The Impacts of Technology on Digital Public History

It’s clear that rapid advancements in technology over the past 20-30 years have presented public history practitioners with new opportunities. More interesting to me, however, are the challenges that come with this constant progression. For example, I was fascinated to learn about the OHMS tool that I posted about a few weeks ago. Doug Boyd’s article, “OHMS: Enhancing Access to Oral History for Free,” plainly states the advantages of annotating oral history interviews and search functions.

But I was surprised that no word of caution was included in Boyd’s article about the dangers that come along with these advances, dangers posed to the scholars using these tools, the field at large, and the general public. In her 2016 American Historical Review article “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” Lara Putnam notes that in exchange for time- and money-saving conveniences (like the digitization and searchability of an oral history interview), historians may end up sacrificing necessary depth and context. The ability to quickly search for specific terms or names also has the ability to change the questions we ask and the stories we tell. How should historians account for this as they create digital projects with and for the public?

Moving on to a different conundrum — the smart phone. For years staff at cultural institutions have been struggling to maintain or increase visitation to their organizations. As Colleen Dilenschneider posted in 2017: “[People] would rather stay home…home is comfortable — and you can be more ‘connected’ to others than ever before.” (The data she cites is pre-pandemic, so this preference to remain at home may no longer be accurate.)

Faced with this challenge, some organizations leaned hard into what they do best: space- and place-based experiences. They also utilized the same technology that was inadvertently reducing participation, the smart phone. Projects like and Cleveland Historical inspired users to get out of their house and into their cities, engaging with history content through tours, augmented reality, and interactive maps. Exhibits like WWI: Love & Sorrow didn’t ask visitors to choose between their phone and a museum experience. It allowed visitors to do both, but in a way that forced visitors to leave their home. “Once downloaded, the app has minimal content…The main content is not available until the mobile user is at the museum.” (Hart and Brownbill, “Storyteller – World War One: Love and Sorrow – A hybrid exhibition mobile experience.”)

In an era where so much lies at our fingertips, digital history projects must incorporate the technology that its public is already familiar with, but in a way that stimulates wonder and surprise.


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