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Digital Public History

In shaping digital public history work at Mason, I have pursued my research agenda in three key ways: 1) by designing and directing exemplary digital projects that serve as replicable models for others in the field; 2) by building tools and conducting research that provides others in the field with resources to advance their own work; and 3) by working to train other students, scholars, and cultural heritage professions to employ these theories, methods, tools, and materials in their own work. Together, these efforts have combined to grow the field of model projects, the base of scholarship, and the technical infrastructure for doing digital public history. The majority of this work has been possible due to sponsored research funding that was subject to a blind peer review process undertaken by federal funding agencies. Furthermore, the work on these projects has provided me with the opportunity to engage with scholars across the country and all over the world, including in Taiwan, in Italy, and in September 2015 in South Africa, as we discuss the field of digital public history.

For each of the major projects I have directed, my work interpreting and making historical materials accessible has been shaped by the form in which the materials are presented. New forms of analysis and interpretation have expanded significantly in the last fifteen years as the range of user-friendly software platforms has expanded, offering the possibilities of non-linear scholarship, and environments for collaboration, dialogue, and co-creation—elements that are at the heart of public history. My work in digital public history has not only taken up these methodological innovations in my archival and interpretive projects. It also has taken on the important task of envisioning and developing the critical software infrastructure that then serves as an underpinning for the work of the rest of the field. My current thinking on this relationship between digital form and the work of public history is explicated more fully in my portions of a roundtable on the future of The Public Historian, which appeared in that journal in February 2013, and in a forthcoming chapter on creating public history in a digital environment in The Oxford Handbook of Public History (January 2016).[i]

A. Digital Interpretation

One trajectory of my work has used digital environments to share the past with a wide public by creating narrative-driven public history exhibits. For instance, Martha Washington: A Life <> brings together archival research and material culture from George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens to present a biographical narrative of the nation’s first First Lady. The site covers Mrs. Washington’s life from early childhood through her death, including her first marriage, the Revolution, and her time as First Lady, while at the same time providing historical insights on the social, cultural, and political realities of eighteenth century women’s lives. Funded by a private donor, the site contains a popular but deeply researched narrative written by GMU History Professor Rosemarie Zagarri, as well as an extensive archive, and a number of teaching modules that focus on key objects and themes from the narrative.

I also have offered leadership in digital public history projects that push beyond the traditional work of online exhibits and collections to embrace new forms and methods to distill and deliver rigorous historical scholarship to a public audience. For example, the Histories of the National Mall <> project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), is a freely available place-based public history website developed with support of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and designed to let visitors to the Mall use the computing devices that they are already carrying in their pockets to dive into that rich history. The project was the recipient of the 2015 National Council on Public History’s Award for Outstanding Public History Project. Drawing on the extensive range of primary sources available at DC cultural heritage institutions, the project team assembled a rich documentary record of the many historical facets of the National Mall. Then, we added a layer of rigorous historical interpretation to those sources, synthesizing the most recent public history scholarship, raising provocative questions about the space, its role in national life, and the expressions of American ideals that have taken place there—questions that have engaged scholars for decades.[ii]

Unlike the work of writing journal articles or monographs, the success of this project hinged on translating those sources and historical scholarship into a form and voice that meets the needs of the public users accessing the material within the space of the Mall. Making the materials available was not sufficient. They had to be adapted to fit the mobile medium and the public user. The decision to design for the mobile web, and not develop a smartphone application, was tied directly to our goal of reaching the largest percentage of the millions of annual visitors to the Mall. Thus, Histories of the National Mall is not constrained by the quickly evolving world of mobile application development protocols and is accessible on the widest range of mobile devices and to the broadest audience of visitors, who all can use the free wireless internet access available on the Mall and in the Smithsonian museums.

B. Digital Archives and Collections

Another trajectory of my digital public history work has taken up new methodological approaches to building and presenting digital archives. Upon taking leadership of the Public Projects division, I also took on a more substantial role with RRCHNM’s legacy collections, including the September 11 Digital Archive (911DA) <> and the Papers of the War Department, 1784-1800 (PWD) <>. In many ways, 911DA launched a new genre of historical collecting project, when it emerged in 2002, by throwing the digital doors open to the interested public to offer their stories and digital artifacts from the events of that September morning. Under my direction, we have continued to innovate with the collections, working to create tools for annotation and large-scale data analysis that will help to make the vast holdings more comprehensible to researchers (see Omeka below). In a similar way, PWD represents a revolution in the world of documentary papers projects, in that it has made available high-resolution digital copies of nearly 42,000 documents, by focusing on providing immediate access to the archival materials and streamlining the editorial process to progressively enhance metadata for the collection. We are continuing to push the boundaries of traditional documentary editing methods by enlisting interested users to transcribe the documents (see Scripto below). Thus, both of these archives have served as seedbeds for my thinking and experiments to improve widespread public access and understanding through innovation in digital public history methods.

