Methodologies/Techniques that Influence Public History Today

In the past, public historians were viewed as “authorities” who could provide vetted information about a particular person, event, or site to their audience.  The historian gave the information; the public received it.  Today, there is much more emphasis on communication between provider (historian) and receiver (the public).  Most current exhibits or online sites are developed by engaging potential users from the very beginning.  A user survey may be conducted or in-person or on-line focus groups to create a group of “personas” representing typical users or visitors to a site.  Historic reconstruction is viewed as a “shared enquiry” between multiple parties, from the historians and public to administrators, site designers (for web sites), exhibit planners (for physical exhibits), and others involved in “telling the story” related to a particular collection.  Techniques like crowdsourcing enable the public to be actively involved in the creation of new materials that can facilitate the work of future researchers and enthusiastic local historians.

Several new techniques have been developed to facilitate more fruitful dialogue among these interested parties:

  • Surveys: As mentioned above, drawing on data based on surveys of a selected group of potential users helps hone the means of presenting the material, the language used to describe it, and how exhibits or websites are organized to maximize user engagement.  Personas are used to encapsulate typical users and their needs.
  • Interactive websites: Increasingly, historians are using websites not to present a finished story but to allow users to interact with the material.  This can be as simple as offering a means to “respond” or comment to a posting to more sophisticated interactions, including manipulating maps and data; uploading related material to add to an exhibit; and transcribing and/or annotating historical texts, to mention a few.  Curation of this material becomes a challenge for the website administrator who must balance this open flow of dialogue with ensuring quality and appropriateness of all material.
  • Blogging: Often included as a feature of an organization’s website, blogs allow for posting new or additional information of interest to the site’s audience.  Multiple members of an organization can be empowered to contribute to a blog, allowing for different voices to be expressed.  Because blogs are usually updated regularly, they give users a “reason” to return to what might be an otherwise unchanging website.
  • Mobile apps: Increasingly, site designers want users to be able to access information while they are physically visiting a site or exhibition by using their smartphones.  Everything from audio narration (triggered by censors or by scanning QR codes), triggering of special lighting to emphasize key items; playing of related video material; or accessing additional information.  For example, the Histories of the National Mall website allows for “real time” access to historic maps and information about key locations spread throughout the area.
  • Oral history: Oral history has long been a key source of information told from the perspective of those who actually experienced events.  In the past, it was mostly accessed through edited transcripts, which left a large amount of recorded material inaccessible to easy discovery.  New digital initiatives have been developed, notably out of the University of Kentucky, that allow for indexing of video and audio recordings, enabling users to quickly locate key topics.  Crowdsourcing is being used to help index this material—another key technique used by contemporary archives to draw on the talents of their users.
  • Web search: “Optimizing” online historical materials for discoverability through search engines like Google is increasingly important to museums, historical societies, and others who want to be sure that their material is easily and quickly retrievable by their core audiences.  This involves an attention to creating effective key terms (searchable words) as well as interacting with other sites by cross posting.
  • Social media: Historians are increasingly using social media to reach new potential users as well as to create historical “reenactments” in real time.  Facebook pages help museums, archives, and historians to reach a much larger audience than would be otherwise possible, giving the opportunity to direct them to a primary website where they can learn more about an event, person, or project.  Twitter has been effectively used to recreate historical events in “real time,” with tweets sent on the exact day and time when an event was unfolding.  An example was created by a group of German historians to recreate the events of Kristallnacht.

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