Monthly Archives: January 2016

Digital Humanities: Past and Present


Digital Humanities has existed in some form since the early days of the World Wide Web. Most projects have focused on creating and presenting information that can be read and digested by anyone with an Internet connection. The earliest websites were limited by the structure of the Web protocols at the time, and could only provide information via text and very basic imagery. See Progress of a People at the Library of Congress for an example. This was the first phase of DH work that used the Web as its way of disseminating information.

The second phase began as it became possible to provide richer imagery, as well as design websites that could be more fluid in its navigation. The aim for this phase is similar to the first, in that the sites were designed to present information. Here, people began to see direct translations of physical exhibits from museums in a digital form. Projects during this time were able to include more graphical information such as timelines (see Raid on Deerfield). Since the Web was able to utilize more imagery, more DH websites used imagery as the main thrust if their argument. One prime example of this was A More Perfect Union, which provided a wealth of imagery related to the Japanese Internment during World War Two.

The latest phase of DH work has seen a change in the aims for the projects. The current projects are aiming to get viewers directly involved with the material. Some sites, like the Bracero History Archive,  encourage people who have a personal experience with the material to type and submit their story to the team creating the site. A new type of project has also emerged: sites that ask the viewer to help the researcher transcribe documents. One example of this is Operation Field Diary, which asks visitors to help decode diaries, letters, and other documents found during World War One.

With each phase of work in Digital Humanities, new methods of interacting with the material has emerged. Whether its being able to provide visual examples of artifacts, or providing personal experiences, the current trend in DH is to get both researcher and visitor involved with the material. The best projects allow for the visitor to gain some new knowledge about the subject, but also provide an avenue for those visitors to become involved with the material.



What is Public History?

In 1981, Ron Grele wrote an article for the National Council on Public History asking what Public History is, and what goals may exist for people within the field. Grele described wrote that there was no clear definition for the practice and aims of professionals within Public History, stemming from prior historians believing that there were no jobs for historians outside of academia. [1] Grele continued by discussing the origins for Public History in the real of local history and archives, and that the discipline has largely been described as any position not held in an academic setting.

The trend of believing history only being a part of an academic institution has been noted by numerous professionals, and originally had a basis of truth. Denise Meringolo described the role of several historians at universities who would work with outside institutions, such as a state court, to act as an expert in a particular field. [2] She went on to describe that the creation of the National Park System provided an avenue for historians to work outside of a university, which provided an opportunity for the public to realize that history existed outside of the classroom.

As Public History gained prominence as a discipline, the question of what Public History is, and what duties professionals performed, became widespread. The answer to this question continues to this day. A survey conducted in 2008 by John Dichtl and Robert Townsend showed that there is no one set definition for Public History. Their survey concluded that some professionals were unsure if the label applied to them, despise others in a similar position who did identify as a Public Historian. [3] Of those that Dichtl and Townsend surveyed, a vast majority were working at museums or government agencies.

The question now becomes, without a specific example of a Public Historian, what constitutes Public History? Some might say that stating Public History is any historian that works outside of a classroom. I feel that this is misleading, as many professors publish their research outside of their university and would not consider themselves Public Historians. Rather, I believe that Public History involves presenting historical research in such a manner that no formal training as a historian is required to understand the material. This can be anything from a formal exhibit in a museum, to placards at a historical site, to an online space providing information on a particular topic. The key is that the information is accessible to a wide range of people and backgrounds.


[1] Grele, Ronald J. “Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian?” The Public Historian 3, no. 1 (Winter 1981): 41.

[2] Meringolo, Denise. “Prologue and Conclusion.” In Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. xvii.

[3] Dichtl, John, and Robert Townsend. “A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals.” Perspectives on History, September 2008.

Introduction to Digital Public History

Hello All,

I am currently enrolled as a first year Master’s student in History at George Mason alongside the Digital Humanities Certificate. This is my second masters degree, the first being Educational Multimedia, and my undergraduate degree is also in History. My experience with digital humanities has been sporadic at best, as my degree in Education covered how to create learning material regardless of discipline. As an undergrad, it was limited to PowerPoint presentations.

I currently work as the Digital Humanities Graduate Research Assistant at Fenwick Library at George Mason’s Fairfax Campus, and my duties are to help the research librarians within the humanities research tools that they feel might be of use. The one tool that they have the most inclination towards using is Omeka. As such, I created an exhibit for them that I used to both learn the system, and to give tutorials to fellow graduate students. The introductory course for the Digital Humanities certificate provided a wide range of projects that have been created within DH, and a few of the tools that are available for future use.

My experience in history so far has been in regards to research and writing essays and theses, and I have little experience in creating projects for the public. The only project I have done in public history was the exhibit of Gunston Hall that I completed using Omeka. Given my background in History, I am excited to learn more about the process of creating historical projects for the public. I have experience writing history and visiting libraries and museums, but I am curious about the process of creating the exhibits that I have visited.

Michael Roth