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The Public is Dead, Long Live the Public

2015 April 17
by Sheila

Below is the draft of a piece I’m contributing to the 2015 edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities. Yesterday, I co-facilitated a fantastic working group at the National Council on Public History annual meeting with Chris Cantwell, Kyle Roberts, Jason Heppler, Lauren Tilton, and Brent Rogers, where we discussed the differences and intersection of public history and digital history. If you’re interested in looking in on the working group convos, check out our group Tumbler, This post comes out my thoughts on what I see as the difference in doing intentionally public digital humanities work.

I’m very interested in hearing your feedback, so please comment and discuss with me.

Recent calls for finding “public” audiences for scholarly work, engaging “the general public,” and for doing public digital humanities work are encouraging, but only when those calls are informed by the long history of “public” scholarly work with some understanding that the term is contested and changing. We should all acknowledge that is no “general public,” and that we need to get real about audiences.

As a digital public historian, I am attuned to the articles in the Chronicle and conversations–on Twitter, at meetings and conferences–from traditional and alt-academics who invoke “the general public,” when they think humanities professors are failing to be relevant to today’s students and citizens. Some academics respond to critiques of the state of humanities education by showing off digital humanities projects or demonstrate how they are integrating digitally-enabled pedagogy into their classrooms as ways to bridge those gaps between the academy and the public. Additional attention is given to the openness in humanities scholarly processes that capitalize on digital platforms and networks that enable and encourage sharing, remixing, and collaborating are highlighted as the best practices in public humanities. These examples signal positive changes among scholarly communities. But, these changes are drawing on the long tradition of public history work done in and outside of the academy for decades in the US.

On most days, most scholars have no real idea whom they are actually referring to when invoking “the public.” A public approach is challenging to most scholars, because it means identifying and considering audience before beginning a project. This may mean ceding some ground, but when done well, will result in successful public digital humanities projects.

It’s Online, Isn’t it “Public?”


Research projects, online textbooks, tools, course websites, online journals, or social networks are not inherently “public” digital humanities projects merely because they have a presence on the Web. Launching a project website or engaging in social media networks does not necessarily make a project discoverable, accessible, or relevant to anyone other than its creators. I have given enough panels and workshops on “getting the word out” to know that most academics are clueless in the area. The topic of “outreach” may sound like an afterthought and a one-way marketing blitz, but when done well, it is something that begins with the design of the project. Most important, the “public” should come first.

Doing any type of public-facing digital work requires an intentional decision from the beginning of the project that identifies, invites in, and addresses audience needs in the design, approach, and content long before outreach of a finished project begins. Without doing this kind of audience identification and seeing “the public” as people but an unidentified “other,” scholars may be in danger of blindly attempting to look outside of their own institutions and classrooms and seeing no one.

Digital humanities scholars and practitioners have been defined by the digital, which makes the difference in their humanities scholarship. The “public” changes the scholarship in any type of public history and humanities work, and should also in public digital humanities work as well. We should see the practices listed below as related, complimentary, but not necessarily the same.

Public + History = Public History
Digital + History= Digital History
Public History + Digital= Digital Public History
Public + Interdisciplinary Humanities = Public Humanities
Digital + Public Humanities = Digital Public Humanities
Digital + Interdisciplinary Humanities = Digital Humanities
Public + Digital Humanities = Public Digital Humanities

For those interested in pursuing public digital humanities, I encourage you to look to the history of public history and lessons and struggles in that field of practice.

Public History Roots

Public facing and engaging history work outside of the academy and the classroom is a long-standing practice. In the US, public history’s roots can be traced back to the early nineteenth century. White women and men of means volunteered their time to save and preserve community stories, objects, and places. The federal government didn’t get involved in the history business until the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. Federal history and museum programs, such as the National Park Service and Smithsonian Institution, were grounded in practices borrowed and adopted by scientists and naturalists, and used in publicly-funded spaces. [To get a good handle on the history of public history and the historical enterprise, these three books are must-reads: Denise D. Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2012); Robert B. Townsend, History’s Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880 – 1940 (University Of Chicago Press, 2013); Cathy Stanton, The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City (Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2006).]

