“The Public” and Public History

A quick recap of a selection of this week’s readings on public history:

  • Carl Smith’s “Can You Do Serious History on the Web?” asks whether history that is put online can be considered professional and describes the process of creating The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory.
  • Mark Tebeau discusses the importance of oral history and the notion of “community sourcing” in the context of Cleveland Historical Project, a mobile app and a mobile optimized website, in “Listening to the City: Oral History & Place in the Digital Era.”
  • “Digital Storytelling in Museums: Observations and Best Practices,” authored by Bruce Wyman et. al., emphasizes that in a digital age, the scholars’ voice exists in a much louder world information-wise and the importance of making online space a museum’s “fifth gallery.”
  • When Melissa Terras decided to examine the most downloaded items at major institutions across the UK, chronicled in her blog post “Digitization’s Most Wanted,” she discovered that that question opens up the door to discussing broader topics of public engagement, the impact of social networks on digital collections, and the significance of making primary sources open and available to others.
  • Michael Peter Edson, in “Dark Matter,” discusses the how museums could be more influential in the digital age and in the internet community by embracing creativity and by using the many facets of the internet to reach a broader audience.
  • “Life on the Outside: Collections, Context, and the Wild, Wild, Web,” by Tim Sherratt, discusses the ways in which the public engages with online content, and how the public often uses digital content in unexpected ways.
  • Sheila Brennan, in her blog post “The Public is Dead, Long Live the Public,”  discusses the need for digital public historians to identify which “public” they are trying to attract with digital public history projects, and argues that simply putting a project online does not make it public history.

Many topics and ideas are brought up in these readings: the need to understand and identify “the public” in order to have successful, meaningful digital projects; how GLAMs can harness the internet to their advantage to attract both virtual and real visitors to their analog and digital collections; how the public often uses digital content in ways scholars didn’t originally think of; and the ways in which the public can be used to create digital projects.

I came up with (another) list of lessons learned from this week’s readings:

  1. Understand and define “the public” or the audience: What struck me as most interesting is how institutions and public historians often fail to fully understand “the public” as they do not bother to take the time to define it. One of the reasons why Histories of the National Mall is so successful is because the project creators identified, invited, and addressed their target audience in all stages of its creation and implementation. Since public history is so focused on audience, it is vital for public historians to understand and identify which particular audience they are trying to reach. “The public” should never be thought of as this large, amorphous other of non-scholars. If the audience is not defined then there is no way to gauge the relative success of the project, exhibit, etc.
  2. Reach out to that audience via the internet: Once the audience is defined, then the institution or historian can reach out to them via the internet. This can be done in many ways: creating digitized content, creating a social media presence, or having a YouTube channel like the Green brothers. As is noted in “Dark Matter,” this online work should not be demeaned as being less important than other analog or scholarly work. The internet is huge and an institution can reach a very large audience by having a powerful online presence. Institutions should use the internet to attract visitors to their collections, whether they are physical or online visitors. Note that reaching out to an audience is not possible if that audience is not first defined.
  3. Do not be afraid of creativity: As evidenced in “Digitization’s Most Wanted” and “Life on the Outside” digitized content will often be taken out of context and used in unexpected ways. Institutions should not fear the decontexualization of their collections–they should accept that it will happen, and when it does, they should use it to their advantage. This could be achieved by posting on a social media platform and giving background information about the particular object (e.g. the dog with the pipe), and in many other ways. By embracing creativity, institutions are demonstrating that they are cognizant of and supporting their audience.

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