The Limits of Digital Public History?

Since the mid-2000s, “Web 2.0” has become the dominant model of using and interacting with the internet. Rather than static pages simply delivering content (the Web 1.0 model), Web 2.0 enables users to add and modify internet content, whether on social media like Facebook and Twitter or on collaborative content platforms like Wikipedia.

Public historians and institutions have gotten in on the act too. The Smithsonian has created a collection of their photographs on Flickr Commons, allowing users to more easily find and view the materials but also tag and reshare them. Historypin and Clio enable users to add historical photographs, places, and tours to a map, enabling other users to find them geographically. These examples are, however, very different visions of bringing Web 2.0 to public history. While sites like Historypin and Clio allow relatively open submissions of historical materials and sites, the Smithsonian on Flickr limits user contributions to using and tagging, not submitting, photographs. Because users can interact with content, both of these models are considered Web 2.0, but Historypin and Clio much more fit the spirit of Web 2.0 with their open submissions. However, Historypin and Clio also demonstrate the limitations of Web 2.0 for public history. Individual submission quality varies, and poor quality or unrelated items can undermine faith in the rest of the sites’ content. Why, for instance, is there an image of a pill labelled “Penicillin” pinned next to Yale New Haven Hospital? No explanation is given, though a connection can be guessed.

As I’ve written about before, public historians are trying to walk the line between enabling communities to produce their own histories and ensuring the historical quality of what is produced. And the same is true of public history in the digital domain of the web. How can public historians allow wide-ranging public submissions and input while maintaining quality? Sheila A. Brennan and T. Mills Kelly have suggested what they call a “Web 1.5” model as a solution where anyone can submit material but it is reviewed before it becomes part of the site contents. Brennan and Kelly have implemented their model as part of the September 11th Digital Archive and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, where members of the public can share their experiences of the sites’ topics. OutHistory has taken this idea a step further by asking community members to submit articles and exhibits, rendering them as contributors and not just subjects. Still, all these sites limit and review contributions before resharing them.

It is hard to imagine an approach other than Brennan and Kelly’s Web 1.5 to ensure quality in digital public history projects while also allowing open submission, but I am struck by how vital this balance between openness and quality is for digital public history. Wikipedia somewhat gets around this problem through its sheer numbers of contributors out pacing bad actors, but it also locks pages and limits who can contribute at times. Perhaps there is no perfectly Web 2.0 solution for digital public history.