Can Technology Democratize the Past?

The great historian of the American South and early convert to Digital History, Edward Ayers, argued that while social movements generated a democratization of academic History’s subject matter, it did not produce a democratization of the audience or consumers of this strain of scholarship. While women, blacks, latinos, the gay and transgender, the environment, and other democratic subjectivities entered the historiography, the make-up of the readership of academic books and journals, powerful conveyors of arguments about their past, remained static (read: elitist).  The voice that many of these groups had in this new wave of scholarship was only that which the publishing historian wished or managed to hear. The production process remained exclusive and clouded in mystique, thus, some narratives produced since then have been found inadequate. In part six of the collection of essays, Writing History in the Digital Age, the authors address this problem and offer scenarios of bilateral creative processes applied to the historical craft.

Rosales Castaneda’s piece titled “Writing Chicano History with the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project,” details the history of the latter public/digital history website (http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/). The site’s grand scope is not the emphasis of his piece, but the elevated stage that it provided for the production and consumption of Latino narratives embedded in larger struggles for social and racial justice. This case study sheds light on the way that public history, in this case expressed in a symbiotic relation with digital resources, reshapes and is reshaped by academic history. This isolated part of the larger SCRLHP website filled a gap in the urban latino experience historiography, and added to the vast literature in the humanities and social sciences dealing with “borderlands” and society due to Seattle’s unique geographic conditions.

Graham et al. in their piece on the “The HeritageCrowd Project: A Case Study in Crowdsourcing Public History” detail another attempt to address Ayers’s concern which took place in rural Canada. The HeritageCrowd project is interesting because it does not embrace the latest technologies just because, but rather looks at the material conditions of the community of interest, and factors in the inequalities in literacy and access. The input of the community was actively sought, and was considered to be the lifeblood of the project. However, the authors speak to the difficulty of getting the ball rolling with this crowdsourcing efforts, and recommend that public/digital historians perform “retroactive crowdsourcing” before turning to the community. “Retroactive crowsourcing” seems to be just a byword for doing traditional historical research of existing sources and formulating specific questions, and then structure your inquiry around these questions. It seems that the historical community is working to address Ayers’s concerns about elitism and History, but the solution is still in the process of trial and error.

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