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.
"Consistency in presentation content and tenor across interpretive media thus remains an issue warranting attention by park administrators." Coslett, Daniel E., and Manish Chalana. "National Parks for New Audiences. Diversifying Interpretation for Enhanced Contemporary Relevance." The Public Historian 38, no. 4: 101-128. November 2016.
While the staff at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site have made several strides in presenting the viewpoints of both the Native Americans and the missionaries, the inconsistency is frustrating. For instance, the authors note that one sign still illustrates the attack on the Whitmans with a floor plan showing the exact locations of their deaths. While the easier route would be to remove this sign and replace it with something less graphic, it is also an opportunity to address how the events of the killings have been treated in the past. This same approach is taken with the audio tour and could easily (although possibly impeded by bureaucracy) be applied to the signage. The authors mention that staff are sensitive to these issues and would like to see changes. They also suggest a more diverse staff. Looking briefly at Canadian websites (due to some shared experiences with Native Americans or First Nations), they offer cultural sensitivity training for many of their government employees. For example, the police are offered a course called Aboriginal and First Nations Awareness. Similar training for staff at national parks and sites in the US could also be helpful.
The introductory story about how the author of a textbook about Virginia incorporated false information she found on the web is incredibly disturbing to me, especially as a librarian. Looking at a superficial level, we can see that the Sons of the Confederate Veterans have a website ending in “org” so someone may be more inclined to trust the information. However, I work with students to consider the motivation and possible biases in information sources. During class and research consultations, I ask students what they think the “purpose” of the website is and what they think the author or group is trying to accomplish. I can’t help but think if the textbook author Masoff had asked herself these questions she would never have included this misinformation. Like Wineburg points out, his early research paper required a trip to the library and a training or entry into the research process. While it is wonderful that we now have such easy access to so much information, I think we have lost some of this training by bypassing the “information keepers” so to speak.