Public History Habits in the Digital Age

Thinking Historically in Public

In rethinking how educators are equipped to teach history, the  American Historical Association published an article entitled “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?”  in which Flannery Burke and Thomas Andrews advocate for a strategy that could help shift the focus of history education away from simply inculcating in students a working knowledge of facts.  Instead, a focus on developing “habits of mind” could help students to successfully develop their own historical arguments and evaluate the accuracy of others.  These concepts are change over time, context, causality, continuity and complexity.

While a public history project is uniquely situated to convey a working knowledge of history to a particular community, it seems that public history has a seemingly greater responsibility to  develop these habits of mind in the way that it conveys that history to a public audience.  Public history can serve as a forum in which “citizens [learn] not only to care about history but also to contemplate it . . . .” in the ways that it is the “ideal field for thinking long and hard about important questions.”  Developing historical thinking skills strengthens the public not only by imparting knowledge but by improving civic discourse.


Projects such as The Progress of a People seems to try to contextualize the meetings of the National Afro-American Council using pamphlets to represent what might have been discussed at different sessions when it convened in 1898.  While it is laudable to try to put these pamphlets in context, it is confusing to approximate actual conference proceedings with different documents.  In this case, Burke and Andrews might call this an exercise in “Fact, Fiction, or Creative Memory.”  The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory is more effective because it helps to locate the events of the Chicago Fire within the evolving spatial context of the event as well as in the collective memory.  That the site was able to undergo a digital face lift in 2011 after its 1999 inception means that it has remained relevant in ways that BlackOut History has not.


In teaching a class on the role of women during World War II this past week, I congratulated myself for bringing in this aspect of the war for the mostly 13 year old boys in the room.  I was proud that they were hearing about the social impact of the war that is often overlooked by courses that focus solely on military history.  However, in looking at the Bracero Archive, I realized that I was guilty of leaving out the stories of a group of people the United States desperately needed to fuel the arsenal of democracy.  Good digital history projects help to give voice to the complexity of the public.

Change Over Time

Digital public history projects have also been a part of a changing landscape in their aims at connecting with the public.  Early projects sought to collect and contextualize data.  Later project iterations seemed to exist to provide virtual visits for museum goer who could not make a trip to a brick and mortar exhibition.  Other projects sought to use digital tools to provide ready made activities to teach content and in some cases to teach historical thinking skills for school children.

Digital public history projects have an additional layer of complexity.  Unlike traditional public history projects that tend to exist in relatively static environments, digital public history projects exist in a rapidly changing universe of technological transformation.  The Great Court of the British Museum was redesigned in 2000 and remains a relevant space today.  However, a comparative look at a digital public history projects like the Blackout History Project (1998) and Operation War Diary (2014) reveals a disparity that is glaring.  The digital tools, the digital design and digital reach of these tools could not be more different.  Yet, in each case a desire to use digital forums to source information, or in the case of War Diaries, labor, from the public is the same.

Finally, digital public history projects can quickly become outdated as technology changes.  This is a particular issue when projects are funded by grants that do not provide for ongoing site maintenance.  Content quickly becomes unusable when the container for the information is programmed out of existence.  In many ways  thinking about this particular question, the concept of digital history in a changing world, is one of those important questions that ripe for historical study.

A Promising Public Space

Public history projects are unique in the way that they must consider issues of audience, accessibility, and appropriateness for the public or publics with which they engage.  However, digital public history holds a great deal of promise because of the ways that it can draw people in by practicing historical thinking.  Organizations like Zooniverse are creating platforms where getting involved with “doing” history is increasingly possible.  Digital public history isn’t just about presenting history in a new package; it’s about changing the paradigm for involving the public in engaging in historical thinking in order to elevate civic discourse.  And, it’s never to early to begin.

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