Digital and Public History

Audience and Information

Many of us in the class are public history majors. A recurring theme, no matter the class, is understanding your audience. I would like to pose a few questions to this theme. First, in attempting to understand an audience, is it possible that a curator is shaping their displayed collection, digital or physical, to simply bring in more visitors? If it is a digital collection, are they crafting their exhibits to get more views? By trying to understand your audience, is it possible that you are subconsciously finding ways to misconstrue information by worrying what your audience will think if you display what you think is the “truth?” This likely has more consequences in physical museums (due to overhead costs) than digital collections but there is likely to be a similar effect.

In Sheila Brennan’s essay, “Public, First,” Brennan discusses twentieth century public historians in the United States interpreting the public as “generalized and passive.” The errors in this way of thinking are obvious and have ethical implications. For those of us in Dr. Burns’ Material Culture class, this past week we read Is It Okay to Sell the Monet? edited by Julia Courtney. In the essays, there is discussion of the public domain, who owns the objects in a museum, and does a museum operate as a public trust? If a museum is a type of public trust, then viewing your public as generalized and passive is not meeting your goal as a museum. Clearly, there does need to be effort to understand your audience but is it possible to take this idea too far?

A digital source, say an Omeka collection, may not operate on those same fundamentals as a physical museum space. While you are creating an essentially public resource, your goals are likely to be drastically different. It is very possible your digital project can be accessed by the general public, but it is meant mostly to be accessed by other people in your field or as a pedagogical resource (like for undergraduate students).

It does feel like digital history and public history go together well. Digital humanities in general seem to have similar goals to that of a public historian. There are limitations, however. Stemming from the idea of trying to understand your audience, there is the debate and challenge over digitizing archival collections as covered in Why Don’t Archivists Digitize Everything? by the Archives @ Pama. As society continuously moves into the digital realm, the newer generations expect resources to be available digitally. Archives have recognized this and there is movement to move primary source documents to a digital collection. Having physical copies, and having to make a trip to an archive, is an incredibly burdensome task. As Dr. Sibaja mentioned, some are lucky enough to simply make a trip to your local state archive. Others, however, may have to make a long and grueling trip overseas to perform research.

Regardless of the distance traveled, there seems to be a recurring practice: finding a way to change relevant documents found to a digital medium. The standard practice, currently, seems to be taking pictures to amass a large digital archive for yourself. If everyone is doing that, then why not make the archive digital entirely? The Archives @ Pama make the argument of the sheer number of documents an archive has. The process would be enormous, not impossible, but would require immense amounts of time and money. Typically, as stated by Pama, this would require grants and typically a third party due to the small staff size of an archive. Again, there seems to be an issue of balance. It is probably not feasible to make everything digital. To meet that balance, documents that are heavily damaged and at great risk of being destroyed should probably be digitized. New documents that are donated should also likely be digitized to keep pace with trends in digitization. The majority of existing collections, however, should probably remain in physical form until they are worn from touch and exposure (and then move to a digital format).

As a side note, the Archives @ Pama article had a picture of a document that was scanned with a folded corner and mentioned how this hid potentially relevant information. That is just lazy work and I see no reason why the scan could not have been redone on the spot (maybe taking an additional 15 seconds?).

Sharing Scholarship

Ye Olde Orthodoxy

The readings for the week heavily challenge the hold that ‘formal’ academic journals have on academia and scholarship in general, especially within the humanities. The challenge has come with opposition but for what reason? I see a few angles relevant to conserving orthodox styles of academia and literature.

First, there is an obvious agency to preserve hierarchy and maintain a high-barrier of entry within academia. The printed and “reputable” journals serve as a tool to maintain such standards that fuel the university press income system briefly outlined in “Reinventing the Academic Journal.” While seemingly malevolent, the logic is understandable. The internet, and digital academics as a whole, is a challenge to this hierarchy which only serves to increase efforts to maintain the current orthodoxy in publishing and availability of seemingly credible information.

The other argument is a genuine concern for the quality of information. This has been a topic of debate multiple times within the class readings as well as in the discussions. Anyone can publish online. It is a complete toss-up as to whether information will be complete conjecture being branded as truth or actual credible research simply presented in an easily accessible digital medium. From this side of the argument, preserving the current system of shielding information behind pay-walls and credentials is a matter of necessity when it comes to maintaining a proper level of credibility, which is the sole characteristic that draws business to a university, or university press, initially.

With those arguments presented, progressive ideology relating to information access seems to be prevailing within academia. With guidelines being approved in recent years for digital dissertations at George Mason University, it is safe to assume that other institutions will continue along this trend. In that blog post, Mullen discusses a developing concept of those pursuing graduate school (especially doctoral degrees) for other reasons than becoming a college professor. A clear trend in academics is the steadily dwindling job markets for tenure-track positions. Applicants to doctoral programs in the humanities may swap to unorthodox applications of the formal training and knowledge as they find themselves (either willingly or not) pursuing careers in areas outside of academia. For those students that intend to not pursue an academic job, the traditional dissertation may not be well-suited to their needs.

