Hook, Line, and Sinker

History does not simply serve as a litany of names, dates, and places, but instead serves to tell the story of men and women acting in time and circumstance. Personally speaking, my experience in learning history differed dramatically as I advanced from high school to college. The rote memorization of names, dates, and places mattered in high school, but not so much in college. Though still important, names, dates, and places served a secondary function behind the important questions of how, why, and so what. I loved history in high school, and I still do now. However, by answering questions of how, why, and so what, I found myself invested in the process of learning history, interacting with the past through my interpretation.

Everyone does not share the same love of history. In fact, many still recoil in horror at the thought of having to remember that, in 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. The apathy and, in some cases, disdain for history serves as an important obstacle to overcome, especially if scholars seek to reach an audience beyond traditional academic circles. To do that, scholarship has to have a hook that not only attracts people, but can also symbolize or alter a topic’s traditional narrative. The idea of having a hook does not rest solely on traditional scholarship, but also on digital history.

New media already has the power of making history more accessible to people, allowing them to see for themselves that history is more than just a litany of names, dates, and places. Equally, if not more, important, new media projects have the ability to facilitate interactivity among its target audiences. The New York Public Library, for example, uses crowdsourcing as a means to foster an interactive environment, inviting users to transcribe some of the 40,000 menus in the library’s collection. Titled “What’s on the Menu?,” the project attracts historians, chefs, and food enthusiasts. Food served as the hook that drew people to the project, but, through crowdsourcing, audience members have invested themselves in the project by examining what the menus reveal about the history of food and culture.

With that said, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to “The Lost Museum.” The website did not use crowdsourcing as a means to develop audience participation. Instead, the website uses a good, old-fashion mystery. Visitors have the opportunity to determine who burned down P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in July 1865. In recreating the three-floor layout, “The Lost Museum” encourages visitors to examine each floor, picking up clues on who possibly started the fire. Was it the Copperheads? Or was it the abolitionists? The mystery allows participating visitors to invest themselves in each exhibit, thereby using the clues to develop their own conclusions while simultaneously learning about the various forces at work in the Civil War-era North.

To be certain, interactivity comes with a variety of concerns. The accessibility that comes with new media also can facilitate inaccuracy, whether in the form of a doctored letter from Martin Van Buren or a doctored photo of Lee Harvey Oswald (singing instead of being shot). By allowing oral histories for my project, I have concerns surrounding accuracy. Not specifically that someone would knowingly lie about their experiences, but that memories have faded or changed over time. For this reason, oral histories do not stand on its own.  Oral histories, however, work well when used in conjunction with primary source material. Together, oral histories can augment issues present in the primary sources, or they can provide an angle not explored.

Oral histories, like any form of interactivity, come with concerns. However, as scholars reach out to diverse audiences in an era of new media, interactivity becomes increasingly important. Interactivity provides a hook that enables scholars to attract visitors to their subject matter, allowing them to invest themselves in the material. Here, new media serves as a persuasive tool, using interactivity that allows people to care about a certain topic. People no longer have to recoil at the notion of remembering names, dates, and places. Instead, people care because they have invested themselves in knowing how and why something happened.

I commented on David’s Interactivity: Best Friend and Worst Foe.

I also commented on John’s Digital Failure.

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3 Comments

Filed under Digital History

3 responses to “Hook, Line, and Sinker

  1. I like your broad use of the term “interactivity,” to include crowd sourcing and oral history. You bring up one of the dilemmas that people in public history deal with–getting people interested by getting to them in nontraditional ways, but also worrying about accuracy. As you bring up, and I fully agree, the value of oral history greatly outweighs worries about accuracy (indeed, we can say that for any historical source). Good work!

  2. johngarnett100

    I think with the ability to provide primary sources online like oral histories are not only good hooks, but they are empowering because they allow users to engage with primary documents they might not normally have access to. However, like you said, they need to be contextualized by the historian. In many ways, I think outlining one’s sight and presenting their narrative or interpretation of the historical material or event in question clearly is a great way to shape the way a listener or viewer consumes the primary sources. Thus an explanation of the biases or potential issues of your oral histories will help the user be more critical in their analysis and not just take everything for face value.

  3. Pingback: Digital Failure « To Luddite or Not to Luddite

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