Or, rather, the future of public history. What is public history, you ask? Public History is the decades-old-yet-somehow-still-considered-new-discipline of history. It is, as the name suggests, applied history, as in, ‘study of history applied to the real world, and how it relates to real people- i.e., the contemporary public”. It is a sad, though often unacknowledged fact that the history which academics study and the history that the public knows are quite different things. Public Historians work to bridge- and close!- that gap.
You will find Public Historians anywhere you encounter history. Museums obviously come to mind, along with governmental archives, historical sites and historical societies. Less obvious places include corporate archives, television stations, movie studios, classrooms and everywhere online. Remember, the Public is just as important as the History!
The focus of this blog ( and indeed, this inaugural post) is on how the Digital Age- what we’re living in now- has changed the practice of Public History and why these adaptations had to happen.
The greatest change has been wrought by none other than the medium by which we communicate: The Internet. Although it is certainly true that much of what we see on the Internet is perhaps less trustworthy than we would hope, there are nevertheless thousands of reliable and useful databases, sites and collections- both free and pay-to-access- available. Researching is no longer confined to the academic, who can access libraries and archives with more ease than the average person. Of course, there are valuable resources that are not online, but there is enough to satisfy the interested amateur. No longer does history need to be an expensive hobby. Now, the academic and the amateur have something to talk about- if their interests collide. Amateur historians seem to be either genealogists or collectors, concerned with their great-grandmothers and their stash of eighteenth century buttons. Academic historians usually are not. Nevertheless, no matter what sort of history they are researching, the public are at least interested, which is really the point.
History is far more than the written word, of course. Many find that the material remains of the past- the artefacts and objects one finds in a museum, for example- are the most inspiring. One may read an account of Eighteenth Century Clothing and perhaps imagine what it was like, but to view a display is to visualize the past. With collections from galleries, archives and museums, it seems actually visiting a museum is unnecessary. Although certainly it is possible, artefacts do see to lose something when you view them through a screen. Visiting every museum that you wish is often not practical or possible, but perhaps it is still preferable.
Naturally, Public Historians are concerned with more than museum visits and family history, but they still indicate what we are about. That public connection- the interested every man, the enthusiastic adolescent, the grandmother-cum-researcher- is what we are interested in. The Internet is the ultimate disseminator of knowledge, for through it we can learn anything. Suddenly, we, as the connectors between the masses and masters sound unnecessary.
It’s unlikely that Public History will be gone any time soon. As indicated, the history that people wish to know, and the history that they should know suffered a serious disconnect. We serve to spark interest, to make information available, to make academic findings accessible. It seems that the best way to do this will involve that which many are already involved in- The Internet.
Scott W. E. Dickinson,
Digital Bridge Builder