Monday, September 29, 2008

The Flexibility of a Definition.

This past weekend I attended an Active History conference in Toronto. The conference focused largely on the variety of ways in which academic and community historians interact with the general public and attempt to employ history in ways which actively engage audiences.

I think one of the most significant ideas I took away from the conference was the notion of flexibility. I am beginning to think that for an understanding, appreciation and a career in Public History flexibility is essential. The Active History conference featured many presentations by traditional academic historians whose work had brought them out of the ivory tower into the realm of Public History. The conference also featured a number of presentations by people who may not be considered "true historians" by traditional academic standards. This juxtaposition of academic and community historians helped me expand my definition of what a historian is. A historian does not necessarily have to have spent a good portion of their life in the academy, rather they may be participating, learning and researching history from a grassroots level.

One of the most surprising aspects of the entire conference was the lack of conversation about the use of digital technology to enhance active participation. Digital technology was discussed by a few of the presenters but it did not receive its own panel or resonate as a general concern amongst participants. I understand that a lot of volunteer based organizations and underfunded historical projects may not have a great deal of money to fund some of the more complex digital technology avaliable. However, there is a number of open-source programs which could be used to enhance historical websites or even the technology used at specific facilities. Many of the presenters at the conference were very flexible in their outlooks and were creative in coming up with ideas of how to engage the public. Yet, many did not apply this creative thinking in a digital way, which would (in my mind) allow for an increased public engagement and accessibility of historical information. Perhaps it all comes down to a lack of knowledge about the digital resources which are avaliable to them and a lack of training in how to use technology in a historical setting.

Overall, I found the conference to be an insightful look into a variety of avenues of Public History which I had not given an immense amount of thought to prior to the conference. The conference also gave me a lot to think about regarding the ways in which the "profession" of public history can be both professional and very far from the traditional professional ideal.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Can Remembering be Overrated?

I recently finished reading Alec Wilkinson's article "Remember this? A Project to Record Everything We Do In Life." The idea that someone out there, namely Gordon Bell, is making a digital archive of his life is mind boggling. Digitization allows us to record and store things that we would have never been able to before. Most people purge their paper records at least every ten years ago, the average person simply does not have enough space to keep every grocery receipt or every scrap of paper they have ever written on.

The fact that Bell has managed to save so many "artifacts" from his life is a feat in itself. However I have to wonder if notion of quality over quantity has been forgotten. Historical records that have survived in archives or museums are typically ones that were deemed saving. Bell's method of digitizing everything removes the choice of what is valuable and what is not. I don't particularly care what he ate for breakfast or what colour of socks he wore on a particular day.

Also, the digitization or recording of all the minuscule details of life brings about another problem, the issue of personal privacy. What happens to Bell's archive once he dies? Will it be available for everyone to browse? The idea that the public at large could examine the smallest details of my life and essentially my daily memories is a frightening thought. Some phone conversations, emails, fashion choices, or life choices may be something that not everyone cares to remember.

Bell's personal archival project actually reminds me of the 1998 movie, The Truman Show in which Truman Burbank's daily life is being watched by millions of people and he doesn't even know it. The idea of a personal archive has the potential to put people in the same place Truman was in, a place where every movement is being watched and recorded and the everyone else seems to know more about your life than you do. I think digitization is a very valuable history tool, however I think there needs to be limits and consideration as to what is worthy of digitalizing.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Few First Impressions of Digital History....

After creating this blog over a week ago, I have finally got around to organizing my thoughts about digital history and blogging enough to take a stab at a post. The concept of digital history and the digitization of historical documents and artifacts is something I had never considered in great detail until recently.

This past year I began volunteering at the Dufferin County Museum and Archives, which is your typical local museum lacking in funding and reliant mostly upon the generosity of volunteers and the community. Yet, even in this small museum the digitization of history was beginning to become crucial to its existence. Many an hour has been spent at the DCMA, transferring paper records to computer files and now each new item is digitized and linked up to all existing items in the museum, using the Past Perfect Program. The fact that even small museums are seeing the value of digitization and the use of computers in dealing with history made me begin to consider the vast array of possibilities which technology can bring to the management, understanding, presentation and interpretation of history.

The idea of learning more about working with digital resources, the presentation of history on the web and the joining of computing and history in general seems essential to the changing historical field. And I am looking forward to learning more about digital history and all that it entails as the year progresses.