Public History, the Humanities, and the Digital Landscape

During the development of this Digital Sandbox workshop, numerous lively discussions ensued amongst the executive committee members about the outcomes and vision of this project. Chief among them pertained to scope: as a committee composed of public history students, how do we compose a workshop which encapsulate the broader humanities? Nick Sacco, a second-year Public History graduate student at IUPUI and member of the executive committee, weighs in on what he feels is the nature of Public History and where it fits into the larger humanities puzzle.

During my studies in the public history graduate program at IUPUI, I have been challenged to think about the study of history within a larger context of the entire humanities discipline. For example, I’ve learned about various ways in which historians have utilized methods in anthropology, art history, and library science (just to name a few) in their quest to understand the past. I am very glad to have had this well-rounded education thus far, but I still find myself frustrated by several artificial divisions and a lack of communication between disciplines.[1] For this essay, I would like to consider the possibilities of digital technology in shaping the way liberal arts and humanities students engage with their scholarly projects. With regards to my own training in public history, I have been introduced to many exciting works now being done in the digital humanities. However, many history students across the country have been greatly impoverished by their lack of training in the use of digital technology to enhance their interpretive skills and create new works of scholarship that sharpen society’s perceptions of the past. In my opinion, the digital humanities could redefine how all liberal arts and humanities students construct scholarly knowledge.

In a survey of public history programs last year, Shippensburg State University professor Steven Burg discovered that while 64.5% of program directors positively responded that their students would be graduating with “competency in digital history and new media,” only 35.9% stated that they were actively preparing their students to create or author works of digital scholarship. It would be interesting to see what the numbers are for other humanities disciplines. My guess would be that there is room for improvement.

Some historians/degree programs have embraced the digital landscape as a means to ask new questions of the past, engage with new audiences, and build new works of historical scholarship that go beyond writing or typing a term paper. Many of these projects incorporate the work of many other disciplines, not just history. For example, UCLA’s Miriam Posner recently taught a class where students built a database and web-based interface for housing “ancient magical implements” and other historic artifacts. This class represented an exciting collaborative endeavor between historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists. William G. Thomas and Patrick D. Jones have created a community-based project called “The History Harvest” at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Jeremy Boggs, Trevor Owens, and Dan Kerr have taught various classes at American University that have incorporated critical analysis of digital tools and resources with the building of interactive works of digital scholarship. Here at IUPUI, Jason M. Kelly recently taught a digital history class where we created digital walking tours of Indianapolis that attempted to ask critical questions about the city’s history and its built environment. (My group’s project is here). I am hopeful that some of the artificial boundaries between the humanities, sciences, and technology can eventually be blurred, and a recent article from Nigel Thrift has persuasively argued that yes, the nature of disciplines in academia does seem to be changing.

Despite these exciting ventures, I feel that our Digital Sandbox workshop is important because there are not enough of us in the humanities as a whole who are discussing the promises and perils of digital technology as it relates to work in the humanities.[2] Furthermore, we can’t even begin to have these discussions because many of us don’t even know what’s out there for us to utilize. This workshop will hopefully provide some much needed digital awareness for humanities students at IUPUI.

History has much to add to the digital humanities, while the digital humanities has much to offer those who study the past. Some historians have successfully engaged in collaborative projects–exhibits, living history performances, and other educational programs, for example–that have reached a diverse nonacademic audience. Reaching that audience is crucial because “history is done by lots of people who don’t have academic degrees or tenured professorships,” as Mary Rizzo explains. Likewise, there are many passionate people beyond the walls of academia who enjoy studying literature, religion, art, philosophy, the performing arts, and many other fields within the humanities. Conveying scholarly knowledge through a book can be useful, but digital technology challenges those in the humanities to consider new models and mediums for sharing their scholarship, especially since the value of the humanities has recently been questioned by an American society still reeling from the 2008 recession. I believe that building collaborative works of scholarship may help to extend our work to a broader audience. Before we begin building, however, we need to first educate ourselves about the tools and theories that mark the digital landscape.

Let’s get to work.

[1] For instance, I have seen splits between “academic” and “public” historians, and between historians and museum studies students, but I am sure there are more that exist.


[2] For a good essay that questions whether or not digital technology democratizes access to information in the humanities, see Amy E. Earhart, “Can Information Be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon” in Matthew K. Gold, Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2012), 309-319.


3 thoughts on “Public History, the Humanities, and the Digital Landscape

  1. Nick Sacco Post author

    Reblogged this on Exploring the Past and commented:

    Here is an essay I wrote on public history and the humanities for the Digital Sandbox blog. Check it out and see what we’re doing for the workshop at IUPUI on Thursday, August 15.

  2. Theresa K

    Great points! I think this workshop is a good place to start increasing “digital awareness”. I’m looking forward to seeing if discussions also emerge at the workshop on how to address the limitations involved in engagement through digital history. For example, what audiences are missing out on history presented solely in the digital world? The points brought up in a recent article by Thomas Peace, “Digital History isn’t for Everyone” ,which I read right after this post, resonated with me and I think are really useful in juxtaposition with the aims of this workshop.

    1. Nick Sacco Post author

      Hi Theresa,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments. The article you shared by Thomas Peace is wonderful and really reinforces the need to not only build things with digital technology, but to also critically analyze the use of digital technology in our scholarly endeavors. Asking the question of who is left out of the discussion when scholarship goes digital is a good starting point for this critical analysis. Although one of the central focuses of the workshop is informing participants about the digital landscape and how it can enhance their own academic experience, I too hope to see discussions about the limitations of digital history and have been thinking of ways to incorporate such a discussion into my own panel on student uses of social media.

      In my opinion, Peace’s essay is also important because it demonstrates the need for historians (and all humanists, by extension) to have multiple literacies, by which I mean that they need to be trained in communicating with audiences in multiple formats and mediums. Interactive websites, blog posts, tweets, scholarly articles and books, living history performances, and the creation of interpretive exhibits are just a few ways in which historians can share historical knowledge. While *digital* history may not be for everyone, the study of history itself can have a deep impact on everyone if we truly value the dissemination of scholarly knowledge to the broader public in many forms. The “meatscape” that Peace speaks of–the blending of the digital and material world–reminds us that even though the digital humanities has brought about “real and positive changes” to the scholarly studies of many, analyzing the promises and perils of digital technology is still necessary.


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