Reflections on Doing History in Public

by Anne Alexander

A few months ago the Cambridge Doing History in Public project was just the glimmer of an idea. As we launch our collective blog, this article will hopefully provide a starting point for much fruitful discussion. It is meant as an opening shot in a debate, rather than as a polished perspective.

The title for our project was inspired by Sharon Leon’s talk of the same name in 2010, in which she argued in favour of “a version of digital work – “Doing history in public” – that places inquiry questions front and centre”.

What attracted me to Leon’s approach is her articulation of a distinctive methodological approach to “Doing History in Public” which is more than a digitised version of “doing history” or even “doing public history”.

As Justin Champion points out, “‘Public history’ is a chameleon like label” which “involves a mixture of entertainment, instruction, and engagement with, and by, the past.” The definition favoured by the National Council on Public History starts from a different perspective, arguing that “public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world.” A third approach to public history is that taken by the Public and Popular History Seminar at Cambridge, which marks out the study of the production of history for mass audiences as a terrain of scholarship.

Evidently, online publishing can become a powerful tool for historians to reach and engage with a wide variety of audiences, and many different historians have used these methods, as Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty document in Writing History in the Digital Age

In one of the essays in the collection, Sherman Dorn argues persuasively, however, for historians to go beyond simply digitising the finished products of their work, and instead embrace the potential of digital tools to “undress scholarship”.

“…most time spent on historical scholarship is messy, involving rooting through Hollinger boxes, begging someone for an oral history interview, coughing through a shelf of city reports or directories, rereading notes, drafting manuscripts, sorting through critical comments, revising, and so forth. A published work does not materialize from a vacuum, and all that preceded and underlays it is legitimately part of historical work. Public presentations of history in the digital age reveal the extent of that “preargument” work, often in an explicitly demonstrative fashion or allowing an audience to work with evidence that is less directly accessible in a fixed, bound presentation. Digital history thus undresses the historical argument, showing that all our professional garments are clothing, even those not usually seen in public.”

To my mind, using digital tools to their full potential should mean a critical engagement with their potential to allow us to “think aloud in public” and expose the decisions and choices which historians make to wider scrutiny. This approach is very much in sympathy with those traditions in public history which have sought to expose the practice of history, and not just repackage the outcomes of professional historians’ endeavours for passive consumption by different audiences.

But, and this is another critical element of the “Cambridge Doing History in Public” project, “thinking aloud in public” is not something to be undertaken lightly, in a communications environment which is changing so rapidly. Corporations and governments the world over are interested in our thoughts, and not always for benign reasons. So this project also aims to explore how social media works, and emphasizes the need for historians who use it to take the ethical challenges presented by this medium very seriously.

Over the next few months, we’ll be using this project to test out some of these ideas in practice. Most of our contributors are graduate historians at the University of Cambridge, who will be using our blog and social media channels to share their own work with different online audiences, and to reflect on what they have learnt about social media in the process.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Doing History in Public

  1. Best of luck with this project, which looks very promising indeed! To give credit where it’s due: the quotation you offer above is from an essay by Sherman Dorn entitled “Is (Digital) History More than an Argument about the Past?” in the Writing History in the Digital Age volume Jack Dougherty and I co-edited. (Unfortunately the Press’s online book format makes it easy to overlook the names of authors attached to individual essays, particularly since they have been omitted from the table of contents.)

    1. Thanks very much Kristen. I’ve changed the attribution to reflect the correct author (this is a useful cautionary tale about how it is sometimes difficult to properly attribute digital work, although since I guess it was the hyperlink I put to your collection which made you look at my post, it also contained the means for rapid self-correction!) Anne

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