Agile (Digital) Public History: Preparing a New Generation of Cultural Heritage Professionals

[This post was inspired by a panel on the Envisioning the Future of Public History Training at National Council of Public History 2012 in Milwaukee.]

The increasing interest number of courses and concentrations focusing on public history suggests that we need to have a serious conversation about what are the skills that are necessary for students to pursue careers in public history in the 21st century. In his presentation for our panel on the future of public history instruction, Steven Burg from Shippensburg University offered preliminary survey results that suggested that digital history is a core interest for course development in a of public history programs. Those results lead to questions about what kinds of digital history training these programs are offering.

The NCPH Curriculum and Training committee works hard to offer guidance on these questions by producing a series of recommendations for best practices in graduate and undergraduate education, and for internships and certificate programs. The document focused on masters programs [PDF] offers guideposts that address the need to train students to be effective research historians, but also to provide them with practical skills in an area of concentration, hands-on experience through internship work, and an in-depth capstone project of some sort. Despite the fact that the document was adopted by the NCPH Board of Directors in October 2008, there is almost no mention of digital skills or digital public history work in the recommendations.

While I don’t have any concrete data on what kind of digital skills individual public history programs are teaching to prepare their students to do public history in a digital environment, I do know what is being taught in the required set of digital history courses for candidates in the PhD program at Mason. We cover a range of areas that engage theoretical questions, methodological approaches, and practical skills. This approach helps graduate students begin to enter into the major conversations in the field of digital history and to start to conceptualize and produce their own digital projects. Based on this teaching and my experience collaborating with cultural heritage organizations on digital projects, I have some recommendations on the skills public historians need to demonstrate to claim competence in digital history.

First and foremost, students need to use digital technology to do good history and to model that practice in public. Of course, this is not really about the technology, but more about carefully considering the framing of historical questions and demonstrating the elements of historical thinking skills such as effective contextualization, and considering multiple perspectives, causality, and shifting interpretation. Engaging in this type of authentic work in public raises all sorts of questions about authority and expertise. In the digital space the public has so many venues in which to respond, question, and challenge based on their existing knowledge and assumptions. The trick is to meet these users where they are and bring them along through the process of inquiry so that they arrive at more nuanced understandings of the past. Done well, this dialogue can lead to deep attachment and investment for the public, so public history programs cannot neglect the central communicative aspects of good digital work.

Focusing on the ways that student can communicate the stuff of history and the practice of doing history in a rich context inevitably should lead to a conversation about disaggreggating the far-too-vague concept the “audience” or the “user.” Being able to identify and target specific audience segments will be essential for doing good digital public history work. There is no single or general user profile. Students need to know how to identify and assess the needs of their core constituencies. Retirees with an interest in local history will have vastly different concerns than middle school history teachers, who in turn will have different needs than scholarly researchers.

Next, students need an introduction project development and planning that embraces agile development. Most history majors never consider issues of collaboration and management in their course work, but public history is about project work. Students need to learn what it takes to plan a collaborative projects and see it to completion. In the digital realm, this will be both a question of clarifying intellectual goals and creating technical work plans. I have written elsewhere about teaching project management, but it’s worth emphasizing here why agile principles are important. Agile development began as a movement to resist the heavily managed and bureaucratic methods of software development. Based on the notion that frequent builds, assessment, and correction allow for more nimble and responsive development, agile methods offer a model for digital public history too. Projects can start small with existing tools and resources. From that base the project team can gather information about audience response and content framing that can then be rolled into the project work flows. The emphasis here is on moving quickly and learning constantly. These practices are particularly well-suited to small organizations with slim technical infrastructure and staffing.

Turning to the technical front, students also need a sense of sound design and development practices, including the basic forces that make the web work: HTML, CSS, content management systems, etc. It is too much to expect that students would graduate with deep knowledge of these building blocks, but they need to be familiar enough with the structural elements that they can interact with developers and designers who do possess the technical knowledge to build customized sites and applications.

Despite the need for this general technical knowledge, students must have a sense of how effectively to use existing software and services to stand up quickly a digital project. In some cases this will be as simple as meeting audiences where they are already gathering on the web by sharing collections and expertise on HistoryPin or Wikipedia. In other cases, it will mean using existing outreach and communication venues such as Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr or WordPress to share the exciting work of public historians and their organizations. Furthermore, students need to have a sense of how to use software-as-service tools such as, Drupal Gardens, Dipity, Viewshare, and GeoCommons to produce narrative exhibits and data and geospatial visualizations that can communicate historical complexity and can engage audiences with historical questions and materials.

These are just the basics, but I don’t see how we can ask anything less from our public history students if we are to claim to send them out into the world with training in digital history.