The Bracero History Archive <> broke new ground by collecting, aggregating, and making publicly available the documents and oral histories of the bracero guest worker program between the United States and Mexico (1942-1964). The Bracero History Archive was funded by a grant from the NEH and was the recipient of the 2010 National Council on Public History’s Outstanding Public History Project Award. With the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, and the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Brown University as the major content partners, the project enabled the collection and presentation of a history that might otherwise have been lost. Leveraging the community ties and relationships of local partners, we were able to reach out to braceros and their families who may never have trusted an unknown academic researcher. The technical infrastructure for the site, which was built using Omeka, specifically enabled this broad-based collaboration between primary partners and local partners by creating a shared central repository that could be accessed via the web.

C. Software Projects

In all cases, my approach to doing digital public history has been influenced deeply by my work conceptualizing and leading the development on a series of major software projects that center on Omeka <>, a widely-used free and open source web publishing platform for libraries, museums, archives, scholars, and popular enthusiasts who have digital collections. And, my thinking on the future course of software development has been influenced by my work as an historian. Since its launch in 2008 with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Omeka has been downloaded over 100,000 times, and is in use at major cultural heritage institutions around the world, including Europeana, the Digital Public Library of American, the Newberry Library, and many others.[iii] Given the software’s popularity, in 2010 we launched a hosted service, <> which currently hosts nearly 16,000 sites for organizations and individuals that do not have the capacity or the desire to run their own servers.

In addition to directing the Omeka team of software architects, web designers, and end-user support staff since 2011, I have pursued a number of key new developments and initiatives. Growing out of the opportunity presented by the 42,000 documents in the Papers of the War Department documentary collection, in 2011 I secured funding from both the NEH and the National Historic Records and Publications Commission (the funding agency of the National Archives and Records Administration) to develop a digital tool to documentary editors in working with members of the community to transcribe documents. The result was the design and development of Scripto <>, which offers modules for popular content management systems that allow members of the public to select and transcribe digital objects (documents, multimedia files, etc.). The software has been quite popular and is in use with many university libraries and special collections. At RRCHNM, I oversaw the implementation of the system with the Papers of the War Department, which resulted in significant findings about the collection and the interests of those individuals who use it. In 2014, I published those findings as a chapter in the edited collection, Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage.[iv]

In 2012, I pursued and obtained funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the design and development of the next generation of Omeka, designed to meet the needs of medium to large cultural heritage organizations by offering administrators a good way to oversee and manage many sites that share a common pool of digital objects. The resulting software, Omeka S, which launched in Summer 2015, has a completely different codebase from the initial stand-alone version, making it significantly more efficient and well-suited to the developing linked data universe. Additionally, Omeka S is designed to be fully integrated into the growing scholarly communication echo-system, offering users ways to draw on existing digital resources from a wide range of repositories, including popular institutional preservation solutions like Fedora and popular commercial web platforms like YouTube, SoundCloud, Flickr, and others.

Omeka S’s ability to support many independent, yet connected sites means that it has the potential to transform the ways that cultural heritage professionals and university educators communicate with a larger public, because it can put the easy-to-use narrative interpretative capacities of the original Omeka software in the hands of many, many more people. For example, both the Georgia Institute of Technology and the New York University are considering Omeka S as a way to offer humanities instructors and other interested individuals use of the platform for teaching purposes so that whole classes or individual students can create digital narrative interpretation as part of their course work. The development of Omeka S has logically lead me to conceptualize and pursue funding from the Mellon Foundation and the IMLS for enhancements to the software, including community collecting capacity, geospatial facilities, additional sharing functions, and work that leverages the existing linked open data authority files and standardized vocabularies available to describe cultural heritage materials. All of this work will improve the software and the ability of scholars and cultural heritage professionals to use it to share their expertise and interpretive insights through the open web.

The work associated with Omeka S will be a core priority for the Omeka team in the future, but we continue to develop and innovate with the original stand-alone version of the software, which we have begun to refer to as Omeka Classic. Currently, I direct and serve as Principal Investigator for two grants from the IMLS that are supporting key Omeka initiatives. First, Omeka Everywhere is a collaboration with Ideum, a leading developer of interactive installations for galleries and museums, and the University of Connecticut, that aims to connect Omeka installations to touch table collections viewers for in-gallery use and to related mobile applications. These adaptations will dramatically increase the kinds of meaningful interactions that visitors can have with digital collections materials in the museum and gallery settings, and after they leave those spaces. Second, the Opening Omeka Collections to Close and Distant Reading project pushes the software in directions that will be particularly useful to research scholars. By developing both a set of image and text annotation plugins and a set of word frequency and named entity extraction plugins, we are placing tools in the hands of researchers to do sophisticated analysis of both individual items and large corpora of texts.

D. Current Research and Writing Project

These substantial software and digital public history projects all contribute to my major current research and writing project: User-Centered Digital History: Doing Public History on the Web, an open-access, responsive website that will offer a clear introduction for practicing public historians, those who teach public history, and their students who want to embark on digital work. With the benefit of a research leave during the Spring 2015 semester, I have made substantial progress on the research, writing, and development for the site. I look forward to spending the Fall 2016 semester at Marquette University in Milwaukee as the Association of Marquette University Women Chair in Humanistic Studies, where I will have the opportunity to complete this work and share it widely with students and faculty from across the university.

