Final Thoughts (Final Exam)

Getting the Point Across

How are digital tools reshaping the field of history?

To me, the answer to this questions has been apparent to me throughout the entire semester as I have participated in a graduate level digital history class. Digital tools are reshaping history by finally connecting the general public to real, honest history in a meaningful way, allowing them to make it personal and engage with it directly. They become knowledge-holders, and are on the inside instead of the outside of the circle.

In Brenda Trofanenko’s article, “Playing Into the Past,” the author argues that public history museums have always been a place of education for the public, and have been accepted and respected because of this.1 However, Trofanenko goes on to explain that this has led to a specific narrative of American history to be presented to the public.

If this is true, then digital tools are one way to counteract this and make history more realistic, more accessible, and more personal for the average modern museum goer or high school student. Trofanenko claims that using digital technologies to make history “playful” can help engage audiences more deeply than traditional methods of presenting exhibits in museums, and can consequently counteract the privileged and oversimplified interpretations in museums of objects, which cast the museum as a “knowledge holder” and everyone else as needing to beg for access to that knowledge.2

They can make history in museums draw more people in, and spark more curiosity and inspiration in visitors to explore historical ideas and topics, instead of taking a simple one or two sentence interpretation of a dress such as the following, made in 1750 by a Native American craftswoman at face value, because the object contains so much more significance and a longer story than that; “Cherokee ceremonial dress, Western North Carolina, circa 1750.”

By causing a public audience to want to know more and to realize that there is more to an object in an exhibit than what the museum says, therefore not seeing the museum as the end all be all of historical knowledge, voices that have been silenced throughout history can be given a chance to speak, and public audiences are also able to learn the true history of their country more easily, because they will seek it out, counteracting harmful narratives of the past. Consequently, this deeper engagement and curiosity causes them to make more personal connections to history and to how it has impacted their present society.

Another example is the augmented reality game, Tecumseh Lies Here, created by public history professors Timothy Compeau and Robert MacDougall. This game captivated the attention of their students, and led them to completely immerse themselves in learning about the subject and trying to find answers to the various mysteries in the game.

While the authors admit that this costs a lot of time and money, it is important for consideration in both schools and museums, because it makes history personal. The students learned way more about the topic than they could have from a textbook, and in a way that did not relegate history to the title of “boring,” and also did not place history on a pedestal of knowledge and superiority that no common person could touch.

The authors claimed that they wanted to have students see what it was like to do history from the bottom up, starting with “fragmentary remains” of the past and working up to find the answers. The students went through this process, and then came out with a stronger knowledge. However, this game and its success also proves that anyone can do history.3

Implementing this in a museum setting, with the right money and help, could cause the public to feel like they are part of the story of history, see its importance, connect with it, and carry on learning about it because of their experience. If the public became as invested in a research project as these students did, that would be a huge change from the traditional mode of historical research. This tool changes history because it gets the public involved in the process of history, debunking the myth that historians are the only ones who know anything.

My last example is that digitization of historical archives and collections, and digital tools that aid in researching topics online, along with online historical projects specifically catered to an audience,4 create a way for the average person to pursue a historical interest, become involved in historical practice, and learn history, without leaving their home. They do not have to pay to go to the museum or to a park, and they don’t have to drive to a certain place or attend university classes. They can engage on their couch.

For instance, visualization and spatial history projects like the one I had to do for this class, and this one from Stanford University,5 allow those interested in geography and where history has taken place to look over the projects from their computer, learn something new, be inspired, research, and carry on their new knowledge to the next person and to their next interaction with history, all without going anywhere.

Essentially, these tools do much the same thing as a museum, but they require less work on the part of the audience, which is a big change from normal historical practice. It also changes history because it makes it easier for audiences to access topics and research related to their interests quickly from home, meaning they have more time to engage with it and they are personally invested because they choose what to look at and what they want to research further, and what links to follow. People do not have to depend on historians to tell them in a book or at a museum about something. They can seek out answers for themselves.


  1. Brenda Trofanenko, “Playing Into the Past: Reconsidering the Educational Promise of Public History Exhibits,” in Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology, edited by Kevin Kee (Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan UP, 2014): 257-269.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Timothy Compeau and Robert MacDougall, “Tecumseh Returns: A History Game in Alternate Reality, Augmented Reality, and Reality,” in Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History, edited by Kevin Kee and Timothy Compeau (Ann Arbor, MI, Michigan UP: 2019): 176-180.
  4. Sheila A. Brennan, “Public, First,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, first edition, chapter 32 (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
  5. Richard White, “What Is Spatial History?” in the Spatial History Project (Stanford University Spatial History Lab, working paper, February 1, 2010).

