We The People

“I’m Gonna Steal the Declaration of Independence” (Or, My Career Path So Far)

I am just going to be upfront about this.  National Treasure made me want to study history.

The movie came out right around my birthday during my junior year of high school, and at the time I was pondering going to school for creative writing or maybe even dance.  But then (bear in mind that this was well before Nick Cage began to star in cinematic gems like Stolen, with a plot that is suspiciously similar to Taken –  but I digress) the edge-of-your-seat historical adventure hit theaters and I was captivated.  I will give myself at least a little credit: it was Diane Kruger’s job at the National Archives (she got to go to galas!), and not Cage’s treasure hunting exploits that piqued my interest.

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I have come a long way since the days when National Treasure was my career inspiration.  I thought that, when I enrolled in graduate school, I had finally figured out who I wanted to be when I grew up – the curatorial path seemed like a no-brainer.  Yet what I have loved most about the past year is that it has continued to shape my understanding of what history is and how I want to do it.  The field of public history is far more complex than I had ever realized, and this summer’s crash course in digital history has redefined where I think I’m going next.

At the end of Public History Seminar last fall, we were asked to write an essay in response to the following question: what is public history and why should all historians care about it? I started my essay with a bleak description of what a world without public history might look like:

It is a world that lacks reflection and, consequently, a world that is stagnant, unable to measure progress, to learn from past mistakes, to move forward in ways that are better and bolder because they are well informed.  What comes to view is something of a dystopian nightmare, a society without a soul.

I proceeded to outline what I believe are three essential qualities of public history, the things that I think public history does or can accomplish.  And as I thought through my experience with digital history over the past few weeks, it occurred to me that digital history does the exact same things, perhaps even better.  I’d like to take some time to reconsider my thoughts on the subject. For the sake of this blog I’ve replaced “public” with “digital.”

Digital history preserves and protects places, artifacts, and documents. 

This may sound strange but consider this: in a world where human interaction increasingly takes place online, we need people and processes dedicated to preserving content like tweets and Facebook pages that will undoubtedly serve as valuable primary sources for future historians.  Digital history offers solutions for preserving born digital content in ways that are far more effective than traditional methods.  Digital history also calls for the preservation of documents and artifacts in a space that allows for far more accessibility than a dusty archive or climate-controlled museum storage room: the web.  Tools like Omeka enable unprecedented public access, if only more institutions would invest in them.  And, finally, mobile apps allow us to preserve place in new and exciting ways, to transform, in the words of Mark Tebeau, “the landscape into a living museum” (25).

Digital history reaches, influences, and is done by the public. 

Popular social media accounts like @HistoryinPics demonstrate that the public has an interest in creating and consuming historical content on the web.  And the nature of the web invites them to do just that.  Crowd-sourcing sites like Wikipedia and HistoryPin tap into what Paul Ford calls the “fundamental question of the web”: why wasn’t I consulted?  By acknowledging the best uses of the web as a medium, historians can both engage the public and make tremendous progress on projects that would otherwise cost a fortune.  Collaboration, in other words, happens naturally on the web; historians should take advantage of that.

Digital history has the potential to interpret a contested past. 

Public historians have long struggled to find ways to tell difficult stories in public spaces: the saga of the Enola Gay exhibit in the 1990s shows just how fraught their efforts can be.  Digital history, however, provides them with new ways to teach the tough stuff.  Video games, James Paul Gee points out in What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, allow players to experience “the “other” from the inside” (149).  In fact, Rebecca Mir and Trevor Owens argue that this is exactly what video games should be doing.  In reference to the game Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization, they write that “we would love to see a Eurocentric, colonialist representation of colonialism in which Native Americans are robust, playable peoples, because it would allow players to experience the ugly, authentic colonization that so radically changed and shaped our world.”

Digital history maps so well onto the exact things that I thought public history should do, which are ultimately the reasons I want to do public history in the first place (well, apart from Nick Cage).  I am still not entirely sure where my career will take me; this class has again complicated what I thought I knew.  But I will say this.  It has been over ten years since Ben Gates decided to steal the Declaration, since I first became genuinely excited about being a historian.  Digital history has served as a sequel to National Treasure as it relates to my interest in the field.  Digital historians are doing some truly innovative, genuinely exciting stuff.  It’s something in which I hope, in some capacity, to take part.

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Half Lives and Hedgehogs | Exploring the Educational Value of Video Games

Featured image courtesy of moddb.com

This week I texted my boyfriend Ben to let him know that I was reading about one of his all time favorite things for class: Sonic the Hedgehog.  When I started telling him about James Paul Gee’s compelling argument – that “better theories of learning are embedded in the video games many children… play than in the schools they attend” (6) – on the phone later that night, Ben seemed to know exactly what I was talking about.  “I’m pretty sure Sonic taught me how to read,” Ben told me.

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Ben went on to explain that as a young boy his love of video games motivated him to learn how to read, a skill that seemed essential to master his favorite games.  Ben’s experience touches upon Gee’s assertion that video games are exemplary educational tools because “learners are not always overtly aware of the fact that they are “learning,” how much they are learning, or how difficult it is” (122).

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Special shout out to my favorite bandicoot.

In the second half of his insightful book, Gee outlines several learning principles that he finds embedded in the gaming experience, illuminating each principle with vivid examples from video games that made me long for my PS1 console and a lengthy (and, as it would happen, instructive) session with Crash Bandicoot.  Gee references tremendously popular games like the Lara Croft Tomb Raider series, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Half-Life, as well as controversial games like Under Ash and a particularly disturbing video game produced by the hate group National Alliance revealingly titled Ethnic Cleansing (I won’t dignify that game with a hyperlink). Even the most violent and offensive games, Gee argues, have educational value.  The point, Gee explains, is not that “what people are learning when they are playing video games is always good,” but rather that “what they are doing when they are playing good video games is often good learning” (198).

As dubious as this argument may sound, especially in the face of such hate-filled content, Gee quickly won me over.  There were moments when I questioned his conclusions, but I found his arguments to be overwhelmingly persuasive.  Here are a few highlights from the second half of the book that I found particularly relevant to the practice of public/digital history.

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Professor Von Croy guides Lara – and the person playing as her – through the first episode of      Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation.

Video games train players in “subdomains” of the real game. They do not, in other words, separate learning from the context in which that knowledge will ultimately be applied.  In Tomb Raider, for instance, players learn how to maneuver as Lara Croft in the game’s first “episode,” which gives “the player enough information and skill to play and learn from the subsequent episodes” (119), teaching those skills within the context of the game.  For historians, I think this presents an interesting possibility to allow the public to engage with the past in a way that cannot be accomplished in museums, to learn about the past by interacting with it in the virtual realm.  Living history sites allow for a similarly immersive experience, but there is usually a degree of separation on the part of the visitor, as they take on the role of a modern observer in an unfamiliar world.  Video games have the potential to make people participants, to encourage them to make decisions and maneuver in ways that make sense within the historical context of the game.  The Jamestown Online Adventure and Cotton Millionaire offer a simplistic glimpse at how this might work.

Video games are social experiences.  They create what Gee calls “affinity groups,” a network of people united by a common endeavor and possessing extensive knowledge, as “diverse individual skills and cultures are recruited as resources for the group” (191).  For public historians looking to foster collaboration and community around their museum, video games provide an interesting model.  This is probably a topic for another blog (or a book, for that matter), but perhaps there are ways for historians to learn from and leverage the kind of community-making potential that Gee describes.

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Sonic and Shadow

Video games allow players to explore multiple perspectives.  This, I think, is Gee’s most powerful, relevant, and controversial argument.  Because video games require people to act as a given (and sometimes not so well-intentioned) character, they allow players to experience “the “other” from the inside” (149).  Games like Sonic Adventure 2 Battle allow users to play the game as Sonic or Shadow, his evil twin, exploring the values and goals of that character, int he process comparing those values and goals to their own.  Of course, not all games allow the user to have this experience to a meaningful extent – Rebecca Mir and Trevor Owens make that much clear in their article “Modeling Indigenous Peoples: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization.”  Yet the potential remains.  Herein lies the value, Gee argues, of games that seem inherently offensive (Mir and Owens would agree).  They call upon the player to go beyond personal comfort levels and suspend value systems as they explore an alternate perspective.

This prospect is at once daunting and terrifying.  Gee talks about the kind of complex, immersive games that require a great deal of time and money to produce, and the thought of asking someone to take on a controversial role – that of slave owner, for instances – seems fraught with potential missteps and unintended outcomes.  Yet in his oft-quoted masterpiece Interpreting Our Heritage, Tilden Freeman calls upon historians to be provocative.  Video games, it would seem, have the power to provoke players to do everything from explore new perspectives to learn how to read.  We simply cannot ignore that potential.

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Digital History Adventures | HistoryPin

Featured image courtesy of HistoryPin

Of all the tools and platforms we have explored this semester, HistoryPin has perhaps been my favorite. The site allows users to connect history to place, pinning historic photographs to related sites around the globe. Adding content to the site and creating a tour was a straightforward and painless process. I decided to create a tour called Gettysburg College, 1863, which explores the connection between the school – my alma mater – and the Battle of Gettysburg that transformed the formerly peaceful campus into a battlefield, a hospital, and ultimately a site with great meaning in American history. Admittedly the tour could use a little work – the description that I wrote for each image does not necessarily flow seamlessly from one “tour stop” to the next – but all in all it was a positive and I think very valuable experience.

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A screenshot from my HistoryPin tour.

As public historians, we talk a lot about of the intersection of place and history, and for me, geolocation has vast potential to tap into the connections that people make with the past through the natural and built environment. As Mark Tebeau points out in his insightful article “Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era,” mobile apps have the potential to transform our surroundings into a living museum. What I think I found most exciting about this potential as expressed in HistoryPin is that it values all experiences, memories, places, and moments in time. Where other projects focus on a particular topic, HistoryPin allows its users to make the connections they find most meaningful. While I think Gettysburg College’s connection to the Civil War is fascinating, another alumni might have something else to say about one of the college’s historic buildings – perhaps they want to discuss an important alum, or share one of the many ghost stories associated with the campus. Unlike Wikipedia, which filters its posts based on notability, HistoryPin sends a more democratic message. There are very few limits to what could qualify for a pin because, as John Russick (or rather, John Russick’s son) rightly points out, “everything came from someplace.”

Also, as with many of the tools we have used throughout the semester, I think HistoryPin has tremendous potential to give us insight into popular understandings of history. Russick also picks up on this in his blog post:

… if we reframe the museum’s collection in geo-spatial terms, what else might be revealed? What might we discover about our collecting priorities over time? I suspect that the vast shortcomings of our collection will be laid bare. We would clearly see the underrepresented neighborhoods, unheralded stories, and undocumented events in the lives of people and communities that didn’t matter to us at the time.

So, what can HistoryPin teach us about history – about the types of places and photographs that users have pinned, as opposed to pins created by institutions?   I keep coming back to Rebecca Onion’s article about @HistoryinPics, and the profession’s inability to connect with the public at the same level as the popular Instagram/Twitter account. Maybe HistoryPin could be a tool that we could use to help close this gap, to get a better understanding of the kind of content that resonates with the public.

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In Search of Authenticity | Context, Reexamined

Disembody: to divest of a body, of corporeal existence, or of reality

Featured image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

The topic for this post caught me by surprise. I will start by saying this: I am a long time museum enthusiast. I have built a career on working at and with them. I think that they are engaged in work of tremendous importance and cultural value. Yet it occurred to me this week that putting things in historical context is maybe not what they do best.   I know – this sounds like blasphemy. Let me explain.

We have been engaged for much of this semester in a conversation about context and authenticity, and the implications for two concepts that are central to our practice when we do history on the web. There is a lively debate about context and authenticity in digital archives, for instance, and the loss of the archival bond – how a document relates to those around it – when materials are selectively digitized and organized online. Archival authenticity, some argue, is lost online. In “Big Data, Little Narration,” on the other hand, Dragan Espenschied demonstrates the power of the web to avoid creating “arbitrary relations,” touting web exhibits that do not introduce “order where there was no order.”

