Public History on the Web: If You Build It, Will They Come?

In the sixth chapter of Dougherty’s and Nawrotzki’s book, Writing History in the Digital Age, three essays describe different approaches of crowdsourcing to involve communities in the production of history; some of them more successful than others.

In the first part, Rosales Castañeda told the story of the historical origin of the Chicana/o Movement Project in Seattle, WA, and how it was integrated into the Seattle Civil Rights Project. The main problem he wanted to address was that the Latino communities in the Pacific Northwest were not only isolated from the larger Latino communities in other areas of the US, but also their marginalization in the regional history. This project offered an effective portal for Latinos to connect through their local history and to ‘correct’ the official history as it was taught at the local schools.

The second part by Sikarskie explained the use of social media platforms by what she called Citizen Scholars. For example, she used Facebook to engage with the audience; by posting trivia questions about quilts, she invited people to comment on them; in case of controversy, she researched the issue and updated the records accordingly. Her argument is that nobody is able to know something in its entirety and therefore a collective intelligence is needed to fill the gaps, hence the involvement of the Citizen Scholars.

The last part by Graham, Massie and Feuerherm explored their research of trying to overcome the digital divide in the Upper Ottawa Valley with their HeritageCrowd Project. However, their attempt to entice the population to contribute to the local history was not very successful. They concluded that the experiment failed for a number of reasons: the platform they used was not appropriate for the project; they ignored already existing data, which created an incomplete foundation to start from; and personal communication with the population and clearer instructions of what they were trying to achieve were mostly missing.

Although all three projects tried to achieve different goals with different approaches, they still had number of things in common: they all used some form of digital tool to engage with interested parties of the population in order to fill in the gaps in knowledge that existed between various sources. Comments or contributions by the communities supplied historians with the impetus to dig deeper into certain issues and rectify existing records, not only improving the available information, but also the communication between academics and lay historians. In this case, digital tools were just that: tools to connect people with different levels of knowledge and expertise through a shared interest; although validation was still done by trained historians, it also created an open channel that enabled a fruitful collaboration.

Maybe this is the first step to successfully bridge the chasm between the two camps?

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About AMK @ Ryerson

In the past, I was the experienced IT admin and troubleshooter, but the new me is going to be a creative analyst for sustainable solutions (maybe!).
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