historical sites began to build companion websites which would complement the stories they were already trying to tell at their physical location. These online experiences also served as a way for people who could not visit the exhibit in person to still connect with and learn from the the museum’s work. During this era, the online sites became much more visually appealing, had more user friendly interfaces, and became more extensive in the depth of information that was presented. Finally, they became much more interactive and included a wide variety of multi-media sources like songs, videos, and oral history audio files.

Digital Public History sites, like any other book, project or exhibit must be judged on certain criteria. There are several qualities which mark sites as good digital public history work. First of all is the site’s content. A good site should be based on solid scholarship. Many sites these days include an extensive bibliography. One needs to ask: What sources are being used? Are they reliable? Have they considered a variety of viewpoints? Secondly, one must look at the site’s interface. Is it laid out and organized clearly? Is it easy to navigate? Do users know where to begin and how to move though the site? How to use a good site will be self-explanatory or have detailed directions on how to proceed. Thirdly, (and this is maybe on the of the most important concerns for Public Historians) one needs to consider the audience. Is the site directed toward a clear audience? Is the site engaging for the audience it is directed toward? Is the content or story presented in a way that is appealing, interesting and understandable to the site’s audience? Are audiences allowed to come to their own conclusions or are they only presented with other’s interpretations? A good digital public history site encouraged historical thinking and allows their audience to become their own historians. Finally, one must look at the use of digital media in the site. Is the site using the internet and other digital media to do something new or unique that couldn’t be done in the pre-digital age? Does the use of media add to or detract from the overall experience? Media should be used to help the overall site and help present information in a new way.

Since the projects of the late 2000s, digital public history work has been improving, changing and is now heading in new directions. One of the best interpretive strategies in public history – giving the public direct access to primary sources and letting them draw their own conclusion – has become commonplace as interfaces are better able to handle the documents. In early projects, primary sources were used, but they required a user several clicks to get there. Once the user arrived at the source, they were greeted with a scanned version of the document which (in some cases) could not be enlarged or manipulated. Now, high quality versions of primary sources are seamlessly integrated into the text and can be moved and enlarged effortlessly, giving the impression that one if sitting with the document right in front of him or her. Another new trend in digital public history is to create websites or archives that are focused on specific local or minority groups. Making the voices of these people heard through multimedia and oral history is becoming increasing important not only in historical research, museum exhibits but also digital public history sites.

Finally, the newest venture in digital public history is crowdsourcing. Instead of simply presenting the public with information, or offering them primary sources so that they can draw their own conclusions, crowdsourcing asks the public to directly participate in the project by completing work on the project that the project creators could not do themselves. This can include anything from creating full text transcriptions of documents or editing transcriptions completed by others, to tagging documents with relevant information or classifying documents based on their type. Needless to say, digital public history has already evolved quite a bit in its short existence and will continue to do so, as public historians seek to create tools and environments in which they can best engage their audience.

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