Internship Post #7

After reading a variety of sources outlining the push and pull between those in academia doing “serious humanities” and those doing “serious digital analysis,” one of our first assignments in the program was to provide a definition of digital public humanities (DPH). I likened DPH to an estuary where the fresh and ocean water comingle to create a distinct ecosystem, one that is known for being one of the great nurseries of the natural world. Having worked on this internship for almost a year, the estuary analogy remains appropriate for my experience working at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, and not simply because the Anacostia River, for which the neighborhood and museum are named is, in fact, an estuary.

Digital public humanities often blurs the lines for traditional methods of academic output that can be unfamiliar for those working in more classical modes of research and presentation.  However, it is a unique space that nurtures not only new methods of presentation, but also new tools made widely available to a growing body of users.

Initially, the desire of the museum staff was to create some lesson plans to go along with the exhibit that could be published on the museum web site.  When I first mentioned creating a digital exhibit both to serve as an educational platform and to preserve public access to A Right to the City, museum staff were concerned about the feasibility of creating a digital project while maintaining the high academic standards of the exhibit in a timely manner. 

In the introductory course, one of our final assignments was to consider how Digital Harlem was not meant to be a construct to present a conclusion akin to a dissertation but rather to be a tool to invite historical inquiry in a way that would not be possible using traditional methods.  Clearly, getting ARTTC into digital format and out to the public would require using the right tool, and I began to consider using StoryMaps

Though mapping is foundational to both Digital Harlem and StoryMaps, each uses that computational power for a different purpose – making them very different tools.  StoryMaps seemed like the right presentation tool to take ARTTC to the digital public, to enhance the exhibit content through its mapping capabilities and to deliver the project in a way that is manageable to museum and SI staff.

However, I did have some difficulties with StoryMaps as an academic presentation tool because it is limited in its ability to provide captions across all content blocks, something critical in designing a museum exhibit.  I created a work-around for it in my project; however, StoryMaps designers should build this functionality as a more intuitive feature to meet the needs of academia, especially for smaller museums like ACM that have limited resources in developing digital content. This highlights the push and pull between the various constituencies in DPH and the need for greater communication to address these issues. (Update as of June 2020: The StoryMaps team was and continues to be responsive to feedback, and these issues have been resolved. The development team is responsive to feedback as new features and capabilities are unrolled.)

Greater communication is a critical need in the DPH community.  The tools are out there, but many operating in more traditional methods are unaware of their existence.  For example, the concept of Digital Harlem might be of use to the work around urban history in Washington DC to reach new conclusions or to visualize DC history in a new way.

Looking ahead to the promise of digital public humanities, it is increasingly important to promote the availability of easy-to-use yet powerful tools like StoryMaps in order to place them into the hands of academicians. “Doing digital humanities” means making the tools more accessible to all – to museum professionals, to scientists (both computer and natural), to curriculum specialists, to educators and to students who have knowledge and ideas to share and information to gather. It is equally important to begin to talk about digital public humanities more broadly, inside academia and out, so that the public understands new possibilities of visualizing and presenting information, like the Digital Harlem project, in order to better engage and to better understand the communities and the world around us.

Response: Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of a Public Historian?

Writing in 1981, Ronald Grele pointed out that the debate about how to define public history had created “turf” wars over “the uses of history in the culture and the processes by which historical consciousness is formed and expressed” (Grele 40).  As a result, the conversation was bringing about “a major redefinition of the role of the historian” (48).  According to Grele, these debates threatened   the public history movement in its “infancy” raising concerns that the diverse possibilities of public history could devolve into gimmickry (48).   

Grele, an oral historian speaking as recently as 2017, continues to voice concern about this potentiality, lamenting the “populism combined with sentimentalism” that creates a “naïve approach to our work” in projects such as StoryCorps.  Instead, he says, “You’re supposed to be doing something called history” (Scholars). 

This sentiment echoes Grele’s statement back in 1981 when he  wrote that “the task of the public historian . . .  should be to help members of the public do their own history and to aid them  in understanding their role in shaping and interpreting events” (Grele).  It seems that it’s not the public that Grele finds problematic; it is a naïve public unguided by professional expertise.

