Category Archives: Definitions

What is Public History?

Defining public history is complicated, as the field itself has been somewhat undefined, or has lacked definition. As historian Ronald Grele puts it, “those of us who currently work in the field have not clearly defined what it is we do, why we do it, and why it is an alternative to other forms of historical effort” (Grele 41). In order to attempt to define public history for this blog post, I will try to answer the questions Grele asks in the article title: “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the goal of a public historian?”

Whose Public?

Grele begins to answer this question by examining who “the public” has been to historians in the past. He claims first that historians have always had a public, even from the earliest point in history (Grele 41). But from the mid-nineteenth century to today, historians have generally addressed “the literate middle class” (42). Then, as the profession of the historian expanded in the recent centuries, this definition narrowed to historian’s peers: other academics and students (42).

The study of history was once again altered, as historians began to encounter the local history movement (Grele 42). By working within the bounds of local history, the historian’s “public” was finally beyond the bounds of the classroom. Ultimately, I believe this is the “public” that is in the definition of public history: it is the non-academic world, the general public.

Whose History?

If, for so long, historians worked for other historians,  then it is fair to say that history was purely for academics. However, the public history movement suggests that history does not purely belong to the historians. It suggests that history belongs to everyone and that everyone has a right to understand and interact with history.

What is the goal of a public historian?

Grill suggests that the field of public history has changed the definition of the role of the historian (48). Public history, according to Grele, “promises us a society in which a broad public participates in the construction of its own history” (48).

I believe the goal of the public historian is to engage with the general public on history projects, and to help the general public become engaged with history.

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Though I can create a very broad definition of public history, it is also true that there is not a generally agreed upon definition of this field. As Dichtl and Townsend (2009) note, when surveying historians about whether they consider themselves public historians, many noted that they did not feel comfortable confining themselves to such a label, or noted that they had no official training in public history. So, in many cases, even public historians are unsure of a clear definition for public history.

However, because the definition of public history tends to be very broad, so is the variety of work public historians do. Public historians are often museum professionals, archivists, preservationists, cultural resource managers, curators, historical interpreters, and much more (National Council on Public History).

Sources:

Dichtl, John and Robert B. Townsend. “A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals.” American Historical Association (2009)<https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2009/a-picture-of-public-history>

Grele, Ronald J. “Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian?” The Public Historian,  3  (1981): 40-48.

National Council on Public History. “About the Field.” Indiana University-Purdue University. <http://ncph.org/what-is-public-history/about-the-field/>

Digitization

The process of digitization allows for objects to be viewed from anywhere, online. While many aspects of objects can be viewed through digitization there are many that cannot.

Depending on the quality of the picture, a viewer may be able to see the colors, words, and textures of the object. Based on what else is in the photo, one might be able to analyze the size of the object. However, this could be difficult. Through just a picture of the object, digitization does not allow for sounds and smells of objects.

Other forms of digitization might use videography to show these other aspects of the objects. A viewer might be able to get a better understanding of the object’s size, sounds, etc. through taking a video of the object.

Digitization is incredibly useful for documents. The words on the pages of documents, colors used or not used, images or pictures on the document, can all be transcribed through a photo.

Videos are more useful for objects. A viewer can see the many sides of the object in order to better gauge it. A video provides the opportunity for analysis of objects where digitization through merely a photo might not be as successful.

Digitization is great tool to share objects of historical value to all those who wish to see them. By being online in whatever format, people can view these objects and study them, use them for their own research. In many ways, it is like a digital form of archaeology: instead of studying objects through hands-on interactions we can now study objects through images or videos. This allows for a spread of information and knowledge that has not previously been possible.

A Definition of Digital Public Humanities

Over the past few months, I’ve been telling many people I know that I am taking a graduate certificate course on Digital Public Humanities. The title of this course seems to confuse almost everyone I discuss it with and I’ve had to try to give a definition to something that I honestly, up until that point, knew very little about. Thankfully, our first real coursework in this class has helped me to better understand Digital Humanities. Here, I will try to give a definition to Digital Humanities that I hope will reflect my previous knowledge of this topic to what I have just recently discovered.

Digital Humanities is a method of answering questions posed by humanities disciplines through the use of various tools of the ever-expanding digital world. Scholars, librarians, curators, archivists, students, etc., can better understand questions on culture, community, identity, history, and society through the use of digital tools like mapping, text analysis, digitization, archiving, and many more. Both the world of the digital and the world of humanities can be enhanced through the study of digital humanities. Another major component of digital humanities is collaboration. In this way, ideas, tools, and concepts can be shared to enhance research and study of the humanities.