Reflecting on a More Accessible Digital Public History Lab for the Future: Part 2

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Editor’s Note: This the second post in a two-part series inspired by the challenges and opportunities associated with creating a virtual version of NCPH’s Digital Public History Lab (DPHL). You can read the first part by clicking here.

My first co-organization of DPHL was meant to happen in March 2020. The pandemic hit, and the DPHL team had to make difficult decisions about the lab. Ultimately, we decided not to have the DPHL in 2020 as a part of the modified NCPH 2020 online conference offerings. As a team, we did not feel that we could properly give our facilitators or the participants a rewarding experience with so little time to consider how to pivot our materials for an online environment.

As the pandemic continued, it became clear that we needed to figure out a way to bring the DPHL to the NCPH virtual conference attendees in 2021. Alongside Dr. Julie Davis (expert in U.S., Native American, and other Indigenous histories and Senior Interpretive Planner for the 106 Group), I started planning for a different type of DPHL. The virtual environment offered us several advantages that the in-person lab could not: the ability to reach and engage with a larger audience, offer more flexibility for individuals participating in the sessions, and offer more sessions without the space constraints of a conference center. However, as with any type of virtual conference, there were plenty of challenges to work through as well. Some of the biggest concerns we had were related to accessibility, engagement, and flexibility.

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The DPHL team is grateful to NCPH for considering the accessibility needs of all participants for the conference. However, there are important ways in which we could create a more accessible DPHL in the future. We are looking at trying to implement NCPH’s accessibility guidelines more fully for future conferences: providing slides from presenters prior to the lab (often called “access copies”), and ensuring that any digital materials use the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). The WCAG guidelines were developed to ensure that those with disabilities including, but not limited to, “blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity” etc., can access web-based content. These guidelines do not address everyone’s needs, but they do ensure that web content or digital content is more accessible by providing items such as heading, alt text (a short written description of an image, which makes sense of that image when it can’t be viewed for some reason), and more. We should also consider these guidelines not only with “web content.”

At my former institution, accessibility was something my colleagues and I were working toward helping our campus implement. One of the things we did is that any materials we created as a group, regardless of whether they were published online or not, met the above WCAG standards. We have found that the more practice you have at learning how to do this type of work, the easier it is to create a better environment. For example, granting access prior, during, and after the presentations to resources, slides, and more gives all individuals the opportunity to participate more holistically in the presentation and discussion. However, this is just the bare minimum in terms of what we can be working on further with the Lab. Now that the lab will be likely virtual again, it is the hope of the DPHL team’s desire to continue to work with NCPH staff, the Digital Media Group, and the public history community more broadly to discuss further ways to improve accessibility for the DPHL.

The virtual lab made it apparent that the organizers of the DPHL find ourselves in a unique place to position the DPHL for the future. It is one in which we can support the mission of DPHL by growing further the accessibility and the inclusivity of the lab. One of the ways we have already done this is to create Goals and Participation guidelines for the DPHL. These were developed for the virtual DPHL, but we will continue to use them because they serve as a valuable reminder about the DPHL mission and the connection between participants. One of the things that I am looking forward to doing with the DPHL is working with my fellow DMG committee members on how to engage early career and student public historians to have a platform at the DPHL. It is my hope that the DPHL can continue to assist to make digital public history feel less exclusive and provide friendly, lower-barrier experiences for all involved.

As a final word, we are always looking for feedback and suggestions for the DPHL. So, if you have participated in the past or even if you have some ideas in general, we would appreciate feedback in this anonymous form.

~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 degree in history from The College of Wooster and master’s degree in history with a special concentration in public history from Kent State University.

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