User-Centered Digital History: Doing Public History on the Web

(… or what I’m doing with my sabbatical. I’d be quite pleased for comments and/or tips on publishers who would like to manage a review process on project with an open-access web scholarship component.)

The Need

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 possibilities for doing sophisticated digital public history work have expanded significantly since the first cultural heritage organizations began to create websites in the mid-1990s. At the same time, the core elements and challenges of doing rigorous public history work have not changed all that much. As a result, the best digital public history work requires a blend of applied technical skills, targeted engagement strategies, disciplinary ways of knowing, and deep content knowledge.

Unfortunately much of the existing writing on digital public history fails to take into consideration the necessary blend of concerns. The only concentrated guide to doing digital history is ten years old, and cannot account for the ways that hardware, software, and the uses of technology have changed since its publication (Cohen and Rosenzweig, 2005). Furthermore, the most recent edited collection focused on digital history only includes one essay that addresses public history (Nawrotzki and Dougherty, 2013).

In recent years, the publishing landscape has been flooded by edited collections addressing digital humanities (see below), and museum and archives computing issues (Din and Hecht, 2007; Marty and Jones, 2007; Theimer, 2011). By dwelling in necessarily interdisciplinary spaces, these collections cannot speak to the disciplinary distinctions that separate history from the other humanities disciplines, to say nothing of the ways that the work that takes place within public history institutions is different from that which occurs in art museums, children’s museums, and science centers. These edited collections gather together slim glimpses of the arc of theories and methods that must be marshaled to do digital public history. The essays contained within often provide case studies of particular projects and pose provocative questions about emerging technologies and individual methods (Adair, et al., 2010; Boyd and Larson, 2014; Ridge, 2014). The result is a scatter-shot discussion of issues that require much more concerted attention. Taken in the aggregate, these collections and the essays they contain do not provide the practitioner or the student with a comprehensive overview of what is required to plan and execute rigorous digital public history work.

While there is promising work being created in a number of sectors, none of it provides the full background and resources public historians need. Guides to using particular technologies are not sufficiently framed with public audiences or collaborators in mind (Graham, et al., 2013). History monographs attuned to particular content areas show little to no attention to addressing a public audience or the digital means by which that communication might take place. Cognitive science research on the process of teaching and learning historical thinking skills rarely appears on the horizon of technologists or historians. And, business sector advice columns on market research, digital strategy, web design principles, and social media campaigns are off-putting to those primarily concerned with communicating about the past and its significance.

Public historians need a practical introduction to doing digital public history that speaks to their theoretical and methodological commitments while offering guidance on preparing for, executing, and sustaining vibrant projects.

The Opportunity

User-Centered Digital History, an open-access, responsive website, will offer a clear introduction for practicing public historians, those who teach public history, and their students, who want to embark on digital work.

Bringing together the core areas of expertise in applied technical skills, targeted engagement strategies, disciplinary-specific ways of knowing, and historical content knowledge, the site will be 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 quickly can get an overview of the topic and can 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 will frame 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 zeroes 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 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 consistent attention to digital preservation.


Introductory Materials

  • Histories: Public and Digital
  • Many Publics

Planning Projects

  • Digital Strategy
  • Infrastructure: Hardware, Software, Services
  • Project Planning and Management

Executing Projects

  • Building Digital Collections
  • Creating Interpretive Work

Sustaining Projects

  • Outreach and Social Media
  • Evaluation
  • Preservation

Key Related Works

Adair, Bill, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. 1 edition. Philadelphia: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011.

Boyd, Douglas A., and Mary A. Larson, eds. Oral History and Digital Humanities: Voice, Access, and Engagement. New York, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Cohen, Daniel, and Roy Rosenzweig. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Din, Herminia, and Phyllis Hecht. The Digital Museum: A Think Guide. Amer Assn of Museums, 2007.

Graham, Shawn, Ian Milligan, and Scott Weingart. “Welcome!” The Historian’s Macroscope: Big Digital History, May 17, 2013. (forthcoming from Imperial College Press).

Marty, Paul F., and Katherine B. Jones, eds. Museum Informatics: People, Information, and Technology in Museums. 1st ed. Routledge, 2007.

Nawrotzki, Kristen, and Jack Dougherty, eds. Writing History in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013.

Ridge, Mia, ed. Crowdsourcing Our Cultural Heritage. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate Pub Co, 2014.

Kate, Theimer, ed. A Different Kind of Web: New Connections between Archives and Our Users. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2011.

Digital Humanities Collections

Berry, David M., ed. Understanding Digital Humanities. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Burdick, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp, eds. Digital_Humanities. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.

Gold, Matthew K., ed. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Hirsch, Brett D., ed. Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics. s.l.: Open Book Publishers, 2012.

Siemens, Ray, John Unsworth, and Susan Schreibman, eds. Companion to Digital Humanities (Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Professional, 2004.

Terras, Melissa, Julianne Nyhan, and Edward Vanhoutte, eds. Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader. New edition. Farnham, Surrey, England : Burlington, VT: Ashgate Pub Co, 2013.

Warwick, Claire, Melissa Terras and Julianne Nyhan, eds. Digital Humanities in Practice. London: Facet Publishing, 2012.

Comments 2

  • […] The public is no one if you don’t intentionally identify specific people, groups, communities, and then design a project from the beginning with, for, and about those people. Too often, “the public” becomes the default category of anyone other than ourselves, which can often mean no one. If you have to ask after a project, tool, or program is built, who the audience will be, you built something for yourself. Creating a public digital humanities project must start with “the public,” ie your audiences, users, participants, from the beginning. Public audiences should be imagined as people with interests, lives, agendas, and challenges. To humanize those audiences, the Smithsonian Learning Lab created named personas who represent real teachers, the primary audience for their new digital initiative. Understanding that most historians would not consider audiences from the early stages of digital projects, Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig devoted an entire chapter to audience in Digital History. Sharon Leon will continue to push scholars in this area in forthcoming publication focused on “user-centered digital history.” […]

  • […] Leon, Sharon.  “User-Centered Digital History:  Doing Public History on the Web”.  [bracket], 03 March 2015,… […]