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Making Public History Scholarship More Public

2013 April 23
by Sheila

Below are notes and slides from a presentation I gave at the Society for History in the Federal Government and Mid-Atlantic Oral History Association joint conference, April 4, 2013 held at National Archives II, College Park, MD.

For someone like me, a former federal history museum educator and trained by Roy Rosenzweig in public and digital history, I see how the “digital” in digital history provides new ways to communicate with audiences, allows for multiple perspectives, and engages audiences with a variety of skills and expertise in doing history as a collaborative practice. This was vision of Roy’s that new media could help to “democratize history.”

Specifically, when talking about public history scholarship, I believe it is our responsibility to make our research and scholarship as accessible as possible, including: writing in “plain style” that is jargon-free; incorporating diverse kinds of evidence that incorporates multiple voices; making our processes more visible and replicable; and lastly, making the products of the research open and accessible for reading/consuming/participating.

[Not surprisingly, I found that my colleague Sharon Leon argues very similarly about openness of public history work in the newly-published roundtable in the Public Historian, Imagining the Digital Future of the Public Historian (PDF).]

These reasons motivated me to create an open access edition of the next stages of my dissertation, Stamping American Memory, Stamp Collecting in the US, 1880s-1930.

It is very important to me that I create a digital edition that I owned to ensure there would always be an open access version. I also wanted to take advantage of dialogic and collaborative aspects of digital platforms I was working with in my digital public history work at the Center for History and New Media.

Public history scholarship is created and shared in many formats, and as a result not all public history work is captured in publications. For this presentation, I want to focus on the long-form scholarship that is meant to be published. My office, and perhaps yours, is filled with public history-related books and subscription-based journals. I want to see how we can free some of that research and scholarship.

To get a sense of how open public history scholarship is now, I did a quick survey of the availability of early-stage scholarship in the form of dissertations & theses.

Looking at the Proquest Open Digital Dissertation Database, with a keyword search of “public history,” I found 6 dissertations. A Full text search revealed: 77.
But, when I looked at the gated Proquest dissertation database, there 973 tagged with “public history”, 1662 results for the full text search.

Knowing that federal historians publish works meant to be freely distributed from the beginning (or a majority of that work), I also searched the Government Printing Office for online publications with the subject “history.” That search revealed 1789 reports and publications on a wide variety of topics.

I recognize that these aren’t the only indicators of the openness of public history research and scholarship. But, this suggests to me that public historians working in academia could take a queue from federal historians in the ways that they make their research accessible and open.

What follows are some suggestions for all public historians, based on the steps I intentionally took to share the research that led to my dissertation, and what I’ve done since in the process of creating a free and open digital edition that I will own, that will accompany a physical publication.

How Can You Start Making Research More Public

  1. One of the easiest ways to share the building blocks of your research is to create Public Zotero Libraries.

    For those of you unfamiliar, Zotero is a free, open-source bibliographic and note-taking management system that can run inside your browser or as a stand-alone tool. It allows you to import sources with all of their bibliographic data from hundreds of databases and digital collection sites, such as Library of Congress, ProQuest.

    You can also use Zotero to then automatically create citations and bibliographies in Word in whatever style of your choosing.

    These are my libraries. And you’re welcome to browse through them. As you can see I make all of my resources, on a variety of topics freely available in case they are useful for anyone.

  2. Post a dissertation/thesis/article publicly: Made a copy available on a blog or in your personal web space. This is what I created before my defense, because I thought that it should be made widely available and having one hard copy at the library didn’t seem sufficient when I had additional methods available for distribution. I included a link to this URL in the announcement.
  3. Create a pre-print or all digital edition: This is the phase I am in right now.
    I’m creating a pre-print digital edition of my post-dissertation project, Stamping American Memory.

To give you some background on my project, it uncovers some of the unexplored complexity and influence of the US Post Office Department as a central institution for circulating and distributing historical narratives and for shaping visual meaning and public memory in the United States through the commemorative stamp program starting in the late 19th Century.

