The Malleable Past Portfolio Post

For your portfolio post, write an essay that responds to one of the questions below, or some similar question or issue that you wish to write about:

  • How has the malleability of the past in the digital world complicated our work as history educators?
  • How has that malleability made it easier to teach about and help our audience(s) engage with the past?

From our readings this week, we can see that a digital environment has helped national park sites like the Whitman Mission National Historic Site to address its complicated history online. While it is difficult and time-consuming (in part because of bureaucratic policies) to change physical signage, the website offers a quick and easy way to update information. The malleability of the online environment has allowed staff to address some of the complexities in the relationship between the missionaries and the Native Americans. Unlike the signage, we do not see the clear bias toward the Anglo missionaries. The online environment has allowed them to edit their approach. They are able to meet the new need for sensitivity as our society has changed and grown.

The digital world has also opened up access to more information sources to a wider range of people. We are able to view texts that were previously only available to people able to travel to libraries and archives. For example, I once had to travel to Vancouver to read diaries belong to Pre-Raphaelite artists because they were only available through the Special Collections and Archives department at the University of British Columbia. Today, many resources like these are now available in a digitized format. Researchers are not as limited by travel funds in order to gain access to primary sources. However, it is difficult to re-create the physical experience of handling these material in person–the delicacy, the smell, the faint notes in the margins all contributing to a reverence of the object.

Another advantage of telling history in the digital world is that we can easily connect information. We can create hyperlinks to other sections of the website or to outside websites. This approach allows us to make connections more easily and faster. Linked Open Data projects like the Artists’ Books Discovery Tool at UC-Irvine help researchers to easily make connections within the collection. Users can easily find artists’ books addressing gender issues or politics, or both. The timeline then tracks them by publication date. As noted, tools like these allow us to make connections but also allow for a more natural language than the traditional library catalog. The standardization of marking text through the Text Encoding Initiative also helps to make these connections.

Looking at images, high-resolution images allow us to examine works in ways we were unable to before including viewing works in person. We are able to see subtle details we may not have seen otherwise. For example, the digitization of artwork held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art allows us to zoom in and see details like an artist painting over a previous image. We are also able to see his or her process of painting that artwork.

While there are drawbacks, such as what information is chosen to be digitized and who has access to the internet, the digital world still offers a malleability not available through only the physical or analog.

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