Spencer Roberts (2nd Year Digital history Fellow)
In a recent conversation, a friend inquired about the projects on which I am working here at the RRCHNM. I explained that I am currently assigned to a project about the War of 1812 on behalf of the National Park Service, and described the basic elements of the project. “I understand the project,” she replied, “but what do you actually do?”
Our exchange illuminated an issue that seems obvious but is rarely addressed: the average American is told little about the work that goes into producing public history or heritage projects. Although such projects and exhibits dot the social landscape in parks, museums, galleries, libraries, books, and the web, the processes of preserving, interpreting, and presenting the past are largely hidden from users. In response to these observations, I’d like to describe some of work done by researchers to produce public history projects.
Each project taken on by the RRCHNM staff has unique characteristics that shape the processes by which it is built, but some projects inevitably require similar constructions. The September 11 Digital Archive, the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, and other projects all required a platform to host large collections of digital materials; as a result, development staff spent time designing databases, interfaces, and processes that ensure effective and efficient preservation and presentation of archived material. The results of that work are usually invisible to the user, hidden in the background or simply presented without loud attribution. A project without visible seams will cause fewer inquiries about its design.
One answer to these recurring needs is Omeka, a “free, flexible, and open source web-publishing platform for the display of library, museum, archives, and scholarly collections and exhibitions.” Many projects are built upon the foundations provided by the Omeka platform, and staff now spend more time customizing the visual, functional, and historical components of these sites. Additionally, researchers spend some of their time testing the updates for upcoming versions of Omeka, which improves subsequent projects at the center, but also supports users of Omeka who build projects at other institutions and centers. The work of the public projects division at RRCHNM has increasingly been expanded to include both production of projects and resources for building.
Another major task for public projects is historical interpretation and representation. For the War of 1812 project, for instance, our research team is not designing a new site for hosting a collection; we are, instead, designing historical content and packages that fit into the existing NPS structures. Given specific functional and presentational limitations, we brainstormed ways in which we could shape the experience of users and best represent the complexities of a little-known war. In some ways, this project is a sober reminder of the restrictions often placed on researchers in a field with limited funding, few resources, and overextended staff. Not every project can afford to build a new site, create a new archive, or even redesign the look of existing sites. In these cases, researchers must be innovative within constraints.
The specific tasks for researchers vary across different projects. In some cases, they must double-check the transcriptions provided by volunteers, ensuring accuracy despite limited resources. At times, they might write brief historical summaries for virtual exhibits, enabling tourists to glimpse the unknown past of a battlefield or National Mall. Recently, I have been finding evidence about individuals who lived during the War of 1812 and whose stories will illustrate some of the historical arguments we have chosen to present. We believe that the stories of a war widow, a deserter, a politician, a nurse, a soldier, a surgeon, or a traitor can help illuminate the past, and provide a basis from which to build an interpretation of the events and decisions of that time.
To return to our question at the outset, researchers on public history projects (and in many areas) might easily have a different task each day and may never repeat those tasks. Describing what researchers do is difficult because it changes regularly; describing what researchers have done provides typical examples and possibilities. More important than asking what, however, is asking how. In all tasks, researchers use critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and other scholarly skills to ensure that their product meets the standards expected by their peers and the public. For graduate students, observing how research is conducted in each task is the most important lesson.