THS 2012: Popularizing Digital History

At last week’s THS conference, I also attended the roundtable, “The Perils and Promises of Popular History in a Digital Age.” Yoni Appelbaum, Chris Cantwell, John Fea, and Elizabeth Pardoe each addressed a different aspect of digital history.

Appelbaum, a Ph.D. candidate at Brandeis who also writes for The Atlantic, proposed that digital essays* (much better than blessay—sorry, Dan Cohen!) help scholars enlarge their audiences, engage the public, and demonstrate their methodology. The pitfalls of this approach are that scholars can’t assume that the public has the knowledge to understand the nuances of historical argumentation. Digital essays on controversial topics also sometimes elicit harassing e-mails and phone calls and even death threats.

Cantwell, Assistant Director of the Dr. William M. Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library in Chicago, covered the evolution of online exhibitions, specifically the Newberry’s. He identified at least four stages of online exhibits’ development:

  1. Digital exhibitions that simply recreate the physical exhibit at a public history site
  2. The same as above but with public submissions
  3. Digital exhibitions that are larger and more dynamic and that are the primary focus (as opposed to physical exhibits
  4. Digital archives, which attempt to provide comprehensive digitization of a collection

Two current trends, according to Cantwell, are crowd-sourcing and visual encyclopedias.

Fea, associate professor at Messiah College, recounted his journey to becoming a blogger, which began with a 2004 JAH article, then as a contributor to Paul Harvey’s group blog, Religion in American History, then the start of his own blog. On a good day, Fea’s blog receives approximately 1,400 hits. (To provide some context, until the past few months, 1,400 was a good month for my own blog.) Fea also related one of the pitfalls of blogging by telling the story of his recent run-in with Glenn Beck and his supporters.

Finally, Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe of Northwestern University traced her various engagements with digital scholarship via the University of Venus and her own personal blog. I was struck by her struggle with bridging the gap between the scholarly voice that we use to talk to one another and the general voice that engages the public.

The audience response started slow but picked up. I asked Yoni how one finds public venues in which to publish digital essays. His suggestion was to seek out opportunities. He also observed that one needs to understand that all four panelists were talking about different things. Blogs are about building community from readers seeking out your perspective on a topic, while digital essays are going to reach out to an audience that likely had no prior interest in what you have to say. Exhibitions and solicited pieces also reach different audiences and have different purposes.

The panelists and audience also recognized the grey area that exists for young scholars who want to blog or write for online audiences. Some of the challenges relate to traditional definitions of academic scholarship, fears of revealing ideas that might be co-opted by someone else, and the permanence of one’s digital identity.

All four scholars gave great advice, but I especially appreciated Appelbaum’s optimism and encouragement.

*By digital essays, Appelbaum meant something longer than a typical piece of journalism and shorter than a typical academic article. His Atlantic piece and those on the Civil War appearing in the New York Times are good examples.

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