The public history movement that we know today emerged in universities in the 1970s, responding both to the employment crisis in the US (marketability of history majors) and to the social and labor history movements, engaged communities to question existing social, political, and cultural structures and inequalities. As Denise Meringolo observes, for many self-identified public historians working in universities, and even museums, in the late twentieth century, the “public” was generalized and that unspecified audience was also passive. Public history, offered scholars new ways of communicating (ie, through a museum exhibit), but didn’t necessarily push those scholars to rethink the structures and relationships involved in that communication flow.

Oral historians like Michael Frisch encouraged historians to rethink their roles as facilitators and share authority by interviewing individuals, and listening, and recording those recollections to give individuals a voice in the historical record. As Tom Scheinfeldt has argued, this tradition from the mid-twentieth century forward was “highly technological, archival, public, collaborative, political, and networked,” which represents another branch in the genealogy of digital humanities. Steven Lubar’s oft cited “7 Rules for Public Humanists”
is rooted in and draws very heavily from the public history tradition.

This impetus drove Roy Rosenzweig, a radical labor historian, to found the Center for History and New Media in 1994 with a mission to use digital media to democratize the process of doing history. The work we do at the Center is grounded in a public history methodology that is collaborative and recognizes that “the public” is people.

Who is the “public”?

The public is no one if you don’t intentionally identify specific people, groups, communities, and then design a project from the beginning with, for, and about those people. Too often, “the public” becomes the default category of anyone other than ourselves, which can often mean no one. If you have to ask after a project, tool, or program is built, who the audience will be, you built something for yourself. Creating a public digital humanities project must start with “the public,” ie your audiences, users, participants, from the beginning. Public audiences should be imagined as people with interests, lives, agendas, and challenges. To humanize those audiences, the Smithsonian Learning Lab created named personas who represent real teachers, the primary audience for their new digital initiative. Understanding that most historians would not consider audiences from the early stages of digital projects, Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig devoted an entire chapter to audience in Digital History. Sharon Leon will continue to push scholars in this area in forthcoming publication focused on “user-centered digital history.”

Identifying and collaborating with specific audiences is key to designing and building a successful public digital humanities project that will be relevant, useful, and usable. This means engaging and working with those groups to identify needs, assess functionality, and measure the effectiveness of the project’s platform for communicating ideas at all stages. For Histories of the National Mall, for example, we created paper prototypes for user testing before customizing the Omeka site. We tested content before fully researching and writing the “Explorations,” and we sent graduate students onto the Mall, with friends and family members, to test different iterations of the site, multiple times, before the beta launch. For the original Omeka grant, we surveyed museum professionals before, during, and after the beta release, and conducted focus group testing to gauge needs, assess the effectiveness of the software to meet those needs, and the usability of the administrative interface. These are all important, and time consuming, steps necessary to include in any project’s work plan.

Projects also must be accessible to those identified and potential audiences in a few distinctive ways. First, any public digital humanities project should be designed in ways so that people of all abilities can access it and the content on the web. Second, build in ways that reach your primary users on the platforms they use. This may mean designing mobile first to reach people who access the Web only from a mobile device. If your primary users communicate on one specific social media space, be there. If your uses speak multiple languages, your platform choice must allow for that content to exist and be publishable in those languages.

Third, the language, symbols, and navigational paths embedded in the digital project must be understandable by the primary users and participants. A public digital humanities project should never make the audience feel dumb or uninvited to the party. If we prioritize our needs and assumptions as academics, we are more likely to make that mistake.

Naming is important as well. Name a project something meaningful to your audiences—or intentionally is not associated with a known term. Omeka, for example, fits into the latter category. The Swahili term embodies what the platform is designed to do: display or lay out wares; to speak out; to spread out; to unpack. But the word itself was distinct enough for most users that we could adopt it as the name of a new piece of software. Naming Histories of the National Mall, on the other hand, required that we be direct and tell tourists visiting the National Mall that this site was about the history of that public space. Acronyms and clever naming can work for some public digital humanities project, but you do not want to alienate or mislead your targeted audiences.

Public, First

To do public digital humanities, then, the “public” piece needs to come first. Always.

This process is challenging and often requires a lot of analog work. If you feel that you don’t have the skill set to engage in this type of work, try reaching out and collaborating with a public historian, or perhaps a community activist, to help build your digital humanities project from its early stages. They will share with you lessons they have learned from the field and help you to begin rethinking approaches and methods in new ways. And, you may find you’re building a fabulous new digital thing together that is relevant, useful, and productive for your publics.

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