Project: Visualization

American Women at War: Nurses of World War II

For my Omeka site, entitled “US Nurses in World War II,” I focused on trying to encapsulate the large narrative of the thousands of American women who served as healers during the Second World War. My goal was to learn more about the topic through this project, in order to help me come up with a research question for my MA thesis. The goal for the site and my visualization project was to expand the knowledge of the general public about the unique experiences these women had when serving at home and on the front during the war, and to show people that it was not a glamorous job. I want viewers to look through it and understand the deep impact these women had on the people they treated, those observing them, and the future of women in the US military.

The main research questions I had going into these projects were; Why did these women serve? Where did they serve? What was it like to be a nurse during World War II? How did they impact women’s history? How did they impact those that they cared for, and what does that say about their importance?

Many people feel that nurses during WWII were not breaking any gender barriers, and most women’s historians seem to spend more time praising and analyzing the women who stayed at home and entered the workforce, replacing men in factories and businesses, or the women who joined the military but did not serve as nurses. From what I have read so far in my historiography on my topic (I’m still in the early stages of it all), nurses are not seen as anything special to women’s history outside of the fact that they comforted and healed so many. Apparently, we already crossed that bridge with Civil War nursing, and so nothing after that is particularly striking in terms of the development of American women.

I am still trying to formulate the exact argument I will make, and the exact research questions I have, but one main thing that I can’t ignore is that I HATE this viewpoint that nurses in WWII contributed next to nothing to the narrative of American women’s history. I am a believer in agency, and as I argued in the last thesis I wrote, in undergrad, these women knew what they were doing. They saw an opportunity, and they took it for a reason. They were offered places in the military, normally closed to women, in an unprecedented amount during this war, and they got away with it more easily than the WACs, WAVES, SARS, and other female military personnel who chose roles that were not related to medicine.

The Problem of Abundance

The Needle in the Haystack

This week’s readings got me thinking about the overabundance of online source material we have for both historical research and for daily information necessary for keeping up with current events. The amount and variety of information available to students and everyone else in the digital age is overwhelming, and can cause people to simply give up trying to find accurate, unbiased information, as Dan Cohen explains in his article entitled “What We Learned from Studying the News Consumption Habits of College Students.” This in turn relates to Ian Milligan’s chapter, “Learning to See the Past at Scale,” in the book, “Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History.” In his chapter, Milligan describes in detail methods for handling an overabundance of sources on the web, and how to archive them.

While this abundance can be beneficial for students and scholars everywhere, making the need to visit physical libraries often obsolete, and making the research process possible even during a global pandemic, there are clear issues that can and do arise. I personally resonated with Cohen’s article, because I only keep up with the news when I am living with my parents, and consequently my news comes from multiple TV sources. Outside of that, I only get news from talking to other people and Facebook, and maybe my CNN app sometimes. I truly find the time it takes to closely analyze my news sources and consult each one every single day, searching endlessly for reliable information, to be exhausting, especially on top of my graduate school work and other responsibilities. Along with that, the simple amount of information that hits me when I do consult several news sources “paralyzes” me, as Cohen mentions, and often it is so full of negative, dire news that it puts me in a bad state of mind as well. Am I the only graduate student/young professional who feels this way?

I agree with Cohen’s assessment that “A more active stance by librarians, journalists, educators, and others who convey truth-seeking habits is essential.” I agree that, as Cohen says, it is problematic that only 7% of college students have consulted their local librarian today. However, how should these people step up to the plate? What should they be doing more of in order to help with this problem? Cohen claims that students have a lack of “temporal bandwidth,” and are always stuck worrying about the now instead of being able to see the bigger picture, thanks to social media and excess information. How are we to combat this? How do I, as a grad student myself, combat this in my own life? While being informed as a global citizen is important, I have immediate concerns like classes, Covid19, and internships to be concerned with. The more “stuff” that gets piled into our minds to worry about will only make us less capable of remembering information, planning wisely for the future, and doing adequate work. I, and most other students I know, cannot contain both out current worries and concerns, historical worries and concerns, and future ones in our heads, along with everyone else’s current issues, without falling apart. Most working adults should not have to do this either, or cannot do it! I would have liked for Cohen to have provided some possible solutions to the problem he was highlighting in his article, since the way it is written seems to just add one more thing to the plate of worries.

