One of the main reasons I am interested in digital history exhibits and digital humanities are its applications for teaching and collaboration with public history organization. Almost immediately when I began working on my exhibit I began to see ways to use it history courses. One of them follows the Nevada model used by one of my former mentors.
The Nevada project had students and archivists collaborate to create an online University History exhibit that utilized local resources. The project brought student to the university archives to explore topics of their interests with an eye towards digital publication. My own project, because it is also a university history, fits this model. However, my project deviates because it is much longer and more comprehensive. Indeed, I follow the model offered in the student examples at the Nebraska Digital History Project. Those samples are from graduate students who research and write a seminar paper and then create an exhibit. They too follow a text-heavy layout model with multiple pages and a few images. The Nebraska pages, however, are not cohesive in terms of connecting to each other to present a larger history or theme.
Using both of these examples, as well as my own work, I think there are several ways online exhibits can and should become an integral part of teaching history to undergraduate and graduate students. First, online exhibit requires the existing historical skills of research and writing. Second, they challenge students to think creatively in selecting media and design page layouts. They must consider themselves as both producers and consumers of information. Next, structured that their projects connect to their peers or larger university histories, they are forced to engage with an existing, or at least emerging, historiography about events, people, etc., surrounding that place. This sets the table for interesting debates about how and why they interpret and present history in their exhibit in certain ways. Finally, creating online exhibits encourages students to seek out new audiences for their work. Although many consider the Internet to be an informal place to publish, getting one’s name out there as an author and creating a portfolio that offers samples of one’s work is useful when it comes to seeking employment. Digital history exhibits help student accomplish this and illustrate the utility of historical scholarship, particularly when paired with skills associated with digital publishing, website design, etc. Simply put, online exhibits help illustrate the utility of a history degree and give students something tangible to show prospective employers or graduate schools.
Beyond the pedagogical applications of using digital history in the classroom, online exhibits provide the opportunity for collaboration between various organizations and history departments. Libraries, archives, and historical societies can enlist scholars and perhaps even entire classes to help them organize and interpret their collections. This serves a variety of purposes for those organizations. First, it helps them make sense of what they have and how it might be useful to researchers. Second, it provides content to help them build up (and or update) their web presence, which is becoming a vastly important marketing tool. Third, it creates a connection between students, universities, and historic sites/collections. This connection helps to emphasize a sense of place and community. Creating a sense of place and community is important for public historians because, as David Glassberg argues, finding a sense of place includes finding a sense of history. And as Peter Kopp has articulate, finding a sense of place includes finding a sense of planet, which allows us to fuse together environmental and cultural diversity. Of course, I’m a strong believer in using local history and public history to teach history. I see these connections between and among students and historical collections and sites, both in the classroom and on the web, as a way of brining history to life by collectively investing in it. Through these collaborations we are not just using free labor to mutually benefit each other; we are creating a community history that we can all be proud of.