I think the question of who we are talking about when we talk about the “public” is the essential place to begin our practical thinking about public digital history projects. The public in public history was originally—and largely still is—defined by what it is not in a binary relationship; there are scholars (almost always in academic positions), and everyone outside their orbit of students and fellow faculty is “the public.” Whatever else one might think of this nomenclature, it has both strengths and weaknesses when it comes to thinking about digital history projects.

We all know that there are many kinds of public audiences, drawn to history for a host of personal, social, and political reasons: K-12 students; K-12 teachers; genealogists; local history buffs; community activists; material culture enthusiasts; preservationists; people who want to know the “real story” behind popular works of historical fiction. It stands to reason that one size will not fit all when designing digital projects for people motivated and situated so differently. But the idea of a broad public is useful if it can prompt us to think about digital public history as a mass medium and pay close attention to the design and usability features that commercial sites and platforms have poured so much brainpower and money into devising. Stepping back from content, what is it about popular sites and apps that makes them easy and satisfying to use? What keeps users coming back to them? Digital public history projects have to provide an ease of use that meets the level people have come to expect in their digital world.

Defining a digital project’s target audience with specificity and integrating their needs and desires into the planning at multiple stages is not only virtuous, it’s pragmatic. Every project emerges from a mix of organizational needs and audience needs, starting with choices about which projects are pursued and which remain undone. In the development process, it is crucial to have a specific sense of the target audience and design primarily for it. This approach won’t preclude other people from using the project, but it will provide needed clarity and a way to set priorities when you have to make many design and usability decisions. Because as we all know too well, there are always constraints, usually of time and money. At every stage you will have to make choices—we can do this but not also that—and those choices should be informed as much as possible by your users’ needs and priorities; otherwise, the project won’t work well for anybody. And as much as producers of digital public history projects think we know what our users want and need, it is always illuminating and instructive to ask them directly. Even with limited resources, surveying and focus grouping is possible at preliminary, mid-course, and final production stages.

This is, as are so many best practices, easier said than done. Our own sense of what is valuable, the omnipresent imperative to reach as many people as possible, and the pressures of time and competing work can combine to make it difficult to identify and design for a limited audience. My thoughts on this grow from my experiences at the American Social History Project (ASHP), where I worked on a number of digital projects starting in the late 1990s and learned these lessons, frequently the hard way. In 2011, ASHP launched HERB: Social History for Every Classroom, a website with primary source documents, lesson plans, and other teaching materials. It was produced for and with New York City public school social studies teachers who participated in professional development programs with us. Through those professional development programs and in additional surveys, focus groups, and usability testing sessions, we sought to learn what they valued in online history resources and how they saw them fitting into their everyday planning and teaching. We made a number of critical choices about how to edit, display, and use primary source documents in ways that would make them accessible and engaging to all learners at the middle and high school levels, choices that forced us to reconsider much of what historians are taught about the sanctity of primary source documents and collections. We learned how to think about accessibility from a variety of angles and to question our own assumptions when they conflicted with the needs of our audience of teachers and students.

It’s also time to abandon the idealistic “if you build it they will come” ethos that drove many early digital projects and still lingers today. What is your plan for how users will find your project and, more important, why will they want to? You have to both design a digital project that is worth your audience’s time and have concrete strategies for letting them know about what it is and what they can accomplish by using it. And what they can accomplish needs to be something that your audience authentically wants to be able to do, not merely something your organization thinks it is worthwhile for them to do.

While the strategies and best practices for planning and building a digital public history project seem relatively clear to me, issues relating to what happens after a project is launched are more daunting. The question of how a digital project should define metrics for gauging success is a challenging one, and worth its own place in the planning process. While the number and geographic location of users are easily knowable, other aspects of audience engagement and satisfaction are harder to measure and assess. To what extent do our beliefs about the inherent value of what we offer divert us from applying resources to figuring out more precisely what impact our digital projects are having?

Going forward, we should also attend to what should happen after a digital project launches. Our work plans and time horizons on digital projects are overwhelmingly tilted toward planning and building, with little time after a project is launched for anything but maintenance (and, if a project is sufficiently long in the tooth, upgrading or migrating underlying technologies in response to system changes). In a working world with more time and financial resources, we could return to a project after it’s been up and running for a few years and convene a focus group of people from the target audience who use it, alongside those who don’t. This would be an opportunity to learn how people are actually using it, what they would like to change about it, and what would have to change to get non-users to use it. But new projects beckon, and staff and funding resources rarely exist for making ongoing projects better and adapting them to changing technological, social, and political contexts and user needs.


1 comment
  1. Adina Langer says:

    Hi Ellen,

    I was actually just working on proposing a session for NCPH ThatCamp on digital pedagogy and I went to find the old gvh website at NYU and couldn’t locate it. Do you know if it is down temporarily or permanently? Thanks for guiding me!

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