In relation to digital history, the experience of trying to keep up with the news is quite similar. Hunting for historical sources can be hit or miss, depending in your topic, and sometimes, the amount of websites and articles and photos and videos is so overwhelming that an amateur researcher, such as a college or grad student, doesn’t even know where to start or how to narrow themselves down enough to actually learn something from their research and make a contribution to the field of history. Searching through thousands of articles from just one search that you thought was fairly specific takes too much time and energy to waste. endlessly tracing the web for metadata on a photograph that has been used countless times by different people is a tremendous waste of time, especially for those who don’t know about TinEye, a site that helps you find origins of images more easily. Knowing what research question to settle with and follow can be like running on a hamster wheel, and sometimes, it takes forever to find a topic that other people haven’t covered (hence the abundance of historical information available stressing people out in the first place). While digital history and a variety of sources are a gift, I agree that it should be managed properly, but I don’t know how to accomplish that, and apparently, neither did Cohen…

Digital and Public History

Sharing the Wealth

The readings for this week got me thinking about several complex issues in the field of public history today. One is the debate over whether or not museums and other public history institutions are meant to hold knowledge with authority and attract visitors based on this merit alone, instead of making historical practice and learning a collaborative effort. The other is the importance history can hold in constructing personal, family, regional, and national identities and narratives, and how public history is involved in that.

For example, in her article, “Playing Into the Past,” Brenda Trofanenko calls attention to the question of whether or not museums are focusing more on “experiential and performative aspects in exhibitions,” instead of individual learning and engagement with objects on display. This issue has many layers, but the one that sticks out to me is the fact that museums, as Trofanenko’s article later proves with high school students, adopt technology experimentally, focusing on impressing their audiences, yet they fail in that mission. The students in the article claimed that they did not experience a deeper level of learning because of the use of technology in the National Museum of American History. This was because the technology had a mostly aesthetic function, such as video and photo technology, instead of an interactive function.

If museums, especially the nation’s most well-known museums like the Smithsonian, subscribes to the idea of impressing an audience over sharing knowledge, that presents a problem for the field of history and public history. It is an ineffective use of digital tools for spreading historical knowledge, and it is based on the idea that museums are there to hoard knowledge and hand it out, as if it were granted to the visitor as a reward for visiting, instead of facilitating and cultivating individual growth and learning about history for visitors in an open, interactive way.

Visitors to museums often read a standard interpretation about an object, and then that is all they take away from it, passively moving through a line of more objects presented in the exact same way. This is not interactive enough to foster critical thinking about the objects and their place in history, or to establish connections between the objects, their history, and the modern identity of visitors. Also, it is one interpretation made by an authority, and depending on who interpreted it and what their biases are, could be contributing to the silencing of different narratives related to the object. For more info about this concept, I highly recommend checking out Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, by Michel-Rolph Trouillot.

One possible scenario of this might be interpreting an object created by an enslaved craftsman without including the enslaved individual’s story in the interpretation. For example, MESDA (The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts) in Winston-Salem, has several stoneware jars in their collection created by the enslaved craftsman David Drake, otherwise known as Dave. He inscribed his name into his work, as can be seen in the picture below, courtesy of the MESDA database website:

If those who interpret this object at the museum fail to include mention of and adequate attention to the story behind the name on the jar, they do a disservice to visitors and to the descendants of David, because they are silencing a story that deserves to be told and is historical truth. They are also doing a disservice to Dave himself, by ignoring his experience and talent. Not to mention, leaving out an explanation of the name on the jars leaves visitors with more questions than answers to begin with. Ultimately, this practice is also a way racism and discrimination can be perpetuated, even unintentionally. This is just one danger of museums hoarding knowledge and not promoting interactive interpretation and viewing of objects.

Another danger is that people don’t get to connect to the objects, and to the stories behind them. Therefore, connections to modern life and to current events are also not made in the minds of visitors. They need access to further information about objects, and inspiration to pursue that information, in order to truly carry something away from a museum visit. This is where digitization and the discussion of the project the students in Trofanenko’s article come in.

The students spent a long period looking at objects and exhibits in the National Museum of American History, specifically in the exhibit entitled “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War,” which was actually related to a History Channel documentary of the same name. Students were tasked with creating a project relating history to identity, and were overwhelmingly successful. They had to question the authority of the information at the museum and how that information could go further than the basic interpretations the museum provided. Their deeper learning involved making connections between the objects they saw and a larger American historical experience of warfare, and consequently warfare’s impact on American societal development, moving into modernity.