Since Grele voiced his early concerns about defining public history, the conception of public history has grown to encompass a wide variety of projects and professionals, from the legacy of those serving the federal government from early in the twentieth century, to museum professionals and archivists, preservationists , educators and traditional academics as well.  However, as Dichtl and Townsend point out, the problem of definition remains.  Some respondents to the NPC’s 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals prefer to distance themselves from the moniker of historian at all, claiming instead the role of archivist, administrator or preservationist.  Others opted for a big tent understanding, writing that “[a] historian is a historian whether working in government, academia, or private industry” (Dichtl and Townsend). 

So, who are public historians?  Grele is clear that too narrow a definition is problematic (48), yet does the big tent understanding of the 2008 survey leave too much room for a lack of training? 

It seems that Denise Meringolo finds a middle ground, noting that public history professionals coming from all walks of life is not necessarily a negative; in fact, public historians can be bridge builders between “stakeholders” in a variety of disciplines and a variety of publics (168).

And, it is here where I find the work of public history so important as an educator and in what RRCHNM describes as the work of “democratizing history.”  In fact, Grele himself voices this mantra when he answers for himself “whose public? whose history” in touting a “democratic declaration of a faith in members of the public at large to become their own historians and to advance their knowledge of themselves . . . . mak[ing] historical consciousness a reality in American life” (48).  Historical thinking is a learned skill, and the public will not learn it only in the public space of the university classroom.  They will not learn it only in the national park or on the radio or at the local cemetery or even at the many museums on the National Mall.  Many different publics will learn historical thinking skills in all those places.  And sometimes, the public I teach will learn those skills by practicing being historians themselves by collecting and interpreting their own family stories.  In the process, they might become “a new group of historical workers interpreting the past of heretofore ignored classes of people” (Grele 48), or, as  Meringolo writes, a generation of “twenty-first-century public historians” who just might be able to  “ease fears regarding the future of the nation” (168).


Dichtl, John and Robert Townsend. “A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals.”Perspectives on History, September 2009.

Grele, Ronald. “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981): 40-48.

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

“Scholars, admirers detail oral history contributions of Ron Grele.” Oral History Association, January 18, 2017. Accessed January 26, 2018.

A Definition of Digital Humanities

Definition of Digital Humanities 

Digital Humanities is a system of diverse communities who practice an evolving body of activities rooted in the common practice of co-mingling digital technology and the collective record of humankind in order to amplify human understanding of the past and the present.  The ways in which digital technology can accelerate data processing and manipulation fuels this amplification of understanding.  It can collect, catalog and create models of textual data. It can provide virtual models or augmented reality experiences that allow humankind to study the products, places and experiences of the past. It can facilitate new ways of communication and connection by expressing human understanding in conversations with a broader audience.  Additionally, some communities also consider how digital technology can transform the essence of the human experience at its confluence with digital age by attempting to provide a human-sensory overlay to data that would be impossible for the human mind to consider without digital tools.  In other words, digital humanities is bridging the gap between the data humans are now able to gather and the information humans are able to realize within the limited confines of the human brain.  Digital humanities make it possible for humans to interpret complex data effectively in order to open doors to knowledge that previously would have been elusive or inaccessible because of human limitations.


Unpacking the Definition 

In the past scholars and practitioners have described digital humanities as the intersection of two lines of thinking about the humanities and computing.  Over the past twenty years, explosive developments in technology have transformed what the computational field is able to do.  As a result the humanities have benefitted from the ways in which technology has accelerated and expanded practices within the field.

The breadth and depth of experiences incubated by digital humanities has resulted in an explosion of diverse communities engaged in the work of DH.  Place, practice and purpose influence these communities in ways that make them unique yet connected.  For example, museums, schools and universities have different cultures.  Each place may practice different ways of using digital humanities such as modeling, information management, or information visualization.  And, each place will have a unique practical purpose for doing digital humanities based on varying goals of education, research or communication. Therefore, to conceive of digital humanities as an intersection is no longer relevant because the lines of thinking about DH have broadened and deepened at the same time that the flow of data and computational capability have increased.

Like an estuary, digital humanities is a distinct environmental system where two bodies of thought – the technological and the anthropological – comingle to create a zone ripe for specialization, adaptation and innovation.  Within the larger environmental system, a variety of specialized communities exist that act to filter information, to buffer the interface between the human and the digital or to act as an incubator of new ideas.  These communities provide locales for human activities such as research, education, collaboration.  Technological constructs create pathways in order to connect communities of digital humanists within the larger system or to connect communities in the DH environment with the larger world.