Tim Roberts Public history & historical thinking Some best practices in digital public history

Some best practices in digital public history

An important methodology shaping digital public history work is an emphasis on collaboration among scholars with different disciplinary backgrounds. Social media boots, or reboots, in the last decade by the National Museum of American History, the Smithsonian, the Getty Museum, the National Constitutional Center, and the National Archives emphasize that continuing collaboration among groups, from curators to HTML code-writers is necessary, for example, to “distill a complex historical perspective into a 140-character tweet.” Social media are important in helping public historians blur the traditional distinction between outsiders or patrons of museums and other public history sites and producers of the history that the sites display. And social media are important in making production of public history interactive.

The ability of technology to provide access to digitized text and images is allowing development of history projects that focus on aggregations of large quantities of data. Projects such as Mapping the Republic of Letters, the Old Bailey Online, Viral Texts, and Robots Reading Vogue enable researchers to study thousands of documents at once and on that basis to form conclusions about patterns in historical continuity, change, and size, which previously could be only suspected or inferred based on anecdotal or small-sample research.

Meanwhile, digital tools allow display the results of analysis of such large data sets in various forms besides a written narrative (traditionally, journal articles and books). Digital history research outcomes are often communicated in visual, graphic, or map-based forms. Platforms like Voyant, kepler.gl, and Palladio are all quite different, but each fundamentally changes how historians use archival information and how they organize and represent their interpretation of it. Generally, at least in situations where archives’ holdings are being digitized and historians have access to the technology that exploits that digitization, the distance between the archive as a physical entity and the ways in which historians use it is increasing.

A related kind of distancing is happening at public history sites that seek to engage users through providing virtual visits. Sophisticated web developers associated with institutions including the New York Historical Society, Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, and Monticello enable users to become immersed in rich, artifact-laden, often interactive online exhibits and galleries. Public history sites face the challenge of how much to offer virtual visitors of the actual site to attract them to make a real visit, and, most important in an age of increasing reliance on public financial support, to persuade them to give money to support the site. For this reason, and consistent with the emphasis in digital humanities on the need for collaboration and on the frequency with which historians borrow ideas from other disciplines, public historians increasingly study and adapt the practices of effective business marketing.

At the same time, digital technology is enhancing traditional social history methods and subject emphases. Digital projects that invite contributions from communities are building on a disciplinary focus beginning in the 1960s and 1970s on preserving personal histories provided by people from social groups previously ignored. Perhaps starting with the September 11 Digital Archive, digital history projects have focused on capturing stories of ordinary people who have experienced trauma, such as the Blackout History Project, the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, the Postville Project, and BaltimoreUprising2015. In this way, history has become a form of community therapy.

But social history is not the only kind of history that has been transformed by digital history’s focus on involving Carl Becker’s “Every(wo)man” in producing stories about the past. Archives have imaginatively engaged the public to contribute to the digitization of important documents in national, municipal, and intellectual history. Projects like Transcribe Bentham, Papers of the War Department, the New York Public Library Building Inspector, and the Australian National Library’s Trove Project invite users to digitally transcribe primary sources and identify architectural elements of historic buildings.


Allen-Greil, Dana, et al. “Social Media and Organizational Change.” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.) Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011.

Ayres, Marie-Louise. “‘Singing for their supper’: Trove, Australian newspapers, and the crowd.” Paper presented at IFLA WLIC, Singapore, July 31, 2013. National Library of Australia.

Causer, Tim, Justin Tonra, and Valerie Wallace. “Transcription Maximized; expense minimized? Crowdsourcing and editing The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 27 (2012), 119-137.

Cordell, Ryan. “Reprinting, Circulation, and the Network Author in Antebellum Newspapers.” American Literary History 27 (2015), 417-445.

Edelstein, Dan, Paula Findlen, Giovanna Ceserani, Caroline Winterer, and Nicole Coleman. “Historical Research in a Digital Age: Reflections from the Mapping the Republic of Letters Project.” American Historical Review (2017), 400-424.

King, Mary. “Rebooting the Social Media Strategy for the National Archives.” Narrations: the Blog of the National Archives, August 25, 2016.

Leon, Sharon. “Build, Analyse and Generalise: Community Transcription of the Papersof the War Department and the Development of Scripto.” In Crowdsourcing Our Cultural Heritage, edited by Mia Ridge. UK: Ashgate, 2014.

Lindsay, Anne. “VirtualTourist: Embracing Our Audience through Public History Web Experience.” Public Historian 35 (2013), 67-86.

Richard Rabinowicz, “Eavesdropping at the Well: Interpretive Media in the Slavery in New York Exhibition,” Public Historian 35 (2013), 8-45.

Summers, Ed. “NYPL’s Building Inspector.” inkdroid, October 22, 2013.

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