Online Musings of a Public Historian

Archive for April, 2014

Review: History in the Digital Age

History in the Digital Age edited by Toni Weller.  New York: Routledge, 2013; 212 pp.

Nearly thirty years after the dawn of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s, 21st century society is firmly rooted in the Digital Age.  With a steady stream of technological advances occurring in recent decades, digital history continues to rise in significance as a “recognized sub-discipline” within the field (Weller, 3). For many historians, however, digital materials and tools of research remain relatively foreign entities. Author Toni Weller directs her book, History in the Digital Age, primarily toward this latter group of historians living  and struggling in the Digital Age. Arguing that knowledge of digital resources – along with the ability to use them – does not require a specialization in digital history,  Weller aims to introduce readers to the many ways in which use of these resources prove advantageous when conducting any type of scholarly research, regardless of discipline or subject matter.

Front Cover, History in the Digital Age by Toni Weller.

Front Cover, History in the Digital Age by Toni Weller.

Presented as a compilation of essays authored by various scholars, History in the Digital Age includes four main sections: “Re-conceptualizing history in the digital age,” “Studying history in the digital age,” “Teaching history in the digital age,” and “the Future of history in the digital age.”  Each section houses a collection of essays addressing specific aspects of adapting traditional academic methodologies and perspectives to fit with an increasingly digitized world.

One particularly poignant piece, Jim Mussell’s “Doing and Making: History as Digital Practice” (located in the “Studying” section, pp. 79-94), addresses the incorporation of digital source material, tools, and techniques into the research process. Specializing in nineteenth century media history — a field of study not overtly associated with the contemporary Digital Age — Mussell relates to the apprehension towards new media technologies felt by historians whose fields focus on the pre-digital world. Acknowledging this, Mussell demonstrates to readers the advantages of using digital media when conducting scholarly research, specifically highlighting the increased accessibility of primary source documents through digitization:

“The study of digital data does to take history away from primary sources, but rather provides a new context in which these sources might be encountered.” (Weller, 88.)

Like Mussell, the book’s other contributing authors gear their writings towards an audience with scholarly backgrounds, yet lacking experience in new media methodologies.  For new media beginners, such as myself, History in the Digital Age serves as an excellent guidebook to the digital realm.  The essays featured within offer sound advice and solid insight into the seemingly complicated world of new media technology, making solid arguments as to the benefits such resources present throughout the research process.  Published in 2013, History in the Digital Age remains a relatively recent text, however with the rapid speed at which technological changes are advancing, this does raise a slight question of its prolonged relevancy — an issue easily fixed by the release of updated editions in the future.

On the whole, History in the Digital Age is a smooth, informative, and satisfying work offering readers an introductory break-down of the inner workings of the digital realm, along with the effects of digital resources on the traditional research process.

Mobile Media and Museums: What’s App With That?

“There’s an app for that!”

How many times have we heard that phrase?

The now-common saying originated as the catchphrase for a 2009 commercial advertising Apple’s iPhone 3G:

Five years and several iPhone generations later, the concept of a mobile application for “just about anything” is more than just a snappy advertising gimmick.  As of October 2013, at least one million applications are available for download in Apple’s App Store while competitor Google Play reached its own million app mark earlier that year. Through mobile applications, smartphone users need only swipe their touchscreens for a plethora of possibilities ranging from social media and gaming to online banking or food delivery.

With public dependence on smartphones and mobile media only growing as we progress further into the 21st century,  museums and other cultural institutions are working to establish an increased presence in the digital realm. Whereas social media pages, official websites, and online access to collections allow such institutions to connect with outside audiences, mobile applications bring the digital inside museum walls.

So what goes into the development of mobile applications for cultural institutions?

Reading through the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Policy and Analysis’ “Smartphone Services for Smithsonian Visitors” report one element in the app development process stands out more than others — and it’s not the technology. As reinforced in Nancy Proctor’s podcast, “Evaluation-led Mobile Experiences,” the audience — and their experience –matters most.

In developing the Smithsonian Mobile App, its creators relied heavily on audience feedback.  Through on-site interviews, social media surveys, and visitor testing of application prototypes, project members assessed audience needs and adapted the product’s content accordingly. Similarly, Proctor’s podcast emphasizes the importance of audience evaluation in the research process, discussing methodologies for conducting such studies digitally.

