In only six short weeks I learned how to make my own HistoryPin tour, curated my own online exhibit, and kept up a blog! But most importantly, I learned that there are so many different ways history can be presented digitally. Before starting this course, I only thought of digital history as websites for historic sites or social media pages for museums. Now, when I see that a museum only has a brochure-like website or a Facebook page, I am disappointed because they are missing out on so many other digital opportunities. The different platforms we learned and discussed during this course are all simple and cost-effective. There is really no excuse to not be doing digital history.
Omeka has the most potential for the type of public history I am interested in doing in the future. I was astonished that I had never encountered this platform before, considering Omeka’s usefulness. I created Nile Blue, a collection of glass items from Ancient Egypt (see my blog post for more information). This platform is free and user-friendly, making it a great option for institutions with a limited budget. It is a way to have collections online and open to the public – even archaeological collections! Omeka can be adjusted with different plug-ins (some free, all affordable) which makes the website customizable and accommodating for different online exhibits. It is certainly a versatile platform and one that I can see myself using in the future for an institution.
I found the HistoryPin assignment the most enjoyable. We each created a tour using historical images placed on a map at the location the image was taken, which I discussed in Inconvenient Camels. I created Ancient Egypt in Black and White and used historic images of Cairo and Ancient Egyptian monuments. It worked well for popular tourist destinations in Egypt, but HistoryPIn uses Google Street View, which lacks street images for non-Western countries. I can see HistoryPin working very well for historical societies as an alternative or supplement to online collections, especially for photos that are difficult to display and nearly meaningless without context.
In additional to learning different digital platforms, we also learned about and discussed the major debates in the field. We were introduced to the world of digital history through Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzwieg’s pivotal work, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, which covered everything from entering the field to issues of ownership and preservation for digital history. We discussed the current debates in the field, like digital archives vs. traditional archives. Turns out, there are many different meanings for ‘archive,’ as summarized by Trevor Owens in, What Do you Mean by Archive? Genres of Usage for Digital Preservers, from ‘archiving’ our emails, to the papers of an individual, to crowd-sourced collections of materials online. We also learned from a traditional archivist the perspective on digital archives as ‘digital historical representations’ from Kate Theimer.
The digital world allows for collaborative work that is far more expansive and encompassing than an in-person project. Wikipedia is an excellent example of the power of collaborative work. Rosenzweig in Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past discusses the use of crowd-sourcing and concerns over the validity of historical information on Wikipedia. Spoiler Alert: Wikipedia is less incorrect and has more information than other major online encyclopedias.
We found that there are many examples of successful collaborative history online and that apps are also another way of combining the expertise of many people to produce and share knowledge to a diverse audience. HistoryPin, Will to Adorn, and StoryCorps are all examples of apps using crowd-sourcing to document history and the human experience in new ways.
As we discovered this semester, it is easy to have a digital presence, but for us emerging public and digital historians, it is not smooth sailing from here. Large institutions are riddled with red-tape and smaller institutions still tote the “that is just how we have always done it” mentality (I generalize, of course). As we enter the ‘real’ world, we will need to do so with a strong sense of commitment and a persuasive (and insistent) argument of support for practicing digital history.