One of the most exciting aspects of the digital humanities “movement,” if you will, is the emphasis on sharing. There are a few different ways the sharing culture of digital humanities manifests itself, one of which is the opportunity for academics to share and collaborate their research (Zotero is a great resource for this, I wrote a blog post on it a few weeks back). The second is the incredible amount of free platforms online for collecting, interpreting, and sharing content.
I’ve learned about a few from my History and New Media class this past semester. Some are great tools for non-professionals to share their own content and connect with institutions – like HistoryPin, which I have fallen in love with thanks to the work of my classmates. Others have more technical capabilities, like data visualization and text analysis. There’s an ever-expanding repository of tools for the digital humanities, but what should we be doing with them?
In her 2012 ASA address ‘Digital Humanities For What?’ Elena Razlogova argues that “DH technical experiments lack self-awareness because their research lacks a proper purpose.” She was speaking about the field in relation to American Studies, but I believe her argument holds water in the field of History as well. I think this relates to why so many people are up-in-arms about Twitter accounts like @HistoryInPics, which uploads (as I’m sure you could guess) daily pictures of historical events and figures, often times without a source or any sort of contextualization. The accounts have also been accused of posting “fake” pictures (check out my previous post on our false expectations of images for my reasoning for the scare-quotes). In the world of history scholarship, these accounts undermine the work professionals have dedicated their lives to, and arguably undermine cultural heritage altogether.
But accounts like these do something that many more legitimate institutions struggle with: they attract followers. @HistoryInPics has 1.02 million followers, compared with the entire Smithsonian Institution’s 1.2 million. The National Museum of American History, the museum one could speculate could adapt itself to the social media world best, only has 73.3 thousand followers*. Does this mean that the general public is adverse to professionally curated material? That we should leave “history” to the informal accounts that do such a good job of connecting with their audience? Of course not. I do, however, think it means that connecting to potential audience members should be a key part of the purpose of digital humanities, at least for the interpretation and communication branch.
I tried to apply this purpose to my final project for my History and New Media class, for which I designed an online exhibit for a local organization. I worked alongside Rainbow History, a group “dedicated to collecting, preserving, and promoting an active knowledge of the history, arts, and culture relevant to sexually diverse communities in metropolitan Washington DC.” Their work started with oral histories from community members in an effort to capture fading memories of the HIV/AIDS crisis, but has expanded into an incredible resource of information on all aspects of 20th century LGBTQ life in DC.
Rainbow History does the collecting and preserving aspect of digital history well. At their start in 2000, they were able to take advantage of available technology to give a voice to memories that the DC community was at risk of losing. They’ve digitized thousands of documents and oral histories, and done so in the spatial context of Washington, DC. In fact, they have a database of over 500 “places and spaces” relevant to “sexually diverse communities in metropolitan Washington DC” over the 20th century that have since closed their doors. Through their walking tours, you can visit the Nationals Stadium and imagine the now-gone “entertainment district for Washington, DC’s gay community in the 1970s.”
Now, Rainbow History is shifting their focus to the side of digital history that I emphasized earlier in this piece, and I was lucky enough to work with them. I created the online-exhibit (experience it here!) for the Gay Women’s Alternative, a lesbian club in Washington, DC that hosted social and educational events from 1981-1993. I built the exhibit using Omeka.net, a free resource created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.
As all the objects in the exhibit were collected by Rainbow History previously, my job was to piece together a narrative out of my own and existing interpretation. To do so, I drew inspiration from Trevor Owens’ “A Draft Style Guide for Digital Collection Hypertexts.” The two most important and relevant recommendations I found from Owens were his concept that each page is a front door to the exhibit; it needs to stand on its own while still introducing the content on other pages. Additionally, I was struck by his recommendation to take full advantage of hyperlink capabilities. I tried to link concepts where ever I could to other pages in the exhibit as well as outside sources. My hope is that the connectedness of the exhibit enriches the experience for the user.
No project ever seems to be fully finished, and if I could extend this one into the endless future I’d love to develop my HTML and CSS skills to move the exhibit off of Omeka. The platform definitely does its job, I found the site intuitive and pleased with the way the exhibit looks. However, I often found limited by the page layout options and found myself again and again wishing I could manipulate page elements. Until then, I hope I used Omeka in a way that was consistent with the purpose of digital humanities to collect, preserve, and communicate our stories in an engaging, community oriented, and spatially relevant way.
*I think it’s important for me to mention the obvious flaw in this comparison. @HistoryInPics isn’t an American institution the way the Smithsonian is. Twitter exists outside of America, so it’s not too surprising that a general account would have followers that exceed an account with a country as the identifier. Additionally, Twitter is incredibly democratic. There are plenty of Twitter users with interests in history who would search history before they searched Smithsonian, for a variety of reasons. In any case, I think the comparison helps put the popularity of amateur accounts into perspective.