For this week’s portfolio post, Dr. Kelly has asked us to write an essay that responds to one of the questions below, or some similar question or issue that I wish to write about:
- How has the malleability of the past in the digital world complicated our work as history educators?
- How has that malleability made it easier to teach about and help our audience(s) engage with the past?
I have been very blessed. Since my first internship at a historical museum while I was an undergraduate, I have been able to work with countless precious objects, including hundreds of rare books and many manuscripts. I’ve held Annie Sullivan’s letter to Edward Everett Hale about Helen Keller in my hands and have read Clarence Bowen’s diaries about his father Henry’s Fourth of July celebrations. In some cases, I’ve read items in print or digital form before reading the manuscripts. Sitting at Harvard’s Houghton Library, I held an Emerson letter in my hand and recognized it instantly from the print version. Often, the rewards of being in this profession are far greater than anything money could buy (which is fortunate, as those of us working in it know).
However, almost none of us can be with the primary sources at all moments. Microcards and microfilm used to be one answer to a lack of print or manuscript resources, if one’s library had them. I used plenty of each for my master’s thesis and dissertation. However, there were many resources that I could not get to quickly or easily. That’s just the way that it was. Often, I had to jump through hoops just to know what existed.
Things are so different today. While I went to Washington, DC to the Library of Congress many years ago to read some Lincoln letters to Henry C. Bowen, it takes just a trip to loc.gov to find some of those letters today. I can sit in my pajamas at three in the morning and read newspapers and books from the nineteenth century. Some of this information is available to anyone, while some of it is available to me because of institutional affiliations. I wish all of it were free, but it is not. However, the malleability of the past allows me to utilize, and to teach about and with, many different kinds of historical objects. Through projects such as DPLA, we can help our audiences engage with the past in ways they could not before. As I mentioned in my earlier post, we need to teach people how to engage in critical thinking and information literacy, and we should discuss what we are learning, but the potential is there. Primary sources are no longer just for those who, like me, have been fortunate enough to be able to go to the rare book repositories and museum offices where some of these objects are stored. People all over the world have access to the primary sources of the past, and those of us who work as historians should strive to provide access to those materials, in whatever way we can. Just as importantly, we should teach people how to think about and work with those objects to learn as much as possible from them.
Digital humanities tools and projects have opened many doors for us. I have so many ways to explore topics that I am interested in and to share what I find with my students and with the public. My life has changed so much since I began this program. A whole world of opportunity has opened up for me. I look forward to creating new projects, and to continuing with the development of my current ones.
As technology advances, there will be more and more ways to share the past digitally. I’m excited about the future of the past and to how I can contribute to it!