This is something the author stresses youth should be able to do in museums, and I agree, but I also think adults should be able to do this as well. This requires, in part, access to information outside of the museum’s basic interpretation of the object, such as online data. Museums are slowly gravitating toward this idea, but have not in the past, perpetuating their identity as hoarders of knowledge, instead of completing the mission to educate people about history and their objects they have collected through facilitating learning with a collaborative attitude, promoting individual visitor research about objects instead of taking on an attitude of finality of fact in their interpretations.

One museum that I feel does this well is MESDA, because they provide access to their objects on their online collections database, which is how I had access to the picture of Dave’s jar. Not only does this catalog the objects, it also provides all the necessary information that the museum staff possess about the object in order for viewers to take that information and try to connect it to other info and further research on the object. This is an open way to communicate information to audiences about objects, and gives them insight into the museum’s knowledge. Providing more online databases for museums like this could help audiences feel less like passive viewers and more like active learners.

This concept also relates to the article by Sheila Brennan, entitled “Public, First,” where she mentions the concept of shared authority in terms of digital humanities and public history, coined by oral historian Michael Frisch. Basically, reconsidering who has the right to be the holder of knowledge, and who can participate in creating and sharing knowledge about an object or exhibition. In “Pedagogies of Race: Digital Humanities in the Age of Ferguson,” by Amy E. Earnhart and Toniesha Taylor, this concept is taken further when students and members of the community were invited to participate in a project called “White Violence, Black Resistance,” in which they were to help document and interpret “historical moments of racial conflict” digitally.

To me, including people in projects like this is a museum or archive acting as facilitators of learning and making connections to history instead of hoarders of knowledge, and is an exciting possibility for engaging the public in an active, instead of a passive way with history, both digitally and in person. All Americans, not just historians, have the opportunity to see how their past connects to their present and how history has significance to their lives, which is ultimately what needs to happen to keep the field of public history, and history in general, alive.

Sharing Scholarship

“Old Warhorses”

The readings for this week focus on the seemingly necessary evolution of the field of history to include digital scholarship and work as valid projects for professional historians to earn merit from. They also support the idea that scholarship must incorporate more digital tools and move toward new digital platforms in order to best serve a changing world.

Jo Guldi’s article entitled, “Reinventing the Academic Journal,” was of particular interest to me. Changes in how academic journals are used, presented, and published will have a significant impact on my research methods and ease of research process as a young historian in my student career and professional career. Guldi claims that we need to do away with “the old warhorses” of traditional peer reviewed journal articles and books as our main method of presenting academic history and evaluating the merit of historians.

Guldi also argues that journals should incorporate “interoperability” with search tools and other web tools while becoming more easily accessible to public audiences. Guldi states that this will help with ease of searching for researchers, as well as allow for more intense peer review of articles because they are accessible to a large audience of reviewers both professional and amateur.

While I agree that journals must adapt to changes in the way research is done in order to stay relevant in the field, and that increased ease of searching during the research process is helpful, I have reservations about the idea of this universal peer review suggested. Guldi claims that this access puts an article through much more rigorous peer evaluation than traditional methods of peer review for paper journals.

While this might be true, I worry that allowing such a wide base of reviewers can lead to commentary from those who do not know enough about the subject material clogging up the review process. It also seems like the review would never end. As Guldi suggests, this method could lead to a work being edited forever, and never being fully finished. To me, this seems a bit impractical for busy historians to deal with, and I wonder how much of a good thing (peer review) can be too much? When should we draw the line and say something is complete?

Another striking part of this article was when Guldi suggests that journals need to allow themselves to change into online curatorial sites for scholarship and historical work of different mediums, instead of just traditional peer reviewed written work. This is an intriguing concept, because it sounds great on paper, but makes me nervous to think about in practice. I already struggle to find secondary source material when researching because of the vast amount of material kept in the stricter databases like JSTOR and others that focus on traditional written mediums. The amount of documents is overwhelming, especially when trying to narrow down a research question. Adding videos, photos, lists, syllabi, lectures, abstracts, and blogs would only make this problem worse.

This is especially relevant when dealing with budding historians at the undergraduate and masters level, who are truly experiencing researching for the first time in the field. It might just put them off of the rewarding parts of researching and learning about a topic. As mentioned before, there may be too much of a good thing…I’m really not sure where I stand on this, because I can definitely see the positive aspect of having all types of resources in one database or site, and expanding ideas of what counts as scholarship, but I hesitate. What do you all think?

