The Master's Tools, 2.0

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Kings College, Cambridge. Photo by Colin Smith, Wikimedia Commons.

King’s College, Cambridge. Photo credit: Colin Smith, Wikimedia Commons

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.

  1. Mark Tebeau says:

    In case you missed then, I would direct your attention to a field of more than 30 projects that use Curatescape + Omeka, from Cleveland to Spokane to Baltimore to New Orleans to Adelaide, to London, to Kisumu, Kenya (where a new project is going to launch.) These locally-driven projects, using the same idiom and technology, but reconfigured in specific place-based ways, produce interpretive stories, engagements, and programming in collaboration between scholars, communities, and students. I would submit that not only is the work you suggest being done, and in the spirit you suggest, but also it is having extraordinary public impact, in terms of generating meaningful civic engagement. There have been hundreds of thousands of unique visitors and tens of thousands of downloads of the project mobile apps.

  2. Great, important post. But two points. First, I’ll echo Mark’s sentiments. There are a lot of DHers doing inclusive, publicly engaged work. Even “elite” centers and institutions like George Mason and UVA have leveraged their resources to make tools that facilitate sharing the work of history–Omeka, Neatline, Scripto, etc. To be sure, there are strands of DH that can be a little insular. But I’d argue every subfield–even public history–has issues with celebrity and navel gazing.

    Second, I wonder if it would be helpful to make a distinction between digital history and the digital humanities in unpacking the issues of sharing authority. As I said, I think you’re right there are DH communities that are basically the ivory tower with computers–text mining, topic modeling, etc. But I see these more in english departments or among lit crit folks. Digital historians, by contrast, tend to see the public as at least an audience of their work–if not always a partner. But maybe I’m just playing word games here.

  3. Love this piece. Despite the fantastic work of Mark Tebeau, the myriad folks associated with Curatescape projects around the world, the wonderful work championed by Chris Cantwell at the Newbury and now in his academic position, I think this desire to share authority in the way you describe is still a radical departure from accepted academic practices. It’s still the exception rather than rule, as evidenced by the sometimes horrified reactions traditional academics have to the Historyapolis Project in Minneapolis. Despite Mark’s blunt advice to academics about the need to engage community groups in making history, most historians choose to ignore and even scoff at this advice. So kudos to you for this manifesto. Let it be a reminder to all of us who share this perspective that we need to stick together. That’s the only way we’re going to transform historical practices in the way we need to ensure the continued vitality of history making.

  4. lara kelland says:

    hi folks, thanks much for your wise and helpful thoughts. and my apologies for a slightly delayed response of my own.

    mark, yes, curatescape and your work with it are a wonderful model for the kind of production i would love to see central to the public history profession. and i think the question of relationship, centrality, ties in neatly with your point, chris.

    in an earlier version of the post that was shortened for clarity, i mentioned that about a year ago i raised the question of professional boundaries and definitions of public and digital history and digital humanities. those who responded to my tweet inquiry persuaded me to abandon the discussion. “don’t open that can of worms” is, i think, a decent paraphrase, and possibly even an approximate quote. this definitional question came up again at the 2013 annual meeting’s working group on digital history in ottawa. if i remember correctly, clean consensus was not achieved.

    yet i don’t think murky professional boundaries are a bad thing; in fact, i would suggest that true intellectual innovation comes from such. i think public historians really get the importance of democratized cultural production, and i think we have done marvelous work on that front. i also think the digital humanities presents itself as valuing such, but i don’t think the field has fully developed the kind of successes, ethics, practices, etc. that public historians have. perhaps the answer to this issue is a more robust embracing of the label “digital history,” as i do think that projects like mark’s and CHNM are moving in exactly the direction i am thinking of. i would rather not see us move away from the digital humanities crowd, however. since funding and institutionalization of the field are blossoming, i would rather see us roll up our sleeves and engage those conversations richly, even as we continue to figure out what the practices and ethics of digital history ought be.

    lastly, kristen, thank you for the motion second. i think you’re right to identify that the traditional forms of knowledge production are what we must change. i, for one, look forward to getting that on the nashville agenda.

  5. Lara,

    Following back up on this a bit, Stephen Robertson, the new head of the RRCHNM, has a great post on the differences between Dig Humanities and Dig Hist. The first key difference he sees is a commitment to access and dissemination. Not that this alleviates your concerns, but it does suggest there is a corner of the web open to change.

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