Reflecting on a More Accessible Digital Public History Lab for the Future: Part 1

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Text overlaid on a book with a pair of hands reading it closely with a pencil. The caption reads "In defense of a maligned word."

Digital Project Management, NCPH 2020 Digital Public History Lab Breakout Session. Slideshare courtesy of Ashley Bowen

In 2019, I was lucky enough to attend my first National Council on Public History (NCPH) annual conference and act as a facilitator for the Digital Public History Lab (DPHL). It was an important experience that helped to cement what I have been searching to do in my career. My journey with digital public history has been long and rocky. It started when I was an undergraduate student working alongside a local museum to create a digital platform to connect their collections and resources to a greater audience. As a student, the support I received was minimal, but that did not stifle my interest. Instead, my interest moved beyond the typical definitions of digital public history that I had come to know.

As a graduate student, I shifted my focus further toward the accessibility of digital tools to museums–particularly small, local historical societies. Yet, I found it difficult to break into digital public history. It felt like I was either far too much of a newcomer with little experience or I was fighting to fit into a somewhat theoretical system. Although I had a great mentor throughout my graduate program, I was often frustrated by an overall lack of support; I wanted to find ways to give others the support that I had lacked.

After receiving my master’s, I worked as an educational technologist to craft resources and assist with opportunities for students embarking on a similar path. For the past four years, I worked alongside faculty and students to provide support in crafting experiences and projects for students that are meant to help them gain an upper hand in developing the skills that they need to pursue work whether it is within digital public history or not. It was through my experience with the DPHL 2019 that I found another space where I could support others with digital public history. So, later I applied to join NCPH’s Digital Media Group.

The DPHL has its roots in the THATCamp model and movement. For background, THATCamp was introduced as a concept in 2008 by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. THATCamp,or The Humanities and Technology Camp, was built on the “unconference” model through which participants came together to propose topics on the day of the camp rather than planning in advance. The DPHL initially started as a THATCamp in 2012. Then, in subsequent years, it was decided by previous organizers to move away from this model. The THATCamp model, like many other movements, struggled to be a space that could benefit both individuals with very little background in digital tools and those with more experience. This movement away from THATCamp was to better accommodate and welcome all levels of experience. I was not a part of the early DPHL organization, but it is apparent that the movement toward a more constructed lab allowed for all experience levels to come together more seamlessly. For the 2021 virtual lab it was necessary to make the format more formal. For example, in years past, the DPHL allowed for participants to propose their own sessions about various topics during the DPHL outside of the pre-scheduled facilitator sessions. With the lab being virtual, it was far too difficult to try to arrange a schedule that would accommodate both options. Instead, participants were allowed to choose 3 sessions to attend and received access to all of the other session’s resources. In some ways, this seemed to benefit our participants more; they had the option to participate in more sessions. Hopefully, in return, they did not feel like they were missing out on all of the other sessions.

In 2020, it was announced that the THATCamp project would be sunsetting. A site was set up by the project team to collect memories about the experience. The reflections range from fond farewells to appreciations—and critiques of—the THATCamp model. In many ways, the site seems reflective of the long-lasting effects THATCamp will continue to have on organizations, individuals, and the discipline of digital public history moving forward.

In one of the posts, former NCPH Digital Media Group member, Jim McGrath, posits that “unconferencing works best when it is self-reflective and open to critique and revision.” 

It is my hope to do very much what Jim describes so we can continue to build on this foundation from models like the THATCamp to provide an experience that provides the groundwork for supporting those in their digital public history lives outside of the DPHL. In thinking about the most recent sessions held in the virtual DPHL, like Data Analysis with Google Suite Tools and Community-Building & Digital Curation, we need to keep having sessions that focus on what individuals need. These include roadmaps, clear guides, and honest discussions about projects and tools. It is critically important to situate this work not in the mindset of attractiveness of technology but in the purpose that technology serves for us. By having to construct the DPHL in this way, it gave us a different way to think about and consider how to construct the DPHL moving forward.

~Megan Smeznik is an Educational Technology Designer at Kent State University. Her interest in the intersection of history and technology was nurtured through work at The College of Wooster on the Wooster Digital History Project which was honored by the local historical society for its efforts to create stronger community projects. Megan received her Bachelor’s in History from The College of Wooster and Master’s in History with a special concentration in Public History from Kent State University.

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