Letting Go | Shared Authority in the Digital Age

Featured image courtesy of the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage

Long before a defiant Elsa belted out her signature song from her ice palace, public historians have been engaged in a conversation about “letting go.” To the authors of the 2011 book Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, the phrase means “letting go of the notion… that one can or should control all outcomes in the museum” (13). The experience should instead be one that the public is actively involved in creating, one in which the public shares authority.

There are certain limits to shared authority in a physical museum; staff cannot, for instance, allow visitors to handle important artifacts. Yet the stuff of a curator’s nightmare may be the digital humanist’s dream. The web is a place where letting go and sharing authority take on new meaning, a place where participation and preservation can coexist. In this blog I’d like to wander into this wonderland and explore just a few of the ways that the web can and should break down institutional authority. While the most obvious connections here are to born digital materials, there are lessons to be learned about digitized collections as well.

Public and digital historians must let go of traditional assumptions about preservation. 

Storage, as Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart point out in Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, can do more harm than good when it comes to born digital materials. When stowed away, technologies obsolesce, bits decay. Ippolito and Rinehart offer several recommendations for better ways to preserve new media art, and it is clear that the digital community has begun to implement these ideas. The authors of “Collecting the Present: Digital Code and Collections,” for instance, discuss the acquisition and preservation of the app Planetary, which is being preserved, in part, using open sourced code that allows the public to interact with and change the code. This ensures that the app will live on as it is adapted, updated, and shared. This challenges not only traditional preservation practices, but also the ways historians engage the public, inviting a truly immersive and interactive experience.

Public and digital historians must let go of control of the exhibit experience.

This is precisely the message that the authors of Letting Go? want to send, but the web can take this to a new level. In a physical exhibit, planners can predict, to some degree, visitor experiences. In many cases, for instance, they can determine the order in which guests will move through the exhibit. They can wager that large objects prominently placed will attract at least a glance.

On the web, all bets are off. Hypertext and search capabilities mean that the exhibit experience never has to be linear, and probably never is. With no admission fees or time constraints, visitors can browse and bookmark, enter and exit at will. Public historians need to embrace this – to create exhibits that respond to and enable these behaviors. Unfortunately, as Sheila Brennan points out in “Getting to the Stuff,” despite the movement to share authority on the web, “there still seems to be little effort to… explore the ways that evidence can be interpreted in different ways, that ultimately encourage visitors to learn to look, compare, contextualize.”

Yet there are many tools at a historian’s disposal to do just that – Omeka, for instance – and plenty of available advice. In “A Draft Style Guide for Digital Collection Hypertexts,” for instance, Trevor Owens offers some useful guidelines for what he calls “online exhibition-ish pages for the web.” According to Owens, exhibits should anticipate the ways that users interact with the Internet – creating labels that can stand alone and using hyperlinks to connect concepts, for instance. Historians can use these techniques to create meaningful online experiences, letting go of the ways an exhibit functions. 

Public and digital historians must let go of the notion that digital interactions are less meaningful than human ones.

MuseumBot copy

The Met’s @MuseumBot shows off a delightful “figure.”

They must, in other words, share authority with the Internet. As insane as that might sound, letting go of the assumption that, in Tim Sherratt’s words, “experiences mediated through online technologies are somehow less authentic than those that take place in this space that we often refer to as ‘the real world,’” opens some fascinating doors for historians. MuseumBots, for instance, are able to randomly select and share objects from a museum’s collection, exposing the public to artifacts that a curator may never have otherwise shared or put on display. Truly letting go in the digital world means ceding control not only to the public, but to the medium used to reach it.

Thus, while historians have long talked about letting go and sharing authority, the web is a game changer. In fact, I would argue that there is no authority to share online, because the Internet is a great equalizer, where everyone is a consumer, a creator, and a participant. Public and digital historians must earn authority by creating spaces that respond to and explore new possibilities on the web. I’ve tried to avoid any more references to Frozen, but here’s one for the road: it’s time to “test the limits and break through.”


Digital History Adventure | Omeka

Featured image courtesy of the American Philosophical Society

Today I embarked on a new digital history adventure and created an online collection using the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s Omeka.net exhibition tool.  The topic of my site, entitled Visualizing Eugenics in America, was inspired by my research project this semester, the dark history of eugenics in twentieth-century America.  The images I included come from the Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement, created by the Dolan DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.  I chose images that illustrate the various aspects of the eugenics movement, including its flawed perceptions of heredity, positive eugenics (programs and policies designed to encourage the “fit” to reproduce), and negative eugenics (policies such as compulsory sterilization that targeted the “unfit”).

I found Omeka to be very intuitive – a simple and elegant platform for online exhibitions.  It is a tool that I was previously unaware of, and it is encouraging to see that Omeka is available to people looking to create effective online collections.  As archivist Kate Theimer noted in her presentation to the American Historical Association in 2014, the web has changed the ways archivists work.  “Among the most significant of those ways,” she writes,

is in the increased workload to create descriptions and digital copies to post online, find ways to collect and preserve digital materials, and of course, actively connect with the public via the ever widening world of digital tools and social media.

Omeka does not necessarily reduce this workload, but it does offer a very usable format and consistent metadata categories.  Because it includes fields such as rights and creator, it reminds users to avoid some of the pitfalls that Rebecca Onion bemoans in her article about @HistoryInPics, namely failure to provide attribution information.  One of my concerns about the platform is consistency – apart from its tags, there is no controlled vocabulary that would ensure that someone uploading items would use the same words to describe each item (type and subject, for instance).  A controlled vocabulary would mean that multiple people could work on the site without worrying about consistency.  In any case, this is a minor concern about a platform that is effective and easy to use.

