Democratizing History and Shared Historical Authority: How Should this be Approached?

Albert CamusOur readings for today’s class included the following:

The main idea behind these readings appears to be the larger question of how to approach “radical trust” and as digital humanities is extended to incorporate collaborative efforts and contributions from the public at large, who has the knowledge-based historical authority to document and analyze these documents? Is this for the professional historian or the public historian?

I think what I centered on the most was an observation Leslie Madsen-Brooks noted in her article “‘I nevertheless am a historian’: Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers.” (Spring 2012 version) In discussion about the Black Confederate narrative, she stated that before digital tools were made available for historical analysis, discussion of controversies were contained within the academic volumes published by historians, and creative argument may have ensued via email with one another or within an email group. Now that we have digital tools to place analysis and findings  on the internet, there is even more opportunity for people to research their own historical topics especially with the vast array of primary documents that have been digitized. This allows for a more public discussion concerning controversial items, such as the Black Confederate narrative, and it opens this discussion to a wider audience when it is placed on the internet.

Madsen-Brooks also stated that with digital humanities, a history that would otherwise be suppressed, would find a voice. I agree with this. I believe, wholeheartedly that history should be transparent for public and academic discussion. Madsen-Brooks’ article flushes out three questions: 1) What constitutes real historical practice? 2) How are digital research and publishing tools changing that practice? and 3) What should be the role of professional historians in a space where authorship has been democratized?

Rose Sherman’s response in the article “Grappling with the Concept of Radical Trust,” certainly gives a good answer to some of these questions. In discussion about public contribution and collaboration, she mentions that historians need to loosen “reins of control.” Contribution should not be viewed with distaste. Some primary documents may never have been found had it not be given up by the public to be placed on a website as a contribution. The sharing that the public can do at large only widens the document basic structure for research. Why would we not want that? This allows historians to find material that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Sherman also joined that declaration with a statement that historians should not “abandon scholarly curation of our collections and interpretation of history.” Professional historians were trained to do this and add a needed voice to the contributions. I certainly disagree with Jim Gardner’s assertion that we need to resist adding the value of public opinion. Do we reserve history just for the profession historian? No, and those poorly written blog space or web sites that do not research well the topic, would certainly benefit if more professional historians felt comfortable in the digital realm. Should we not want the public to understand and help create their history of who they were and how they got to the point of where they are now? This could only be accomplished if more professional historians teamed up with the amateur public historian in creating a digital collection of contributions from the public. Professional historians should guide understanding and interpretation, this is what they were trained to do.  As Madsen-Brooks states, we historians need to be a “guide on the side” not the “sage on the stage.”

This is certainly a topic that will find discussion for years to come, as we continue building upon Digital Humanities. I am glad that I am here in this sphere. I see the need to merge technology with history, and I see the need to involve the public as we do this merging.

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