‘Public engagement’ and ‘research communities’ – these are the new buzzwords from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, one of the largest funding bodies for historical research in the UK. Their message is that the gulf between the ivory tower of academic research in higher education institutions and the enthusiastic, public communities interested in historical research must be reduced. It’s an idea that has been at the forefront of university scholarship within the humanities for some time now, and it’s unsurprising considering it’s the public who fund historical investigation. In providing the opportunity to conduct research, it would seem that the same public would like us to deliver it into their hands. This in itself is not an unreasonable request, though it is one that has lead us to the general assumption that the only good history is ‘usable history’.
The idea of ‘usable history’, or rather, history that is easily transmitted to the public is not a simple matter. It seems that we are caught in a ‘Catch-22’. On the one hand, only years of academic experience and training can bring about the intellectual rigour needed to advance a research discipline such as History, therefore acquiring the knowledge which will increase society’s awareness of the past. On the other, the work produced at an advanced research level does not always lend itself to consumption without having the years of academic training. David Bates has conjectured that ‘some three-quarters’ of the public is believed to be engaged in historical activities each year – a remarkable statistic made without much hard evidence, but one that hardly seems surprising when one stops to think about it. Whether through genealogical enquiry, visits to heritage sites, or simply the reading of history books and the watching of historical dramas and documentaries, there is a recognised thirst for historical knowledge. So perhaps we should be concerned not with making high-end research directly transmittable to the public, but rather start developing forums that enable its transmutation to a more digestible form instead.
So where does that leave the academics in universities who have to conduct both specialised study and present general discovery?
Let’s take the library as a comparative example to the university. In a lecture this year by John Scally, Chief Executive at the National Library of Scotland, digital humanities was (as usually seems to be the case) presented as an aid for public engagement. For Scully, the library was confidently assimilating digital technology to ensure that archival content was being made more accessible to the public online, and that wider audiences were being made aware of the historical research taking place within its walls through the use of social media. The library, he stated confidently, was the ‘guardian of research, knowledge, and memory’ and digital technology was just one of its intermediaries to the public.
Can universities open their doors to the public in the same manner as libraries? As a historian, it’s a scary prospect to put research, often in its embryonic stage, online. Yet by doing so, we bring work into contact with a community that, often, has an ‘enthusiasm technical skill, and depth of knowledge’ that can outmatch that of the single scholar. One of the chief platforms used by academics attempting to boost their online profile and garner public engagement with their research is the personal blog. Here, elements of research, upcoming book releases, and reports on conferences given or attended are made. How much do these actually engage with the public though?
A recent study found that of the blogs run by academics, up to 73% were aimed at other academics, with only 17% targeting an ‘educated public’.
Significantly, the audience size of these blogs tended to be limited by the specialisation of the academic who was writing. A single scholar writing within a narrow scope of expertise on a personal blog that features just one author’s work has a limited appeal to members of the public who show a more general interest in history. So what do we provide for the avid amateur historian interested in a multitude of research from different universities?
The first step has to be to start building connected communities online; communities that provide open access content, that are searchable, and that maintain established networks for their readers. This means moving away from the personal blog and towards sites that feature work from a range of authors. It means moving towards websites such as Doing History in Public, or Inciting Sparks, that attempt to bridge the gap not just between the ivory tower and the general public, but between researchers at different institutions. Perhaps, when we discuss ‘public engagement’ and ‘research communities’, we should be talking about fostering online platforms that combine the enthusiasm of public interest, with the research endeavours of academics.
At Inciting Sparks, the ethos is one of community debate: articles seek to gather questions and responses from readers to produce and stimulate further insights. It’s not necessarily about educating the public, but starting a conversation with them.