The name of this blog is “Public History Goes Digital” for a reason. Today, public historians strive to reach as many people as possible and the internet’s seemingly infinite space and open accessibility makes it much easier. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig discuss just this in their book Digital History. They state,
In the past two decades, new media and new technologies have challenged historians to rethink the ways that they research, write, present, and teach about the past.
One of the many benefits of living in this digital age is the direct access to so many historical documents and methods of sharing information. To quote Cohen and Rosenzweig again, “to those who previously had no easy access, online archives open locked doors.” People can be on a computer in Washington, D.C. and take a tour of a museum in Paris. They can compare photos of a street in the 1920s to what that street looks like now on their phone as they walk through that neighborhood.
But, are historians succeeding at reaching the masses and serving them well?
Rebecca Onion’s “Snapshots of History” laments how twitter accounts like @HistoryinPics share historic photos without proper attribution, external links, or detailed captions, yet are wildly popular, some even with upwards of a million followers. People love to see old photos, particularly of famous figures or events. So why do these informal, and often contextually inadequate, accounts speak to so many people when Rebecca’s own twitter account @SlateVault has less than 10,000 followers? She does essentially the same thing, but with much more text. Is that the problem? Despite their best events to slash their word counts on the web, are historians still overwhelming audiences with facts and knowledge?
Stephen Robertson accredits part of the problem to the blurred lines between digital history and digital humanities. He says that “efforts to extend the conversation about digital history beyond the digitally fluent […] are not helped by calling our work ‘digital humanities.’” Historians are so wrapped up in internal dialogues with their colleagues and with those already in the digital world that they sometimes exclude the audiences they want to reach. If viewers don’t care about a photo’s citation, they certainly don’t care if what they are looking at qualifies as one form of digital history or another.
So is that the key? Do we need to stop over thinking and simplify our methods of promoting accurate history? Well, no.
True that people often want basic information, but there are times when they crave more and times when they need more. They should not have to be formally trained historians to find this information. Everyone knows to go to Google first, but do people know about how many fully digitized documents are on Internet Archive? What about Archive Grid or even the amazing collection of photographs at Library of Congress? These places shouldn’t be secrets. As a public historian and as a trained historian, I want people searching through these places, not pinterest, not other twitter accounts. I would even take Wikipedia over those sites because while that is also a collaborative effort, people tend to monitor it so carefully that truly outlandish posts disappear fairly quickly.
These fun history accounts, like @HistoryinPics, prove that people clearly want to learn about the past, but are they getting the full story? Are they even getting enough of the story?
Rebecca Onion brings up many valid points. These accounts should give credit where credit is due. These photos came from somewhere and belong to someone, so if the account updaters can find this information, they should include it. Hyperlinks mean that you don’t even need to actually say a photo is from the Library of Congress, you can just link to it within your caption.
More importantly, though, people need to know the context. The date, the location, the photographer, the publisher—this all informs the historical record and it just may change the story. Sometimes, the context behind the photo is even more interesting than the photo itself. Providing these details or a simple link to an outside source enables site visitors to discover the “joy of the historical rabbit hole,” as Onion so aptly puts it.
But, realistically speaking, no matter how often or loud historians criticize these twitter accounts, they will not change their practices overnight. Instead, public historians should focus on improving their own digital history skills and increasing their audience base. Social media and the internet offer an incredible opportunity to advance history, so why are the historians not the primary ones advancing it?
As much as it may make historians cringe that only a handful of people view their posts when compared to @HistoryinPics, they should avoid pandering to that level of inaccuracy. We know better and we are better. So yes, cater to your audiences, to an extent, but above all, keep the information accurate (as best as you can) and flowing.
Find something interesting and share it. Say what it is, who it is, when it’s from, and then link to other information. That’s all that is really necessary. Keep it short and sweet, but tease the viewers with other information. Give them a white rabbit to follow and hope they fall down the rabbit hole like we all did.