I discovered how the Post Office was involved in history making and interpreting before the NPS interpreted historic sites. Importantly, one of main the drivers of getting the Post Office Department into the commemorative stamp business was the interest and activity of stamp collectors, or philatelists, who were independently collecting and interested in the USPOD and other Postal Authority products.

To me, scholarship that explores a historical dialog between a federal agency and its citizens, communicated through visual culture, seemed best served in a way that facilitates public participation and discussion around those objects—and that can happen in these web-based dialogic platforms.

By publishing in an open digital platform, I want to connect scholars, collectors, and enthusiasts in two major components: a primary source archive and long-form narrative.
For the long form, I’m revising the manuscript and publishing it using the blogging platform, WordPress together with the CommentPress plugins that enables commenting and discussions at the paragraph level and around images that are immersed in the text.

This can create a way for open peer review of a text, and for more eyes to view and review a piece of scholarship.

There are some other very successful CommentPress digital editions, including Planned Obsolecense by Kathleen FitzPatrick and Writing History in the Digital Age edited by Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty.

Writing for a blogging platform makes me think differently about the ways that I craft my paragraphs. The format and way that I’m reading it online is actually encouraging me to revise in a better way for readability—and I think it helping me to lose some of the dissertation and make it more into a publication for general readers.

For the primary source collection, I’m using the Omeka platform, to publish primary sources that are already in the public domain and from my very small private collection, and I will invite others to contribute their own to create a shared online collection.

Each source added, will have standardized Dublin Core metadata. And I can include multiple files, which is important for some of these series. I’m hoping that by publishing my sources, collecting others, and by seeking input from scholars, collectors, enthusiasts, I can start seeing some things that I haven’t before in the source materials.

With these sources and with my narrative, I can also ensure that this public history topic that uses many public domain sources can remain open by using Creative Commons licensing.

You can assign licenses to your own work as well. You want to be clear about how the researcher, reader has rights and that you invite them into your work.

In providing a digital edition that combines narrative, and sources, I am committing to provide this as an open access edition. Open-access shouldn’t be a new idea for many of those who already produce federal histories and working with public domain sources.

For those of you unfamiliar with Open Access, this is a great resource by the nation’s expert on Open Access, Peter Suber: According to Suber, “Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.” “OA is compatible with copyright, peer review, revenue (even profit), print, preservation, prestige, quality, career-advancement, indexing, and other features and supportive services associated with conventional scholarly literature.”

Many OA initiatives focus on publicly-funded research—and ensuring that those products are open and accessible.

Taking the lead from OA advocates, I want to see historians and other researchers using publicly-held and managed primary sources from public institutions for their research, sharing back with the public by making an open access edition of their scholarship available for all.

This is an area where public historians can lead by example—and have a responsibility to do so.

While there are a handful of historians doing digital history work, some are offering their research and complementary sources and analysis to their printed works, such as Will Thomas’s Railroads and the Making of Modern America project. Scholars and students are using the data. This type of sharing is still relatively new.

It is very important for historians to take control of our scholarship. And you can do this!

There are some subscription services for creating digital publications that will let you sign up for an account and start building something:

These services let you build something simple, or something complex. Then you can create an open version or a completely new digital version to engage with others. They have expertise and knowledge, and sometimes sources, and we all benefit from opening the conversation.

I hope that my experiences in creating Stamping American Memory will encourage other public historians to consider sharing and discussing their work in open and accessible ways. And I will share more once I have progressed further on this project.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. April 24, 2013

    Sheila, you wrote: “Writing for a blogging platform makes me think differently about the ways that I craft my paragraphs. The format and way that I’m reading it online is actually encouraging me to revise in a better way for readability. . .”

    For a future post, it might be interesting to show us some sample “before and after” paragraphs (from your thesis versus your website), with your observations about what you changed and why. To what extent are these revisions created by picking up the text again, versus revisions made specifically for a web audience?

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