The work of public history calls for taking good history scholarship into the world to meet the needs and interests of a non-academic audience. While much of that work has traditionally happened in face to face encounters and at physical sites, increasingly public historians are encountering their audiences through digital means, such as social media, blogs, exhibit sites, collection and archives sites, mobile applications, and digital simulations. The best digital public history work requires a blend of applied technical skills, targeted engagement strategies, disciplinary ways of knowing, and content knowledge. Bringing together these core areas of expertise, User-Centered Digital History is composed of ten web modules that allow the visitor to selectively drill into the topics and issues that are most pertinent for her work. Materials on the site will be arranged so that the user can quickly get an overview of the topic and access the key principles for each module, but then have the ability to proceed to more in depth discussions of particular approaches, tools, and activities. Where appropriate, the modules will include support documents, project case studies, and other associated resources.

The introductory portion of the website frames public history and digital history as fields within the discipline of history. They have distinct genealogies and methods that distinguish them from the larger worlds of both history and the digital humanities, and that are important for the ways that technology is employed in their service. Then, the site zeros in on the main distinction between public history and other forms of history: it is created with and for a particular audience. This notion of user-centered history is the key factor that makes digital public history stand apart both from academic work in digital history and other work in digital humanities. As such, it is central to all of the other facets of the work.

The remainder of the site is divided into three sets of modules that address planning, executing, and sustaining digital public history projects. Thus, the first set of modules covers the research, strategy, and infrastructure creation that are necessary to lay the groundwork for successful projects. The second set addresses the practical and theoretical issues involved in executing a wide range of digital public history work, including building digital collections, creating rich interpretive content, and creating engaged communities around that work. The final set treats the need for frequent evaluation, ongoing outreach campaigns, and attention to issues of digital preservation.

E. Teaching and Professional Development

Just as my current project is focused on expanding the field of individuals who have the skills necessary to do rigorous digital history and digital public history, my teaching at Mason has been devoted primarily to that need as well.[v] I regularly teach a large undergraduate course that satisfies the general education information technology requirement called “The Digital Past” (HIST390). For the last two years I have taught the course in Mason’s Active Learning Classroom, which allows me to draw the students, who are mostly not history majors, into a range of hands-on activities during our time together that call on them to explore digital tools, work in teams, and conduct historical research and analysis in the digital environment. This active approach is new and sometimes off-putting for students who expect history courses to be grounded in lectures and tests, but the blend of hands-on digital skill building with historical research methods has benefits for students outside the history classroom.

For graduate students, I regularly teach a course that is required for doctoral students in the History Department that introduces the theories and methods of digital history (HIST696). This course provides a foundation for a number of subsequent digital history courses that are prepare our students to apply digital methods to their dissertation research and presentation, and that prepare them for a wide range of employment opportunities upon completion of their degrees. Also, I have been offering a graduate level elective in “Digital Public History” (HIST694), which has evolved from a directed reading to a traditional graduate seminar, to an online course that will be taught in Spring 2016. Here the focus is on preparing students to undertake historical research and interpretation with and for public audiences using digital methods. Together these two courses and the related directed readings have contributed to my work on the History Department Graduate Studies Committee, where I have headed up the effort to develop guidelines for graduate students who wish to produce a digital dissertation project rather than a traditional long-form narrative manuscript. I hope these guidelines will be the catalyst for productive discussion on the role of form in scholarship when they are taken up by the full department in Fall 2015.

Finally, for the last two summers with funding from the NEH and the Getty Foundation, my colleague Sheila Brennan and I have offered a series of two-week summer institutes for mid-career American historians, mid-career art historians, and art history graduate students that introduce them to the theories and methods of digital history. During Summer 2016 with NEH support, we will once again offer a two-week institute for mid-career American historians. These seminars are design specifically to grow the digital literacy of the field and to expand the corps of scholars who can create and evaluate research conducted using digital tools and presented in digital forms. These initial efforts at raising the digital capacities of both emerging and established scholars have resulted in new and energizing work in research and teaching, shaping new collaborative digital projects and course offerings.

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[i] William Bryans, et al., “Imaging the Digital Future of The Public Historian,” The Public Historian 35:1 (February 2013) 8-27, and Sharon M. Leon, “Layers and Links: Writing Public History in a Digital Environment.” in The Oxford Handbook of Public History, edited by Paula Hamilton and James B. Gardner (Forthcoming from Oxford University Press, January 2016).

[ii] A Zotero collection contains the range of historical scholarship and sources that undergird the site,

[iii] Omeka Showcase,; Sites Using Omeka,

[iv] Sharon M. Leon, “Build, Iterate, and Generalize: Community Transcription of the Papers of the War Department and the Development of Scripto,” in Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage, edited by Mia Ridge (Ashgate, 2014).

[v] Teaching Materials: