Crossing Paths | Overlapping Narratives in Digital and Public History

This week’s foray into digital history has been an informative and provocative one. What has perhaps struck me most is the overlap in the conversations and debates surrounding public and digital history. This is not surprising finding, as all digital history arguably is public history (exceptions might be made for databases with prohibitively pricey subscriptions), but because I have been immersed in the history and controversies of public history for the past two semesters, these intersections stood out.


Digital and public history intersect: the ATLAS computer on display at the National Museum of American History. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Though public and digital history are relatively new fields – public history at least in name if not in practice – there have been recent attempts to define and trace the history of both. It is an educational exercise, which allows practitioners to examine trends, changes, and learn from past mistakes. As Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel Cohen note in Digital History, “if you want to get involved with online history, you need to first get acquainted with the main genres of web-based history – the models that you will seek to emulate and exceed.”

Attempts at definition also tend to legitimize and add value to a field. It helps practitioners identify as public and/or digital historians, and understand the value and meaning of their endeavors. The debate over the definition of public history has been a long and unresolved one, but these efforts have enabled the creation of conferences, journals, professional organizations, and a code of ethics, not to mention dozens of public history programs at colleges and universities around the country.

Digital history seems to be following a similar track, especially with the creation of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. In his article “The Differences Between Digital History and Digital Humanities,” Dr. Stephen Robertson points out how digital history diverges from the digital humanities and how, as a separate field, it has its own pursuits and potential.  Like the many authors who have traced the genealogy of public history, Robertson also weighs in on the origins of digital history, noting that the roots of digital history lie not in humanities computing, but in “oral history, folklore studies, radical history and public history.” As two such intertwined fields, it makes sense that they also share the vast potential to engage and expose the public to history, as well as similar problems that have emerged along the way.

The challenges of public and digital history intersect in telling ways. Many public historians lament the fragmentation of public and academic history, and the resistance to training and encouraging all historians to do work for and with the public. Rosenzweig and Cohen similarly take note that “we, as historians and as citizens, have yet to establish a new structure of historical legitimation and authority” for digital history. Clearly, there is much to be done to unite academic, public, and digital history in a way that promotes a single set of best practices and eliminates the need for distinction among “types” of historians.

Another heated debate in both public and digital history is how best to engage with the public. Many have taken issue with the types of history that the public tends to consume – Ken Burns documentaries, for instance, or social media accounts like @HistoryInPics. In a pointed article for Slate, Rebecca Onion argues that such sites do a disservice to history, by stripping away “curiosity, detective work, and discovery.” Without context, attribution, or a link to a source, each photograph is “a dead end.” Onion’s concerns are valid, and reminiscent of a long-standing conversation about the extent to which public historians can and should let go of their authority and embrace the public not only as consumers but as creators of content.

HIP Cat jpeg

Not surprisingly, @HistoryInPics features a lot of cats.

This debate is long from over, but reading Onion’s article I couldn’t help but see the upside. @HistoryInPics may be flawed, but its existence and popularity reiterates Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s argument that the public has an active and lively interest in history. The account’s teen masterminds may not provide context, but the fact that followers seek out and provide that information to one another should not be overlooked. It also demonstrates that the web is a vibrant tool for reaching an expansive audience. Herein lies perhaps the most important thing that public and digital history share: tremendous potential. Both emerge from a genuine desire to enable access, spark interest, and enliven the past. We are still discovering the best ways to do those things and the types of tools we will use, but the fact alone that these conversations are happening indicates that both fields are evolving and getting better together. It is a frustrating process, but one that will undoubtedly yield surprising rewards. Heck, maybe one day we will even find that we have something to learn from @HistoryInPics.


2 thoughts on “Crossing Paths | Overlapping Narratives in Digital and Public History

  1. danielledulken says:


    This post perfectly encapsulates week one’s readings but also stands alone nicely for the curious passerby. I appreciate your comment on definitions as a tool to legitimize professional fields in history. It’s inescapable, isn’t it? And, I think you air an important point about the schisms between “types.” I often feel that the greater good is overlooked in favor indulging some of the self-important concerns this discipline breeds.

    Your closing paragraph made a great case for the publics ability to engage history on their own accord. My gosh, could you imagine if academics and public historians sequestered all of history’s joys unless participants were willing to embark on a thorough investigation? Our field already has a tight enough job market… let’s not force everyone to become a proper historian. In fact, I sort of compare it to mathematics. Maybe Sudoku isn’t the most sophisticated way to interact with numbers, but hey, for once I am mildly enjoying it!



    • giamje01 says:

      Thanks for your comment, Danielle, I absolutely agree that historians need to be more willing to work with and encourage the public to do history, even if it means that history won’t meet our rigorous disciplinary standards. Arguably their efforts also create a need for the work that professional historians do. Your comment about math I thought was particularly apt, a similar example that occurred to me was amateur “doctors” trying to diagnose themselves on WebMD. I imagine practitioners in a number of fields face similar encroachments; perhaps historians should be relieved that the results of those amateur forays are relatively benign (attempts at self diagnosis, probably less so).


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