A transition to digital dissertations (or incorporating hybrid ones) is perhaps too obvious of an example. Obviously, a dissertation is an example of “digital scholarship” as outlined in “Making Digital Scholarship Count.” In the book, Kelly makes the distinction between digital work and digital scholarship. While digital scholarship is likely receiving the bulk of the attention in the debate, digital work as a whole needs recognition and acknowledgement as this is the area that will likely have the most impact on society as a whole. Whether digital or print, it is unlikely that more than a small handful of people will ever read or view a person’s dissertation. The time necessary to read compact academic prose is simply not a worthwhile investment to all except the most intense enthusiasts. An online project, however, is easily available to anyone.

The online project serves multiple purposes. While it is easy to access, it also serves as an easy middle-ground between those with progressive and conservative mindsets concerning academic integrity and credibility. When done properly, online projects in the form of easy-to-navigate websites both further digitization while also providing an outlet to advertise a more formal piece of literature, such as a book for the individual or, more likely, a university press.

I see no reason to inhibit the growth of digital scholarship or work. George Mason makes a good case. Both traditional, hybrid, and digital dissertations should me made available on a case by case basis. With a rapidly evolving private and academic job market, catering academic training to the individual is going to become increasingly important. I say it is time to move forward, however, no systems need to be demolished. Let us learn to work within the ye olde orthodoxy of academic publishing, and within digital work and scholarship, to make a system that works for all.

Publishing on the Web

Blogging and Various Online Scholarship

Our readings for this week challenge conventions in scholarly writing. The common theme, or question rather, throughout the readings ask if it is possible to consider online writing endeavors as ‘scholarly.’ The Cummings and Jarrett piece takes a fence-sitting approach by attempting to give blogging an appropriate place. I felt as if parameters were being set around the medium which doesn’t seem appropriate for something being freely published to the internet. The argument is made that serious writing projects, like a journal submission, should remain conventional while blogging and other internet mediums, like a wiki, should be left “for the rest of the time.”

Obviously, the main scrutiny of freely published internet works is that the peer-review process is nonexistent. You may occasionally have a panel of ‘experts’ that maintain watch over certain wikis but ultimately the internet seems to be a true test of thinking for yourself. I believe blogging, and other similar free-publishing digital works cannot be examples of true scholarship. There is a risk associated with elevating blogs and other similar mediums to the level of recognized scholarly work.

I believe that trends in academia slowly trickle into the mainstream over slow periods of time. Given the nature of the internet, such trends are likely to occur at faster paces. One of those trends could easily be recognizing blogs as accurate sources of information. Where do we draw the line? Are blogs written by Appalachian State University graduate students to be considered scholarship? Is App not prestigious enough? What about Duke? If the idea of blogs becoming recognized sources of accurate scholarly work becomes popular, then a trend of so-called ‘credible’ blogs would likely follow.

Taking internet sources at face value, and teaching the public that it could potentially be okay to do so, could be detrimental to society. Such things are already somewhat prevalent. Fake news persuades political opinions, affects national health and safety, and runs the risk of placing peer-reviewed scholarship back years. Obviously these are my own highly opinionated statements based on how I interpreted the readings.

With that out of the way, other parts of our readings focused on blogging in general and what makes a good blog. The Quicksprout article suggests that longer blog posts, those over 1500 words, are more enjoyable for readers and tend to draw more traffic. While some data is given (who can refuse data from charts, right?) this is still something I am hesitant about. The article comes with a counterargument, however, that if you can say something in 100 words instead of 2000, then you should do so. I would think this is something relevant to what kind of blog you are writing. If you simply created a free blogger account to share some ideas with the random public, without the hope or need for monetization, then shorter posts to simply spew a few ideas onto a page is useful. If you are creating content for subscribing readers, then longer blog posts are surely going to be more successful. I’m certainly open to thoughts here.

The final point I would like to discuss here is Rule #3 from Fogarty (Quick and Dirty Tips). I discussed the idea of placing parameters over something that should be a free area for thinking and creativity at the beginning of this post. By default, a blog post will likely make a point, be motivated, and provide context (or at least be contextual enough where it could be inferred). Respect is a unique parameter to place on a post.

Obviously here, in an academically sanctioned environment, respect should come first. In an anonymous private blog you made to rant about and verbally destroy your most hated sports team, is respect really part of the equation? I suppose this relates back to the idea of scholarship in blogging. Respect should always be priority in scholarship and if you were attempting to create a scholarly blog then perhaps respect IS a parameter you should place on your work. I will leave this with one lasting thought. During my short 1.2 semesters here, I have read many passive-aggressive scholarly pieces that I would absolutely say fall short of respect and tolerance.

If you were in Dr. Goff’s reading seminar last semester, you may recall my review of To Serve God and Wal-Mart by Bethany Moreton. If you were not, the work was essentially about how Wal-Mart has had noticeable political influence among voters. Moreton frequently refers to conservatives as “Wal-Mart voters.” No matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on, you would expect scholarly work to be a bit more respectful, but that is not always the case. If such loose standards exist within traditional academic writing already, is it not hypocritical to ask the same of a simple blog?