Cohen and Burton both wrote about the topic of digital media’s encroachment into academia. While both agreed that historians’ success in the world depended on greater efforts towards digital content, they both saw different challenges to that change. Burton argued that historians would need to be trained in basic computer languages, especially HTML, and that all future digital history projects will be best achieved through cooperation. Cohen argued that the problems between historians and the digital realm went deeper than a practical lack of skills, but rather extended to the core of academia itself. Academics, especially historians, have been slow to embrace change. In a world which values, above all things, tradition and prestige, convincing a historian to devote time and effort into creating digital content when they could be working on publishing a book or a scholarly article is, according to Cohen, impossible.
In the years since Burton and Cohen wrote these articles, much has changed in the field of history. Many qualities of early digital history which Burton extolled are now somewhat taken for granted by scholars and students alike. There is a wealth of knowledge and digital sources, created by historians and computer programmers working together to provide some transparency within the traditional historical narrative. Many professors include as many primary source documents as possible in their curricula, mostly relying on digital archives in order to connect their students to the content. As a result of this, many young students of history cannot comprehend why every worthwhile archival collection has not been digitized. They do not know how expensive it is to digitize a collection, nor do they understand the related conservation risks to a century’s old document. There is a level of opacity between the doing of history and the doing of public history which, to some extent, no longer exists within the realm of historical study itself. Professors and scholars have used the internet to bring about transparency within their classrooms, perhaps public historians could use similar resources to bring about transparency between themselves and the public.
While expensive digital exhibits and fancy touchscreens are one way for archives and museums to ingratiating the public, there is a simpler and less expensive solution. By maintaining multiple social media accounts, especially accounts like twitter, facebook, and a blog, institutions, even small ones, can generate interest and keep their public informed on some of the issues facing the field of public history. These sites could be used to broadcast new collections or exhibits, or explain why certain items could not remain in rotation. Most institutions today have one, if not many social media accounts. They are typically used to generate interest for new events, by presenting some version of the finished project. However, some of these accounts, especially twitter, or longform blogs, could be used to share the process of creating an exhibit with the public. This is part of my job at the Rose Library at Emory. The Rose Library maintains a blog, among other social media accounts, and during my tenure there as an intern I will post bi monthly updates on an exhibit I am researching. This will include images of materials, discussions on preservation, as well as being a way to keep the public updated and informed on the exhibit itself. However, like all social media posts, this blog will basically be a regularly scheduled broadcast into the void if there is not a large enough following. This is a risk with which historical institutions are very familiar. Public interest is in no way guaranteed for any project, exhibits and blogs included. The creation of digital content is just the latest in a long list of necessary duties associated with doing public history.