Yes, historical scholarship, including journals, must evolve to meet the research and learning needs of future historians in the digital age. However, I have to consider the fact that thousands of historians have put so much effort and time into traditional methods of researching and presenting their scholarship, that it seems a waste and unfair to disregard the “old warhorse” methods. I also wonder what potential issues could arise from the changes to journals suggested by Guldi, and if the benefits can outweigh or negate these concerns?

Publishing on the Web

Should We Value Digital Scholarship?

Does Digital History Count as Scholarship?:
In several of the readings for this week, I noticed that the main theme was not only about practical ways to publish content online, but also how that content is valued. In Alex Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett’s piece, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy,” the authors talk about the informality of blogging, but also discuss the ways in which this informality can reach people. They emphasize that “dense writing deters an audience” and for non-historians “the historical blogger can help decode the field.” This makes blogging invaluable for reaching a wider public and catching interest. Yet, the authors remind readers that the importance of blogs (and really digital scholarship in general) is being questioned. Sloppy writing, descent into professional gossip, inaccurate information, and the biased nature of opinion are all points of criticism. These are valid concerns, but adaptation and willingness to change for the enrichment of the field of history, as well as for the benefit of those who wish to learn from historians but need to do so in a different way than traditional scholarship, is something that must be considered here.

New Methods of Imparting Knowledge:
Blogging is quickly becoming, if it hasn’t already, one of the main mediums of information exchange to vast amounts of people in an easily understandable way. If you google advice on blogging, you will find hundreds of different people telling you the best way to start, maintain, and improve a blog on almost any subject. The articles this class read over for discussion on this subject are only a few out of the mass of articles we could have looked at. Mignon Fogarty’s post, “How to Write a Great Blog Comment,” insists that one of the requirements for a good comment is that you respond to someone else’s work with an acceptable level of knowledge about the subject you are discussing. If this medium is becoming so important in the age of technological innovation we live in today, and if it clearly is something accessible to a giant audience, it already merits value as a communication tool. If you add to it the fact that people who may be experts in their chosen field, hobby, or really anything, can share their knowledge to help improve the lives of others, it seems that blogs and other digital tools should be held in higher esteem than they are by the academic community.

Audiences can learn so much about a historical topic from a website or blog in a shorter amount of time than it takes to read books and articles. The colors, images, and design aspects of online content also draw in more viewers of varying demographics than other media can. As a viewer with almost zero knowledge of the racial violence happening in Harlem during the Great Depression, I was impressed by the two online publications telling this history that were assigned for this class to read. The first website, “Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915-1930,” while a bit less user friendly than the second website, “Year of the Riot: Harlem in Disorder: A Spatial History of Race and Violence in the Great Depression,” it was helpful in showing me the context for the events surrounding race violence in this period. It also made it clear with informative captions and just a general representation of the geography both how many speakeasies and nightclubs actually existed at this time in Harlem that I had never actually thought about, along with the pure volume of violence that occurred at these places. I learned this information by simply clicking on the picture entitled “Nightlife” on the site’s home screen. This site is also a blog, making it even more relevant to this point of the importance of this type of digital media in the world of history. The author provides documentation of source materials used, and interestingly enough they are predominantly primary sources. Does this not make this site a piece of scholarly work worth appreciating and learning from? I learned more from the interactive and colorful nature of the website than I would have ever learned trying to skim through a book on the subject with few pictures.

The second website on Harlem, linked earlier, was even more informative than the first. The design was attractive but not distracting, and it drew me in to start clicking on links to learn more. The best part about this site is that it is still in progress, and is constantly updated with new information and improvements. Stephen Robertson, the creator of both sites, is working on a digital historical project and planning to continue building upon the work he did in his previous website/blog “Digital Harlem.” Looking over this ‘work in progress’ I have already learned more about the events mentioned than I would have thought upon first glance.

I say all of this to remind people that this kind of work is educating many people who don’t have the ability to learn more about historical topics through schooling and reading countless books and journals on important and relevant historical moments. Maybe this should be considered more valuable than it is? It could be bringing history forward as a field, acting as a way to reach wider public audiences and educate larger numbers of people on historical topics.

Cummings and Jarrett accurately sum up my feelings on the subject when they claim that we have to stop hoarding our knowledge and viewing ourselves as the only ones able to “master” it. They suggest approaching our knowledge in our field as curators. We can share the information we possess with a larger audience, and facilitate their learning of it, adding to the development of knowledge instead of keeping it to ourselves.