Tim Roberts Public history & historical thinking A recapitulation of my learning in a digital public history course, spring 2020

A recapitulation of my learning in a digital public history course, spring 2020

The history and modern practices of public history show its rapid evolution and professionalization after the 1960s, though in some ways learning about its origins among national park rangers during the New Deal makes me wistful to recapture that everyman, pioneer tradition. In the 1970s a career that people trained as historians sought when they couldn’t get academic jobs, the field has become a recognized and diverse profession, with its own association, with even guidelines on how virtual public history sites  should be professionally evaluated, publications, and academic departments. Its diversity, indeed, is such that boundaries between what is and what isn’t public history remain largely undefined among ordinary people and even perhaps students of history. Certainly high school history teachers, college history professors, and independent writers of history books have less hesitation defining themselves as “historians” than do museum curators, web designers, tour guides, and filmmakers (except for Ken Burns).

Obviously this semester’s uninvited elephant in the room was the coronavirus pandemic, which, among its various unforeseen consequences, has prodded public historians resisting the need to shutter physical history sites to intensify development of a virtual identity and expressions of historical narratives. There are great examples of physical historical sites that already had strong digital presences. One kind of site is regional, state, or local places that use digital presences to achieve their civic purposes through focus on social history, like the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia and the Low Country Digital History Archive. Another kind of site is the “famous American place,” such as Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, and Monticello. The latter places’ techniques for immersing virtual visitors in historical experience are, or should be, being studied by public historians elsewhere who wish to maintain communities’ understanding of them as culturally essential.

Digital public history is hardly new; noteworthy projects like ones on the Great Chicago Fire and New York’s notorious blackout developed in the late twentieth century. Early projects largely functioned to share historical information via the Internet, both interpretations of the past by project authors as well as digitized, curated primary sources. Over time, projects have become more interactive, meaning they invite users to choose among various features how they use the project, and some invite users to contribute their own information to the project’s database. Also over time, projects have become more portable with the spread of wifi coverage and development of apparently countless history apps suitable for personal devices, the latest in what the Pew Center has called modern “technology revolutions.” These innovations, such as the fascinating app New Orleans Historical, one of several historical, place-based apps highlighted by the Curatescape framework for cultural, educational, and preservation organizations, allow users to experience increasingly localized and immersive history – still images, videos, audio, geolocated map markers – as they move from place to place. The 2015 Histories of the National Mall project is a brilliant example of this. I am not in Washington, DC, but presumably the HNM project is available, and providing an enriching, even therapeutic, experience for visitors to “America’s Front Yard” during the great social distancing that began in spring 2020.

Awareness of potential audiences’ identity and needs is a critical component of digital history projects’ planning and development. An aspect of effective public history whose questions and even techniques academic historians struggling to impact readers and students should consider. Borrowing practices across the two history disciplines may seem a stretch, but innovative public historians already have made a greater leap to adapt a practice in business marketing of creating example, individual audience personas, and storyboarding, the theory being the more detailed or realistic a public historian can imagine audience members or users, and the way they may use a digital history project, the more relevant and anticipatory the project can be developed.

Likewise, as already mentioned, public historians already have borrowed the technology of social personal social media devices – the history app – to make it convenient for people to bring an historical perspective to their residence or visit to significant places. Another innovative usage of social media by public historians is usage of Twitter to re-create past events as if in real time, during which participants tweet about “breaking” incidents that are part of a known historical narrative, such as William Quantrill’s infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, JFK’s assassination, or the German Kristallnacht. The technique builds on old-time historical reenactments, but decenters the story-telling from costumed, gathered reenactors to modern, possibly distributed informed narrators, time-machined into the past (where their cell phones still somehow work). Analogous to the strategic decision of the Smithsonian Institution to make a vast number of its digitized images available through Flickr, usage of Twitter to explore the past 280 characters at a time reflects public historians’ attempt to de-institutionalize how people learn about the past by making its sources and narratives available where, how, and when people already spend their time. Carl Becker, who almost a century ago called for scholars to recognize the potential for “everyman,” and everywoman, to be their own historian, would probably be pleased.

To put some of concepts and practices of public historians I have learned this semester to work, I developed an online project on the history and mythology of the underground railroad in Western Illinois. My interest in this project stemmed from several interests. I wished to experiment with one of the digital platforms, Omeka, to which I was introduced beginning in the fall. Omeka is an open-source platform that allows curation and organization of any digitizable thing. This appealed to me because sources connected to the underground railroad include tangible things like people, buildings, and objects, as well as intangible things like recollections of people active in the underground railroad, and inter-generational popular mythology. Omeka allows for display of these various kinds of artifacts.

I was also interested in developing the project as an expression of local and regional history, to as the public historian Robert Weyeneth put it, to honor “the nobility of nearby history,” and to “use the specifics of locality to open up conversations about big issues and large debates.” As I write in the project’s introduction, many people have heard about the underground railroad, and a good number probably have seen maps of its “networks” online or in American history textbooks. But fewer have considered it as “nearby history,” meaning a past nearby physically, or easily visible in local communities, and a past nearby culturally, or, possibly less easily, as a continuing influence on the people of Western Illinois.

As a result of considering the course’s materials on audiences analysis and on the basis of a few interviews and feedback about the site from people in Western Illinois, I decided to focus the site on attracting usage by students and teachers in the region who may be interested to develop research projects on the underground railroad; on history-minded visitors to the area and its heritage tourist organizations who are interested to see and promote actual locations of underground railroad activities; and on residents  of the region who may use the site’s accompanying Facebook page as a forum to share their own stories about the underground railroad or perspectives on how the issue of racial discrimination at the heart of the underground railroad continues to the shape the region. As, hopefully, the site’s Facebook page cultivates a community interested in keeping up with the project’s development and expansion, I may use Twitter to experiment with techniques I have learned about in the course.


Becker, Carl. “Everyman His Own Historian.” American Historical Review 37.2 (January 1932): 221–36.

Brennan, Sheila and Sharon Leon. “Building Histories of the National Mall: A Guide to Creating a Digital Public History Project.” Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. October 2015.

Cohen, Noam. “History Comes to Life With Tweets From Past.”The New York Times. Published November 17, 2013.

Goltz, Schlomo. “A Closer Look At Personas: What They Are And How They Work (Parts 1 and 2).” Smashing Magazine. August 6, August 13, 2014.

Kalfatovic, Martin et al. “Smithsonian Team Flickr: a library, archives, and museums collaboration in web 2.0 space.” Archival Science (October 2009).

Lindsay, Anne. “#VirtualTourist: Embracing Our Audience through Public History Web Experience.” The Public Historian 35.1 (February 2013): 67-86.

McClurken, Jeffrey. “The Journal of American History.” The Organization of American Historians, (September 2013).

Medero, Shawn. “Paper Prototyping.” A List Apart. Published on January 23, 2007. Published in Layout & Grids, Information Architecture, Interaction Design.

Meringolo, Denise. Prologue and Conclusion to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

Reese, Diana. “Quantrill rides again to Lawrence: This time on Twitter #QR1863.”The Washington Post. Published August 21, 2013.

Weyeneth, Robert. “What I’ve Learned Along the Way: A Public Historian’s Intellectual Odyssey.” The Public Historian 36.2 (May 2014): 9-25.

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