From Peer to Public in the Digital Hs

Author’s note: I’m writing this just after attending a panel discussion on “Engaged Scholarship in Action”–I can’t link to it for reasons I won’t disclose on a class blog, but anyway–in which community engaged scholarship was defined as, “scholarship that is in conversation with the non-university public.” That definition has shaped my reaction to the reading.

How do we go from peer to public? This question arose for me as I read the following quote from  the introduction of Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki’s Writing History in the Digital Age:

“[I]nstead of being subjected to anonymous private review, this book benefited from open peer review on the web.”

Though the introduction wasn’t part of our assigned reading this week, I think it highlighted many issues the other assignments addressed and also brought forth some new questions. The above quote and question most directly applies to Dr. Lara Kelland’s post, The Master’s Tools, 2.0, in which she writes that public historians’ “practice of sharing authority,” combined with existing and emerging digital tools, offers an opportunity to democratize historical knowledge. If we use “the master’s tools” to engage the public and to re-imagine scholarship, we have a chance to use history to achieve a more equitable society.

My question is, how do we use those tools to create a conversation between historians and the public? A conversation in which the public leaves the dialogue empowered as well as engaged, and not, as Kelland noted has more often than not been the case, used for labor? Digital tools provide more access to primary sources, artifacts, and maps, but how do they help the non-university (and non-university-trained) public interpret what happened in its own communities in the past?

In “Is (Digital) History More than an Argument about the Past?” Sherman Dorn argues,

“Social history “from the bottom up “becomes more intense and more public when members of a community can more easily contribute to and discover work about their shared history.”

What does that look like in digital history, especially when there are concerns –chiefly among African American women–about the use of online user-generated content in journalism and academic scholarship? How does a digital historian engage the public without stealing from it? How does one guide the public in its interpretation of history without patronizing it or otherwise reinforcing the racial and gender heirarchies that digital history has the chance to break away from?

One commenter on Kelland’s post wondered if the issues of digital history remaining in the ivory tower was something digital humanists should be more worried about. Dr. Stephen Robertson gives two main differences between digital history and digital humanities: 1) Digital history is more concerned with “the collection, presentation, and dissemination of material online” while digital humanities is about interpreting what’s already there. 2) Digital history’s analysis tools are different. History uses digital mapping; humanities uses text mining and topic modeling. He later notes that accessibility of digitized texts is seriously limited because of pay walls. This reflect’s the commenter’s thought that shared authority is more a problem for the humanities than for history.

I think there’s certainly some overlap between the two but that digital history allows scholars more variety in the ways they present non-digitized material that’s already there. Interpretation, however, could be democratized on both ends.



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