The first term of my Public History graduate degree is wrapping up rather quickly. My classmates and I have something like four major project deadlines between now and the middle of December. So it’s only natural that I am procrastinating by writing this blog instead of working on those various assignments this evening.
Tomorrow is our last official class in Digital Public History. It’s going to be a bit of a show-and-tell whereby we will present the progress we’ve made on our independent projects. Each of us has explored a digital technology and its current and potential applications for public history. That’s the great thing about this course. It has really opened my eyes to many possible applications where the modern and the historical can come together to produce something better than the sum of their parts.
Take online archives for instance. Using the cloud, we now have the potential to gather, preserve, and provide access to historical records we wouldn’t otherwise be able to. The Memory Project is one example. Canadian veterans’ stories from the World Wars, the Korean War, and various Peacekeeping missions are recorded on audio and transcript. The September 11th Digital Archive captures the stories of those who experienced the worst terrorist attacks in American history whether they were at Ground Zero or waiting at home for loved ones who never returned. What’s great about these websites is that they record, preserve, and share memories and historical records that otherwise may never have survived. They reach out to engage their audiences in growing their collections.
Digital technologies also have the potential to transform how teachers educate their students. Learning history doesn’t need to be about names and dates. Students can also learn the skills of historians through archives’ education outreach programs like DocsTeach, an online tool for teaching with documents from the US National Archives. By doing history, not just learning it, students can practice their analytical and communications skills using actual documents that are part of the historical record. Perhaps teachers who use tools like these will help inspire a new generation of scholars, or maybe they’ll just be better, more aware, and thoughtful citizens. Either way, society benefits!
Other digital technologies can give us a better perspective of the past — sometimes they can provide us with perspectives we couldn’t see even if we had been present. Geographic information systems and spatial history have loads of potential. Check out this brilliant 360° 3D recreation of Halifax at the time of the 1917 Halifax Explosion. In it, you’ll find a 3D video recreation of the events that led to the disaster followed by a map to explore the tragedy’s aftermath.
Public historians can also make use of digital tools to help manage projects. Social media helps academic and amateur historians engage and interact with other researchers to support one another’s projects or contribute a coordinated effort. Zotero is an example of free software that allows researchers to collect, organize, cite, and share research sources. Even tools as evident as Dropbox or Google Drive can help project members coordinate their efforts to improve project results.
Finally (and this is not an exhaustive list), digital tools can help historians present new ideas in readily accessible and digestible ways. In short, they can help us enhance our storytelling (backed by robust analysis) in ways that enhance the experience for the consumer. For instance, Canadian military historian Terry Copp has recently launched MontreatatWar.com, presenting his new book in an online format. The website is promising, with links to footnotes and primary documents referenced in the text. A more modest approach is TimelineJS, an open-source tool that enables anyone to build clean-cut, interactive timelines.
TimelineJS is one of the digital tools I’ve used for my independent project. I’m almost as excited to see what my classmates have produced using various digital tools as I am to showcase my work. My project consists of a new website and interactive timeline supporting my book, which I now understand should launch by February 2018. I can’t wait to reveal this work to the public in the next few days!
I’d like to finish this short reflection with one overriding principle that our professor, Timothy Compeau, has urged us to heed: engineers create these great tools, but it’s up to us to make the best use of them. Digital history isn’t about technology; it’s about how we can use technology to help us tell a compelling story and craft an experience that is memorable, fun, and educational.