While public historians have been working with the public for many years, digital public history has emerged over the last three decades. During this time, this field, like many, has gone through several phases.
Phase 1 – The end of the Twentieth Century
When the Internet was new, and use of it was increasing, some public historians decided to utilize it to create sites on historical topics. In some cases, such as the Blackout History Project , sites were very verbal based and included many links. Yet, even at this early point, public historians for that project chose to encourage their audience to participate in the project. Some of the digital public history work from this phase, such as Progress of a People and The Great Chicago Fire & The Web of Memory included essays, many links to primary sources about events and biographical information about individuals. Some pages were more verbal than visual, and some reached out to audiences for participation more than others. This phase of digital public history was information rich and full of essays. Creators took advantage of this new mode of communication to present history to the public and, at times, to ask the public to contribute to the conversation about historical events, places, and people.
Phase 2 – The first decade of the Twenty-first Century
As technology improved, public historians attempted to utilize flash and other new opportunities in their sites. The amount of information in the sites increased and the creators designed more ways for audiences to interact with the sites. Sites such as A More Perfect Union presented a dizzying array of opportunities for users to learn in what this site called a “a case study in decision-making and citizen action under the Constitution.” Digital Public History sites from this phase were more sophisticated than from the first phase. They attempted to engage their audiences in historical thinking and presented these audiences with interactive sites that they could think about and learn from.
Phase 3 – The second decade of the Twenty-first Century
Collaboration is the key word in the third phase of digital public history work. The work from this phase has utilized new tools such as Omeka to present attractive sites, such as Lincoln at 200, with detailed metadata and opportunities for searching. Crowdsouring has become very popular, and the number of projects offering such participation from the public, and the variety of opportunities even within one project, has given people the choice of how they would like to contribute their time and talents.
Good digital history work should present opportunities for historical thinking for its audience. In addition, it should adhere to the American HIstorical Association’s guidelines for digital work. It should be well designed, tested, engaging, user-friendly and easy to navigate. A digital history site should have quality content, have an effective narrative, utilize primary sources, contextualize its subject, be visual, be interactive, and have multiple ways to search,. It should meet the needs of its audiences and allow public participation through crowdsourcing.
As noted above, collaboration has been frequent during phase three of Digital Public History. Combining the resources of two or more institutions to create a site which provides an even more in-depth study of a topic or individual is an effective and exciting direction. Capitalizing on mobile devices is another promising new direction which allows users to utilize these devices both within museums and, as with Building the National Mall, at historic landscapes. Having the opportunity to have constant contact with current and potential audiences through a social media presence on current sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and future social media sites, is fabulous publicity for projects and their creators. In addition, having the ability to learn at and network with others at THATCamps, and through programs such as GMU’s Digital Public Humanities Certificate, will keep historians abreast of the field and foster future collaborations. Dan Cohen, the director of the Digital Public Library of America has spoken at THATCamps, and he continues to spread the word about this outstanding digital public history resource. As more and more people learn about it, they will be able to utilize it to learn about history. Last, but certainly not least, software such as Scripto has provided a way to facilitate crowdsourcing projects. Crowdsourcing, though not new, looks to increase as digital public history creators become more familiar with the tools to create sources which empower the public by encouraging their contribution in transcriptions, editing, oral histories, research and more. The future of the digital public history field looks very bright.