I signed up for this course because I believed I needed to know how to use current technologies on the web. Yet, the most influential takeaway I could have gathered from this course is that doing history on the web is not about being an expert on all digital technologies that exist in the current moment.
Rather, it is about honing the ability to learn, developing your adaptational skills, and conquering any fear of incompetency when you log onto a new website or try a new technological initiative. This is what our professor, Trevor Owens has brought up in several class meetings, and will be something I remind myself every time I try to bring history to audiences on the web, in whatever format that might be.
For example, this first clicked in during an “Ah Ha!” moment during Week 2, as I struggled to keep my sanity deciphering the differences between the Dublin Core categories on Omeka.net. I am not gonna lie, I questioned my career path a few times while creating my online collection (“What on earth is the difference between contributor and source? What do they mean by identifier??? If I can’t fill out these obscure categories, what good am I as a digital historian???”). Once I remembered that I was not aspiring to be a collections manager, that I only needed a working knowledge of omeka.net and the Dublin Core, the assignment became a lot easier to manage (both logistically and emotionally). The lesson was that digital history is about developing ones skills as a navigator, not as an expert on every working detail of one website. After all, the beauty of the web is that it is constantly evolving. And with that, so is the historical field.
Nowhere are the signs of change for historians more evident than on the World Wide Web.-Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History, Introduction.
I’ll be honest. At the beginning of this course I did not understand the magnitude of Rosenzweig’s statement. I grew up with the World Wide Web, I have never known a world without it. Our venture into the archival debate, which I believe Trevor Owens encapsulated best in the question, “What do you mean by archive?”, truly helped to ground my understanding of how the practice of history is rapidly changing. After all, archivists are actively debating how to define boundaries between their archives and the word’s liberal and diverse uses online. Does this mean denouncing the “appropriation” of the word ‘archive’ outside the field? Does this mean collaborating, and adjusting archival appraisal best practices for the World Wide Web? Does this mean reminding fellow archivists of the field’s own ever-evolving history? While the debate itself is fascinating, my biggest takeaway that week was that digital history is about negotiation. Change is always presenting itself to historians, and this is especially true on the World Wide Web. Yet my lesson from this debate was that best practices are the products of the decisions we make as a field about these changes.
Personally, this takeaway carried over into Week 3 when we discussed the issue of collection access in the digital age. Museums, conceptualized in a world without internet, seem as a collective to struggle with the expectations of this new digital world. As Sheila Brennan stated in her article Getting to the Stuff,
Overall, more history museums have websites and they provide basic information about the physical sites [since 2004], but most still are not engaging online visitors in meaningful ways.
Yet, this is much simpler to state than it is to solve, as we discussed in class that week. Whether it be time, staff capabilities, staff numbers, money or priority, there are always understandable reasons why museums are lagging online. Yet, understandable does not mean acceptable.
As stated before, I was quick to absorb Trevor Owen’s sentiment that the digital world is about the ability to adapt, not develop expertise. Yet I think another hurdle museums have to navigate in the digital world is the balance between quick adaptation and establishing expertise. After all, what are museums if not institutionalized experts on historical subjects? As I stated in a past blog, “online availability of resources matters if museums want to remain cultural authorities in the digital age.” While I observed the archival debate safely from a distance, this debate struck very close to home for me, the aspiring museum professional. The digital world is changing the meanings of preservation, collection and access. As Sebastian Chan and Aaron Chope of Cooper-Hewitt wrote about acquisitioning the Ipad app Planetary,
“No longer can objects be collected simply for their long term significance (or scarcity), but for the conversations that they enable the museum to engage in the contemporary moment.”
Museums preserve objects and ideas from the past, but they serve people in the present. This is one of the defining lessons I have learned as a public history masters student. All the hurdles that can prevent museums from creating an established presence online, or adapting with the ever-changing digital technologies, cannot distract from the importance of making sure museums break through those hurdles.
And more still, Michael Peter Edson is insightful when he argues that the digital world is exponentially expanding our potential audiences. It is rather mind blowing to sit back and think about the potential impact museums can have online. Yes, as much as I love my brick and mortar museums, I see his following point.
This is a critical issue that institutions will be contending with for decades to come: There’s just an enormous, humongous, gigantic audience out there connected to the Internet that is starving for authenticity, ideas, and meaning. We’re so accustomed to the scale of attention that we get from visitation to bricks-and-mortar buildings that it’s difficult to understand how big the Internet is—and how much attention, curiosity, and creativity a couple of billion people can have.
Many of the authors of our readings had ideas for how to address [fill in the blank] complications, whether it be open source collaboration, harnessing a volunteer community for digital projects, utilizing existing digital technologies like historypin.com or omeka.net, or harnessing the growing technology of mobile apps. And as I played around with our different digital assignments, I really saw the potential these technologies (or future inventions) can have to reach museum audiences on the web.
So, as I have restated throughout this post, my largest takeaway from this course is that adaptation is key in the digital world. My key challenge moving forward is one that many of the others pinpoint for museums and other public history sites as a whole. This is one that we discussed quite heavily in class, and one that I see myself continuing to discuss with future colleagues as I attempt to use digital technologies to reach my audiences in the future. That is, how do we navigate the everyday logistical challenges that surface as we attempt to adapt?
I said that coming into this course I wanted to develop skills in digital technologies, because I recognized the value the internet brings to the field of public history. As the class comes to a close, I am leaving with the idea that perhaps I understand the necessity of adaptation to be both of technological understanding and the ability to navigate around logistical obstacles that will always present themselves to the digital historian.