Ultimately, Visualizing Eugenics is not an archive in the traditional sense.  It is a curated selection of images, and the images and documents I chose were compiled in a “digital archive” that includes items from a variety of repositories and parent organizations.  I think the term “digital historic representations,” or a “digital historic collection” would be useful to describe what I’ve done.  Language aside, it was a valuable experience.  I look forward to finding ways to put Omeka to use in the future as I continue my career as a public and digital historian.

“Making Meaning out of Chaos” | Historical Research in the Digital Age

Featured Image courtesy of calsoni.com

In the introduction to Digital History, Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig describe historians’ reactions of hesitancy, resistance, and even hostility toward digital history. Gertrude Himmelfarb, for instance, bemoaned the dawn of an age when “every source appearing on the screen has the same weight and credibility as every other.” Some of these concerns are well placed, but two decades after Himmelfarb declared herself a neo-luddite, the pervasiveness of the web has rendered resistance to it futile. This week’s exploration of digital archives has made that abundantly clear. The digital age has fundamentally altered the ways that archivists work and approach their field, necessarily affecting historians who depend upon archives to conduct research. It is incumbent upon historians to understand those changes and ensure, in the words of archivist Kate Theimer, “that we’re all working together as effectively as possible to support the historical enterprise.”

I’m hoping to add to this conversation here, and partly for my own sake. This summer, I’m embarking on my first Graduate Research Seminar. I have just recently begun navigating the wealth of primary and secondary sources related to my topic, which explores issues of gender in the early 20th century eugenics movement. I will inevitably make use of a range of digital and analog resources, and it has become abundantly clear to me that to do so effectively I must consider the nature of digital collections and, to quote Theimer, “who is creating them, for what purpose, and using what methods.” These questions are not just for archivists, but for historians like myself whose research hangs on such considerations.

It first struck me that I am guilty of not understanding the true nature of archives, and the difference between the materials at the National Archives, for instance, and those on the web. An archive, it turns out, has nothing to do with selection or curation, but, according to Trevor Owens, is a “collection of items and records that exist as a whole.” This term has been co-opted by digital humanists who apply it liberally to a variety of digital collections on the web, ranging from crowd-sourced collections like the September 11th Digital Archive to the born-digital archive of Salman Rushdie.

This distinction is important not only because it leads to a fuller understanding of the work that archivists do, but also because it illuminates the differences between archival and online collections to which researchers must be attuned. For my project, I am planning to use the papers of Margaret Sanger, a key figure in the birth control movement espoused eugenic views. New York University has undertaken a massive effort to collect over 7,000 of Sanger’s papers dispersed in over 400 archives and private collections. Project staff has since “selected close to 1,000 documents for inclusion.” The effort follows precise transcription, encoding, and attribution protocols, but it is clear to me now that this collection differs from traditional archives in important ways. I need to consider the motivations and goals of the staff, their criteria for selection, as well as what documents may not have been digitized if I am going to make use of these documents. Historians must understand the nature of the online sources they are dealing with to use a digital collection in an effective and responsible way.

MargaretSanger copy

Digital collections: consume responsibly.

It has also become clear that there are challenges and advantages to the ways historians can search and manipulate digital collections. Digital tools such as text mining and hyperlinking have made possible a very rich and immersive research experience. As Jefferson Bailey notes in “Disrespect des Fonds,” digital materials have enabled “realization of a more expansive notion of context and interrelation.” Yet this ability also means that the onus is on researchers to sort through the ever-expanding universe of available documents. It is no longer plausible, at least in my opinion, for a researcher to limit the scope of her search to a physical collection, to confine herself to the accoutrements of the analog age (thanks to Bailey for that vivid description). We must find ways to search better, to use the tools available to us to cut through the overwhelming excess that we confront on the web. We must, in the wise words of Jacquelyn Ardam and Jeremy Schmidt, find ways to “cut through redundancy, to make meaning out of chaos.”

This is only the beginning of what could be a very long list of lessons that historians could and should glean from the debates surrounding digital archives. The work of archivists is clearly in flux, calling into question the notions of appraisal, selection, arrangement, and description that has previously guided the field. In “Close Reading, Distant Reading,” Meg Phillips posed a provocative question to archivists: “do you think archival appraisal needs to change, and if so, how?” It is perhaps up to archivists to answer, but historians must pay attention to how they respond.

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.

Being Present | Meet the Blogger

Be online, or be irrelevant.

These wise words appear on the syllabus for the History and New Media course this summer.  My first reaction was, I am online.  Historian at the consulting firm History Associates by day and public history student at American University by night, I am constantly using the Internet to conduct research, execute projects, and communicate with my colleagues and peers.  Yet, upon further reflection, it occurred to me that, while I go online, I have no real or meaningful web presence.  I am, as far as web users go, a mere window shopper.  I glance, I peruse, but I don’t engage.  So, here I am, trying to make the Internet a place to where my ideas and reflections about public and digital history can live – a place to be, not simply a place to go.

Over the next six weeks, I look forward to becoming an active blogger and sharing my experience in History and New Media. I hope not only to be online, but to create content that adds to ongoing debates about history in the digital age.  Let the adventure begin.


Me visiting my alma mater, Gettysburg College.