A week ago, while I acknowledged the relevance of Espenschied’s argument to the born-digital world – which also serves as a well-articulated case for the kind of randomized content that Museum Bots can produce – I did not immediately see how this argument might apply to the work historians do in museums, nor the exhibits they put on the web. In fact, in a blog about an exhibit I created on Omeka, I wrote that while my site “lacks serendipity or true archival content,” the platform did allow me to “arrange items across collections and institutions in new and meaningful ways.” That kind of content, I wrote, is valid. Its central to the work of a public historian.

I would not necessarily that I’ve changed my mind, only that considering the potential of mobile technology – and its ability to tap into our powerful sense of place – has made me think more about museums as a specific type of place. We have talked in detail about how mediated online experiences may not be as powerful – or authentic – as a physical experience. So, viewing a photograph of an object online will never replace the powerful feeling of being in the presence of the same artifact. But I started to wonder this week: how authentic is the museum experience?

Every object in a museum’s collection, as John Russick aptly points out, came from somewhere, it has a natural, original context. Yet museums selectively acquire, preserve, and display these objects, placing them next to other objects to which they likely have no real relationship. Curators impose the kind of order that Espenschied talks about, creating what I think is ultimately a false sense of context. Furthermore, because museums are trusted cultural authorities, the mere fact that an object is accessioned into the collection imbues it with meaning and value that is not inherent to the object. Amidst these layers of meaning, value, and –dare I say – artificiality, “authentic” might not be the right way to describe a museum. They disembody artifacts, divesting them, as the definition would suggest, of their reality.

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Disembodiment in museum exhibits, epitomized. First Ladies exhibit, National Museum of American History.

I am not trying to say that this makes museums any less important, or that they should fundamentally change how they do business. As I was careful to point out at the beginning of this post, I think that museums have incredible potential and unquestionable value. My point is this: that mobile technology enables a digital experience that may come closer to “authentic” than museums are able.

Mobile technology allows us to come closer to this mystical (and, in truth, probably impossible to achieve – see Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts) concept. As Mark Tebeau points out in “Listening to the City,” an effective smartphone app has the power to transform “the landscape into a living museum,” reconnecting narrative and place. The Cleveland Historical project, Tebeau writes, has enabled a new, arguably better type of oral history that is “no longer disembodied from its geographical and historical contexts.” Sam Collins and Matthew Durington similarly see value in the potential of apps to enable experiences that go beyond tourism, “with its commodified and canned experiences.”

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Websites and apps that use mapping technology put history in context.

Mobile apps, in other words, allow for exploration, and for organic encounters with context. Objects in museums can never be returned to their original context, often because the place (and most certainly the time) in which they first existed is no longer accessible. This is precisely why we need museums – a dinosaur, for instance, cannot be experienced in context (and thank goodness for that). Yet museum professionals should be more invested in the sort of projects that forge stronger and more realistic contextual connections. Apps are one way to do just that. As John Russick notes, for instance, an app that located each object in a museum collection “could transform the current urban landscape into an historical excavation of the people and places” that define a city. I will simply say this in closing: museums pour a lot of time and resources into elaborately immersive and experiential exhibits. The truly immersive experience, however, may lie beyond their walls.

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Adventures in Wiki World

This week we were asked to edit an article on Wikipedia, and I must say, my debut as a Wikipedian was a veritable rollercoaster of emotion.  Here is a glimpse at what I can only describe as a wild ride (at least as far as my experience with digital history goes).

Doubt.

It started when I started to think about which article I should edit. What do I know enough about to warrant editing someone else’s work? What topic can I do justice? How can I contribute in a meaningful way? This quickly unraveled into something of an existential crisis – am I an expert in anything?

When I finally calmed down, I settled on an article about a Chicago doctor named Harry Haiselden, whom I learned about while conducting research for my seminar paper.  Haiselden is the kind of figure who we might prefer to leave in some dark corner of our collective historical memory, shuttered away with other Americans who make us feel less than proud about our past.  But of course, we have Wikipedia to ensure that he, and the ideas he stood for, do not get abandoned in the metaphorical attic of U.S. history, that we remember the bad stuff alongside the good.

You can read about him here. I added more details to his story and corrected some minor inaccuracies. I also did some basic rewriting of the original text… it was hard to decide where to stop.

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Before and after shots of the Wikipedia article I edited.

Confusion.

Editing the text was not as simple as I thought it would be.  In editable form, the text was riddled with programming commands, the actual content nestled among strings of symbols and characters.  It was overwhelming to try and pick apart the text, to identify what did and did not need to be changed.  For this Wikipedia amateur, the “preview” function came in handy more than once.

Pride.

Once I had muddled my way through the technical stuff and settled on some content I felt responsibly adhered to Wikipedia’s guidelines for editors (Roy Rosenzweig describes them here), I felt incredibly proud of what I had accomplished.  So often as historians we work on projects that take months or even years to complete, and the final product does not always necessarily see the light of day.  I cannot deny the delightful feeling of instant gratification that swept over me when I published my edits.

Anxiety.

So… what happens next?  Will some territorial Wikipedia sweep in and undo what I’ve done? Twenty-four hours later, my changes are still standing. I have to admit, I am slightly disappointed.  I think that maybe it would have been gratifying if someone had swept in and altered it because, if nothing else, it would meant that my work had been seen.  In the absence of any such confirmation, I will just have to content myself to think that someone did see my edits and thought, “Wow, that’s perfect, what an improvement!” and didn’t touch a thing.

Hope.

Joking aside, I have come away from this experience feeling good about the Wikipedia experience.  For a self-identified perfectionist, it is comforting to know that nothing I post on Wikipedia is permanent – there is always the opportunity to revise and improve. It won’t always be me making those changes, but there is something comforting about that, too.  Hopefully what I’ve done is provided the next Wikipedian with something better to work with that what was there before.

Editing a Wikipedia article was not necessarily as quick and easy as I anticipated, but I think that is ultimately a good thing.  That’s not to say that all Wikipedians share my anxieties about the process, but I am encouraged by what was a thought-provoking and challenging experience. I may not be an expert on Haiselden (or anything, for that matter), but I was able to make a positive contribution to a source that many people looking to find information about him will consult.  Traditional wisdom holds that Wikipedia is a dangerous, unsavory place for historical learning, but I think now I can say that the opposite is true. Public and digital historians must explore this opportunity to promote learning among and learn from the public.

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Peering Over the Wall | Sharing Space Online

Featured image courtesy of cirrent.co

It is often said that historians inhabit ivory towers, that they are aloof and happily self-contained Rapunzels who have lost touch with the world below. It is often an apt description, yet in his article The Web is a Service Medium, Paul Ford uses metaphorical language that struck a particular chord with me.   In the face of the fluid and democratic space that is the Internet, Ford writes, “the idea of a defensible territory, a walled garden,” is very appealing to people he cleverly calls the Gutenbourgeois, but I would include some historians in this category as well. So what if – and forgive me for perhaps taking this metaphor a few steps too far – historians are not Rapunzel but Dame Gothel, the fairy tale equivalent of the disgruntled old woman shouting “get off my lawn!” to anyone who ventures into her walled garden?

In this version, the historian is a meticulous gardener, carefully tending to her research, her content, nurturing her ideas into maturity, maintaining the kind of “possessive individualism” that Roy Rosenzweig says is at the core of the field. The exact nature of what is contained within those walls – and who is left beyond them – changes. In some cases, the gardener is the academic historian, writing for his peers, neglecting the public. In other cases, however, the garden is a museum, one that keeps its content within its walls, hesitating to engage with digital space. And at times, I think the garden might even be the museum website, one that presents information without asking visitors to engage, contribute, or collaborate.

This is really just a drawn out way of making a simple point: the web offers cultural institutions unique opportunities to be more than just another transmitter of information. The Internet, Ford notes, has been used to emulate other mediums. It has become, at times, a television, a newspaper, a book, a radio, or, I would add, a museum, as institutions have sought to use the Internet in the same ways they use their physical spaces. They create exhibits, display objects, and offer clever interactives. Of course, these efforts are not to be discouraged. As Sheila Brennan has pointed out, museums have been slow to engage with the web – so arguably any attempt to digitize and be online is worthwhile.

Yet, and I’ll again turn to Ford, the web “is not just some kind of magic all absorbing meta-medium. It’s it’s own thing [emphasis mine].” The web has answers its own kind of media question; according to Ford, “why wasn’t I consulted?” If museums attempt only to create digital versions of physical spaces and things, they are doing history in a walled garden. They aren’t addressing this question, they aren’t, in Ford’s words, “tapping into this fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power).” These attempts, Michael Peter Edson writes in Dark Matter, focus on “only a small part of what the Internet can do to help us accomplish our missions.”

The answer seems simple: crowdsourcing. If museums could only tap into the tremendous popular interest in Wikipedia, for instance, they could make use of their audiences’ desire to be consulted. Wikipedia has demonstrated, Rosenzweig points out, that there are ways to “foster the collaboration creation of historical knowledge.” There are ways, in other words, to remove the barriers between the public and content. Some institutions are exploring the potential of crowdsourcing. The Transcribe Bentham project at University College London, for instance, harnessed the tremendous energy of its volunteers to successfully transcribe extremely complex manuscripts. The Victoria & Albert Museum, meanwhile, is engaging visitors in a very simple way, asking them to crop and select the best views of the 140,000 images that their online catalog automatically uploaded to the web (talk about letting go of control!). This gives visitors a sense of involvement and ownership in a museum project, and offers staff some much needed support.

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Before and after shots from the V&A’s crowdsourcing project.

There are thousands of ways for people to get information on the web, and often the inclination is to turn to sources like @HistoryInPics, sites that churn out popular but oversimplified and sometimes misleading content. When museums use the web to emulate their physical spaces, they do not necessarily challenge these popular sources, they simply become an alternative. And to many, the museum’s walled garden is not as enticing. Yet by asking the public to participate in their processes, museums can do more than produce content, they can make use of the Internet in smarter and more effective ways. This drives home the point I was trying to make last week. The web is a fundamentally different space than a museum, one that overturns the very notion of authority. Until historians realize and embrace that, they will remain in their walled gardens, watering and pruning the kind of carefully guarded content to which the public feels no real emotional connection.

Digital History Adventure | Omeka, Part 2

This week’s adventure into the realm of digital history expanded my understanding and appreciation of the Omeka platform.  I created an exhibit about eugenics entitled Fitter Families and Better Babies: Reaching the Public, which explores how eugenicists spread their message to the American public, and how that message impacted individual lives.  I once again found the process fairly straightforward, and was pleased that these capabilities are available to public historians.

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A screenshot from my Omeka exhibit.

Now, my exhibit is a small one, and while I kept Trevor Owens’ advice in mind while creating it, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what is possible online.  That much became clear to me this week, as I navigated readings that casually threw around words like “hadoop” and “warc file” that mean next to nothing to me.  But that, I think, is the beauty of Omeka – that someone like me, a true amateur when it comes to the language and technology of the digital humanities – can pull together a successful online exhibit without too much grief and confusion. Sheila Brennan has pointed out the disturbing fact that many museums have a dismal online presence. I feel truly justified in saying now that there is no excuse for it.

Finally, a few thoughts about context: a lot of digital humanists are excited about the serendipitous nature of the web.  @TroveNewsBot and museum bots, for instance, can generate content without human mediation, offering a more organic experience and avoiding what Dragan Espenschied called “introducing some order where there was no order.” These tools don’t add the extra context that humans inevitably do.  Context is also important in the archives, as archivists strive to maintain the “archival bonds” that exist between a document and the documents that surround it, organic in a different sense.  My site, however, lacks serendipity or true archival content.  But Omeka does allow historians to arrange items across collections and institutions in new and meaningful ways.  That kind of context, I would argue, is just as valid.  It may not be the goal of all archivists or digital humanists, but it is at the core of the work that public historians do.