The idea of encouraging smartphone use within a museum setting certainly raises several questions.  At the forefront lies the issue of whether or not such applications pose a risk of distracting or eclipsing from the physical resources.

While this notion poses a valid concern, the heavy reliance of app development on audience feedback proves a poignant reminder of the important role audience evaluation plays in the research process.  Regardless of project format — whether the end product is digital or more traditional — the end goal of a positive audience experience remains the same.

After all, you can’t do public history without – you know – the public.


Museums & Social Media

At times, social media feels pretty inescapable.  It’s everywhere, permeating nearly every aspect of our daily lives from the comforting privacy of home to more public spaces such as the workplace and classroom. Whether Facebook or Twitter, Instagram or Tumblr (or any of the myriad other platforms out there),  the use of social media is a defining characteristic of 21st century society.

NMAH Facebook Page

NMAH Facebook Page

Despite its name, however, social media is no longer a purely social phenomenon used for individual communications between friends and loved ones. As a growing number of  corporate organizations and cultural institutions build and maintain an online presence through such platforms, social media takes on a new role as a professional and academic tool.

The question of whether or not to embrace this social media phenomenon – and to what extent – remains a point of continuous debate amongst historians, particularly within the museum world. In recent years, several cultural institutions have taken the plunge into the digital realm, hoping to use the tools provided within social media as a means of connecting to a broader audience.

NMAH Twitter Profile

NMAH Twitter Profile


In their article, “Small Towns and Big Cities: How Museums Foster Community On-line,” Dana Allen-Greil and Matthew MacArthur examine the manner in which the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH)uses social media to engage with online users and visitors to the museum alike.  The NMAH uses a variety of platforms to facilitate audience connections online, offering topics ranging from general information (such as that found on their

Facebook and Twitter pages) to specific projects, like their Julia Child Recipe Series on Tumblr. The museum additionally offers visitors the opportunity to engage digitally while physically visiting the museum, with interactive web exhibits and holding events such as the “tweet-ups” described in Erin Blasco’s article “Presidential Hair is a Twitter Winner.”

NMAH Julia Child Recipe Series Tumbler Page

NMAH Julia Child Recipe Series Tumbler Page

Of course, allowing visitors a higher level of interactivity with the museum entails additionally conceding to the public greater authority in the curation and interpretation of its collections.  This leads to the question of how much public authority is too much, with some arguing that this diminishes a curator’s position while others contend that it increases the curator’s responsibilities in regulating not only collections but also public interactions with them.


On the whole, however, the integration of social media and digital technology into cultural institutions seems to add a higher level of interactivity, enables more opportunities for connection, and enhances the overall visitor experience.



Communication, Documentation, and Collaboration

As I’m sure you all remember, I’m not the most adept when it comes to handling technology. Now more than halfway through the semester, this History and New Media experience continues to excite, surprise, and confuse me.  Thanks to the readings, class discussions, and skills building assignments completed so far, my once “pre-beginner” level digital skills have certainly improved.  At times, however, I still find myself helplessly confused about the task at hand and how to maneuver my way through this new digital world.

That’s why I’m glad that Dan M. Brown’s Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning came along for this week’s reading.

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 6.18.43 PM

Cover art for Dan M. Brown’s Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning.

For someone as deeply technologically illiterate as myself, Communicating Design is a welcome – if slightly dry – read.  Focusing on the ins and outs of project-planning and teamwork in the digital realm, Communicating Design proves an insightful introductory text to recognizing and using new media research tools.

Brown is most successful in connecting with entry-level readers through his emphasis on the basic.  Split into two parts,  “Design Diagrams” and “Design Deliverables,” Communicating Design aims to acquaint readers with the key elements of the web design process.  Discussing various concepts and models, such as that of the “persona” (a project’s target audience), Brown highlights the importance of documentation in web design, citing “consistency of vision,” “insight,” and “traceability and accountability” as some of the advantages such documentation brings to a project. Additionally, Brown draws attention to the value of communication and collaboration within a team project. Following the general guidelines laid out by Brown, clear communication between team members along with a solid design outline allow for better quality “deliverables” — essentially a project’s final, public product.

As stated by Brown in the book’s introduction, Communicating Design aims to provide

“starting points and guidelines, ready for you to shape them with your own needs, your own circumstances, and your own experiences.”

Does his emphasis on the basic and focus on the importance of team communication and collaborate succeed in conveying this point? How can we as historians apply the ideas of Communicating Design to our own projects?