As the former Director of Public History and chair of the history department at the University of Central Florida, I have been deeply engaged with both public and digital history for the past decade. I have taught public history methods and theory, partnered on numerous projects with community stakeholders, and co-founded RICHES (the Regional Initiative for Collecting the History, Experiences and Stories) of Central Florida – a digital repository intended to foster public history partnerships. Since 2015, however, I have been working to integrate my public history knowledge into my own research and teaching on early American and early modern Atlantic history. Digital history has provided me with a way to theorize my teaching and research as a form of public history while living in Orlando, Florida, far removed from the locations and people whose history I teach and study.
My interest in this working group stems from two particular projects. First, I am currently partnering with History Revealed, Inc., an educational non-profit in Alexandria, Virginia, on a digital project to build a database of transactions recorded in eighteenth century account ledgers of a store in Colchester, Virginia. Since January 2013 students in my classes have been transcribing account ledger pages and then conducting research about the people and objects in those accounts. Students have written blog posts, created digital exhibits (infographics), and worked on an index of objects found in the ledgers. This semester students in my research methods class are creating content and designing the layout for a visual glossary of objects found in the 1760/61 ledgers. When we began working on the project, it was housed at George Washington’s Mount Vernon where there was a clear link to the public. It has since moved to a new home at History Revealed, Inc., whose intent is to create a publicly available database housing the transcriptions and providing context for them.
This project has offered amazing opportunities for my undergraduate students to participate in a collaborative digital humanities project. They gain hands-on experience reading eighteenth-century documents (paleography skills I first learned in grad school), learn how to work as members of a team on a real-world project, and face the challenges of conducting historical research. They also think explicitly about how to present their scholarly research for a general audience (via blog posts and exhibits) and for an academic audience (via research papers). But I wonder how they fit into this public digital humanities/history project? The staff at History Revealed, Inc. is clearly concerned with the users of the database they are creating. The project is still in its early stages but they are taking appropriate steps (as outlined in Brennan’s article) to engage potential user groups in their design of the database and web interface. They have identified academic historians, archaeologists, museum curators, genealogists, and “joe public” as potential users. Which of these is “the public”? Do my students belong to that group or are they academic historians? Is “the public” only a single subset of all user groups? Or can it encompass several? Are “the public” and academic users mutually exclusive? Might we be better off thinking about the users of our digital collections and how they wish to use them? In Public History theory and methods, thinking about shared authority and our audiences evolved in response to academic historians increasingly working alone and publishing with only other academics in mind. Are we facing this same dilemma in the digital humanities? Best practices in creating databases and other digital tools requires us to work with our users and keep their needs in mind. Is there a difference between “audience” and “users”?
Second, I am working on a visualization project about seventeenth-century religious communication networks to supplement my current book project. I am writing about religious dissenters (Quakers, Mennonites, and Pietists) who first began corresponding within their groups in response to religious persecution. Their networks began to intersect and overlap, however, as the Quakers conducted missionary work. I am using a digital visualization to analyze the structure of the networks and demonstrate the kaleidoscope ways they changed over time. I have not been thinking of this work as a public digital humanities project but rather as a companion piece for my book. However, I am considering whether and how I might expand the visualization into a larger project about refugees and migration as so much of what I’m finding in the seventeenth century resonates with the migration of refugees today. My goal would be to combine transcriptions of letters with a visualization of communication networks and information flows. But who would be the audience for a project that would compare and contrast the experiences of refugees across time and space? How might I create a project that would accommodate both academic and public policy research and public engagement with today’s refugee populations?
I think that Sheila Brennan’s ideas about how to combine the theory and methods of public historians with digital humanities (keeping our audiences/users in mind; sharing authority/collaborating with them in creating and curating our projects; making our projects accessible to those audiences) are key to defining the “public” in public digital humanities. And I agree wholeheartedly that we need to find ways to personalize our publics. I am looking forward to a rigorous discussion about the role of users and how they may or may not be the same as our audiences. In some ways “audience” works better for exhibits – it is a term that implies a group of spectators who are viewing a performance or listening to public event. “User” implies active engagement. Do these terms imply different things and how does each relate to “the public”?