The Master's Tools, 2.0
05 May 2014 – Lara Kelland
In her thought-provoking post from November 2012, Mary Rizzo opened up a conversation about the relationship between the rapidly growing field of digital humanities and public history. Reflecting on a recent THATcamp meeting, Rizzo concluded that existing divisions between the producers and the critical thinkers of digital humanities projects had the potential to re-inscribe gender and racial hierarchies. I want to take Rizzo’s still-salient concerns as a starting point for a conversation in a slightly different direction, namely the potential for the democratization of historical knowledge made possible by digital tools and the role of public historians in this process.
For public historians, the practice of sharing authority recognizes the dialogical nature of historical meaning: that historians build narrative and interpretation, but that communities of memory and other publics also bring their own knowledge of the past to their interactions with our interpretive projects. We can see this process of “disintermediation” in the user-generated content all around us. Twitter and other platforms have reinvigorated the idea of citizen journalists, and similarly, conversations about citizen historians are bubbling up in the corners of American Historical Association (AHA) and Organization of American Historians (OAH) meetings (as Steve Lubar’s presentation from a 2014 AHA panel shows). And these developments are all very exciting.
Yet much of the intellectual production that is emerging under the banner of digital humanities originates, and often enough remains, within the confines of the academy. Increasingly, the field of digital humanities is paralleling many of the old problems of authority and power in traditional academic scholarship: its funding and accolades tend towards elite institutions and established organizations and the community of digital humanists is becoming an increasingly narrow scholarly field that cultivates a star peer group. Others have noted that this avant-garde of the history field leaves little room for the inclusion of community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and other teaching intensive environments. Engaged criticism has recently emerged on these topics, but matters of user-generated historical knowledge and civic engagement remain relatively under-considered.
One of the ways that digital humanists are meaningfully engaging with the public is through crowdsourcing projects. Some of the most interesting and innovative crowdsourcing work has been produced by the New York Public Library Labs like the recently released Building Inspector, a game-like app that asks visitors to help extract historical data on the built environment from street atlases. Such projects elicit playful engagements from visitors, asking them to get their hands dirty in primary source work. But even this project and others like it remain on the level of soliciting labor from the public rather than richly engaging the interpretations of the past that proliferate outside the bounds of the ivory tower and mainstream cultural institutions. While many laud the democratic potential of knowledge production in the digital age through methods like crowdsourcing, it seems to me that we have yet to truly reconsider what counts as authoritative in the field and meaningfully engage with the production of historical knowledge outside the bounds of traditional scholarship.
In her famed 1984 essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” feminist author Audre Lorde cautioned against the limited possibility of working within existing structures of power for making larger social change, and her observations are once again timely. Although digital tools have the potential and even often come with the promise of shifting the nature of intellectual production from hierarchical towards collaborative, this potential has not yet been realized and merits our attention and efforts. I do not wish to suggest we take Lorde’s concerns wholesale and abandon the project of democratized knowledge within the academy. Rather, I am urging us to take her cautions seriously and bring our ethics and practices into digital humanities conversations to continue the project of sharing authority.
Public historians set forth each day with the aim of putting the best of scholarly traditions in the service of creating meaningful public products. We also seek to democratize the circulation of historical knowledge and provide venues for exchanges about the meaning and usability of the past. Through the model of shared authority we have the skills to truly open up the conversation to include more voices, to bring communities of memory into dialogue with scholarly interpretations.
Although Lorde cautioned that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, I wish to suggest that it matters how we use those tools. If we pick them up and use the owner’s manual given to us by the academy, then indeed, they will not change our power relations and our existing structures of cultural hierarchy. But if our professional ethics as public historians drive our use of digital tools, the results can be very different. If we seek to reimagine the way scholarship, civic engagement, and communities of memory are engaged, then we will be working toward a more egalitarian exchange about our shared past, not just a continuation of the one-way knowledge flow out of the academy and into the world.
~ Lara Leigh Kelland is an assistant professor of public history at the University of Louisville.