Reflections on Public History

Public history is becoming an increasingly important aspect of academia’s mission.  Too often in the past, the material that humanities scholars produced was primarily aimed at an audience of other academics.  Unlike science research that had “practical” applications, humanities scholars were open to the attack that they only served themselves and didn’t provide a “useful” product that would benefit everyone.  Clearly public history is a key way to reach out to a broader audience and can serve as one way of building support for the work that humanities scholars do.

Of course, serving the public can have multiple interpretations and raises additional concerns.  How are humanities scholars going to build a reliable way of involving their audiences in the planning and ultimate execution of public history projects?  What kinds of new skills and new training will be needed—not to mention financial support—to enable these important interactions?  Further, what levels of scholarship should be expected of the public historian; while the public may not be concerned about the documentation and verification of all sources, this is a concern of the scholarly community and one that can’t be simply ignored.

This course on public history has made me much more aware of the challenges and opportunities that this new area of study has opened for the field.  Even in projects that are not specifically aimed at the “public”—such as a specialized monograph on an academic subject—thinking about the audience through using methods like storyboarding, testing, creating personas, and surveying all can help make academic work more meaningful both for those who create it and those who consume it.  This does require that the academy open itself to feedback well beyond the university community, but that in itself is probably necessary and healthy for the humanities if the field is to survive.

I think one major area that needs further study is today’s emphasis on digital publication.  While at first ebooks were viewed as an inexpensive way to make specialized information available, it is clear that for today’s users digital sites need to be interactive, allowing for feedback and regular updating based on users’ needs.  For this to happen, there has to be some models developed for long-term maintenance of sites—or at least an up front acknowledgment of a site’s purpose and limitations.  For example, some scholars may simply want to present a “snapshot” of their findings at a specific time and will not want the responsibility—either intellectually or financially—to maintain a web publication over the long run.  Others may view their work as an ongoing process.  The academic community has to evolve sustainable models for publication in this new world that will both support humanities research and better dissemination of knowledge to a broader audience.

Creating my own podcast reinforced for me the necessity of having the funding for creative collaboration.  Trying to be the author, vocal talent, researcher, and audio editor all at once was very demanding, and certainly the podcast that I was able to produce did not reach the technical standards that I would like to have achieved.  Again, I think there has been a tendency among academics to underestimate the commitment and costs involved in creating digital scholarship.  Having a system for guidance and planning built in to academic support would be a worthy goal for all higher education institutions.

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