The world is rapidly evolving alongside advancements in technology. Just thirty years ago, people were scoffing at the idea of reading the newspaper on the computer, and now we can reach thousands of people in an instant by sending out a tweet over our smart watch. Historians are working with these technologies so as not to be left in the past. Digital historians are bringing history into the present by incorporating technology into the way that we study, teach and interact with history. Technology has stretched the limits of the physical world, providing us with more availability and more storage. Entire books are available at our fingertips and the Cloud has created near infinite storage space. We are no longer confined by the size of our library’s collection, or the amount of square footage in our archive. Technology has undeniably benefited historians, but has also raised questions that need to be answered.
With the rise of technology, the line between digital and public history has become more and more blurry. Though the two find quite a bit of overlap, digital and public history are not necessarily the same thing. In his book, Digital History, Thomas Cauvin defines digital history as “Anything (research method, journal article, monograph, blog, classroom exercise) that uses digital technologies in creating, enhancing, or distributing historical research and scholarship.” (175) Digital history, by way of the internet, is increasingly accessible to the public; but unlike public history, does not necessarily engage the public. The distinction between public access and engagement is one of the big problems that public historians are having to confront. In a blog post here, Dr. Larry Cebula confronts and discusses the problems of crowd sourcing in history projects. The Library of Congress hoped to engage the public by opening a Flickr account with taggable pictures. The results were of little historical value, and consisted of quite a bit of trolling. It is the job of public historians to engage the public, but they need to decide to what extent engagement is allowed. At the end of the day historians are the professionals, and it is their job to curate history; especially when facing the rise of the amateur historian.
While accessibility of historical research materials is great for professionals, it has also created a surge of amateur historians. Anyone with a computer can create a podcast and start spreading historical “truths”. Dr. Cebula addresses this here in another blog post. Though individuals may be well meaning, their lack of training can spread historical inaccuracies. This raises a question of whether or not it should be the professional historians who take it upon themselves to flood the market with their own media. Cauvin says yes, historians should be taking things into their own hands; that they should be studying technology so that the content consumed through media is true to history. Cauvin gives the example of film, which often employs historians as consultants.
Historians should also be studying technology to help tailor it to the needs of those in the humanities. In his blog post, Is Google Good for History? Dan Cohen discusses the fact that the engineers behind Google Books, while talented, have little insight into how people search historic content. He says that “Bibliometrics and text mining work poorly on these sources.”
Technology has opened up a new wealth of possibilities for public history. With the internet we can share and consume like never before. But with these advancements, public historians need to think about how they are engaging the public, and to what extent they are controlling the content that the public is consuming. Public historians should be working together with others in the technology and media fields to present and make sense of history. While the line between access and engagement may be blurring, public historians can not forget that they are the professionals.