As a historian I have a duty to ensure the authenticity of my research and interpretation.
As a public historian I have a mandate to ensure the accessibility of said well-researched, historical interpretation to the masses.
And as a public historian of the digital age I have a responsibility to my constituents to have an understanding of modern technologies and how to employ them to make their museum/historical institution experience more enjoyable, stimulating, digestible and technologically current.
Prior to enrolling in History and New Media I was aware that digital platforms increasingly have a place in the presentation of historical information. It only make sense that in a world driven by megabytes and the “like” button that historical information would need to be presented in a similar format to reach the maximum number of people. However, even with this knowledge I never thought it would be my job to ensure that historical data was somehow made digitally accessible.
Admittedly, I was one of those historians who rejected an embrace of technology and its synthesis with history at all costs; at least if it required any digital interaction on my part. Like I said, I understood the merit of utilizing the digital to make the analog more enticing; however, I was not willing to learn the processes necessary to do so and I thought that a sort of marker of my designation as a “serious” public historian.
Yes. I unfortunately regarded myself as one of those superior-minded people that Paul Ford muses about in The Web Is a Customer Service Medium, a member of a sort of history Gutenbourgeois. However, being a self-proclaimed public history “purist”, if you will, while also maintaining my status as a historian of the new age did not mix. My mind-set had to change and it was this course that spurred the transformation.
The most recurrent and transformative concept from this course is accessibility. From my initial “Introduction” blog post to my most recent piece access has been discussed; either in relation to a larger debate regarding the historical/digital divide or explicitly. As mentioned above, a large part of my personal public historian credo is to increase mass public access to historical information, particularly Black narratives. And the only way to effectively achieve my professional mission is to integrate digital methodologies into my historical endeavors.
Access is one of the most valuable features that the internet provides, as mentioned by Cohen and Rosenzweig in the very first reading for this course. The pair writes,
Online accessibility means, moreover, that the documentary record of the past is open to people who rarely had entre before. (Digital History: A Guide to Gathering Preserving and Presenting the Past on the Web, Cohen and Rosenzweig,2005)
Obviously the seemingly infinite storage capacity of digital media lends itself to accessibility. But the most remarkable aspect of this feature is the ability send information around the world in an instant. Now, information that was once only static and stationary is fluid and available for mass consumption.
Accessibility has broadened the idea of what shared authority truly is. The availability of information plus the ability to oftentimes contribute to the knowledge base on a topic demonstrate accessibility. The rising trend of making history digitally open-sourced is accessibility in action. Just think about Wikipedia which gives even the most novice historian to correct, delete or add to an article.
Digital accessibility has altered the concept of who traditionally custodians history. Thanks to the internet the everyday man has the opportunity to produce their own historical content and to curate at their will. Sure, historical accuracy is often questionable (que Rebecca Onion) but they have the right to use digital platforms as they wish.
Even further, mobile apps can allow for continued engagement beyond the museum setting through innovative means.They make content accessible beyond the confines of a brick and mortar cultural institution. Surprisingly, even the idea of what has traditionally been conceived of as an archive is being modified by the accessibility that digital technology provides.The internet provides ample cyber-storage for primary source material which means the notion of who can enter/use an “archive” when, where and how has been forever changed. Material that could only be viewed on site with an archivist present are now only a click away.
Hypertext is one of the most obvious manifestations of the accessibility that new media provides the discipline of history. It allows for nonlinear connections to information from all over the web which is great for bolstering context and simply showing the wide expanse of the internet itself. Jerome McGann’s The Rationale of HyperText offers a very thorough yet academically abstract discussion of hypertext. If you care to learn about the theory of this concept then I suggest trying to muddle through the piece, however, the hypertext wiki page is a great base primer.
I could go on for days explaining the myriad ways that accessibility has been forever changed by the advent of various digital media, specifically the internet. As a public historian I have ample resources at my disposal to ensure that historical knowledge can reach even more people before–and in increasingly more meaningful ways. New media not only allows for the one-way transfer of professionally composed interpretations but also back and forth conversations about history. Technology now allows for the creation of cyber networks that connect disparate populations and diffuses knowledge to the corners of the globe that were once barren of such light. New media is altering how history is done. The ways that this discipline has conceived of itself for centuries are now being turned on their head.
But rather than shirking from the responsibility that this great change entails we, as historians, are obligated to embrace the chaos, march onward and employ digital methodologies wherever possible. Sure there will be obstacles like a lack of funding, a gap in mastery of said digital methodologies and the public’s ability, or lack thereof, to obtain the devices necessary to use certain historical instances of new media embrace. Nonetheless, Accessibility means flexibility. The methods we use to communicate to the public are being stretched and morphed in ways never thought possible. So we must also be flexible, always keeping in mind that although we are working to preserve the past we must also keep in step with the present so that we may maintain for the future.