Blog Post

Platform for Public Scholars: Making Histories Panel

This morning's first panel, Making Histories, started with Sean Takats from the Center for History and New Media and Department of History at George Mason University, and Matthew J. Countryman, from the History and American Culture Department and Arts of Citizenship Program at the University of Michigan.


Sean Takats (blog: started today's sessions with questions about history: How are historians using new media resources?  How are the practices of studying history changing in response to these new media?


A text mining survey Sean conducted shows that commercial databases and open access databases are being used more frequency by historians--and the demand for "ever more resources" creates some risks in terms of how historians actually work with digital content.  We all know that Google is a crude tool (keyword search) to use for sorting between thousands and even millions of pieces of data, but in practice, it is the primary means scholars surveyed use to find many of these digital resources.  The abundance is the greatest asset and the greatest problem of historians today--digital history has been the victim of its own ambitions for more information. 


Presentation-focused definitions of digital history are focused outward, on the public.  Oftentimes these forms of digital history put old ways of thinking/learning in new media.  In contrast, tool-focused definitions of digital history help scholars perform research by confronting the abundance of information.  These forms of digital history often require us to fundamentally rethink how we think and learn.  As an example, Sean describes a free software tool called zotero, available at 


Zotero works like a database--like iTunes.  All research materials are organized into collections, and it works by, as Sean describes it, "sensing" what you're reading on the Internet.  It's a little research assistant, "a gnome in your browser."  If you're reading an article in JSTOR, for example, it will pull a pdf directly into your collection.  It works with a range of resources, including academic and non-academic publications, from Project Muse to Amazon.  Scanned articles from archives, audio and visual material, etc can all be collected and managed.  And listen to this (the clinching reason why I am downloading this program immediately after posting this blog): everything is fully searchable by keyword, so you can easily find articles in your collection. 


Many research sites are also geared toward a process of collection--sites such as the September 11 Digital Archive offer a meaningful way of organizing related data.  New computational methods can be applied and more complicated questions can be asked with these resources.  The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank Archive follows a similar architecture.  And so, why not standardize this method of organizing information in meaningful ways?  George Mason also offers free software to start a database like these, called Omeka.  Sean recommends Omeka as a great way to present work in later stages of research in a digital format.


For research-in-progress, Zotero offers more inexpensive (in terms of both money and time) means of online presentation.  For example, the map application can organize the research geographically, and the timeline application can organize research chronologically--you can see at a glance all your resources from a specific time or place. 


What about social computing?  How can these resources help the research process be more collaborative?  Historically, the research phase has been an individual project; we make our own decisions about what is worth reading, filtering items ourselves.  We spend a lot of time and effort writing dissertations that don't get read--moreover, we have a mountain of assembled research, and little of it will find its way into the final dissertation.  So much work ends up sitting in someone's hard drive doing nothing. 


The Zotero Server transforms the traditional research model radically--it targets the sharing of data and research, allowing researchers to access the research of others.  "It's like facebook for nerds," Sean tells us.  You can access your own zotero library from anywhere; you can create research groups; you can post a live CV; you can meet other people in your discipline or in other disciplines.


In conclusion, Sean briefly explained Zotero API (, which allows you to programmatically access (with basic computer coding) complex search and analysis methods.  Though designed by historians, Zotero has created a thriving interdisciplinary community online that offers meaningful ways of organizing information and doing research.


Shifting gears from software to the crisis of the humanities, Matthew J. Countryman says that we face two problems in pursuing public scholarship: 1) the current economic crisis has severely limited resources, and 2) public practice is a muddy practice.  His program, Arts of Citizenship, seeks to overcome these problems by engaging faculty in collaborative projects. 


The economic crisis has changed the relationship between the university and the public--we now, more than ever, need to justify how academia contributes to the public good.  "We must partner or perish," in Matthew's words.  Collaboration with the community needs to be a primary focus, not a subculture within the institution. 


But how do we mobilize academic institutions to take responsibility for the social and economic struggles in our local communities? 


For these projects to succeed, the goals for strengthening communities, teaching students to be citizens, and contributing to academic research need to be woven together.   


Matthew describes three different responses to this call in his department:


Semester in Detroit: this project builds on the junior-year-abroad model to take students a world away that is only 40 minutes away.  They take courses and work as interns in community organizations.  It fulfills a real demand with these community organizations but also gives students a unique urban learning experience. 


Prison Creative Arts Program: a professor of English and a professor of Art at Michigan have created a program that brings together students and inmates that is transformative for both communities.  Annual poetry readings and art shows have received national attention as a model of service learning at its best.


Arts and Citizenship: Matthew's program is more than a decade old, and its goal is to think about transforming teaching and research through project-based initiatives with community partners.  A small group of self-motivated scholars carried the work, largely unrecognized--but they wanted to expand the faculty community and integrate it more fully into the university.  So, they needed to explain how to integrate this collaborative work into scholarly work, and they needed to explain how to evaluate this work.  In addition, they needed to how to move from the call to the practice.  Offering grants for faculty/graduate student projects has been one way of achieving the goal of promoting both projects that benefit the community and scholarly work that is geared toward multiple audiences.  Sustainability is essential for both the community partner and the university system, and the program participants are still grappling with two questions: how long does it take for a partnership to become sustainable?  And how long does it take to generate scholarship? 


Matthew summarized a few projects and the lessons learned, and he raised some key questions for discussion:  first and foremost, what kind of research information is made possible by collaborative work that isn't accessible through traditional research models?  How can we learn how to recognize these opportunities when they arise?  How can we garner financial and promotional support from our institutions?  And how can we present the scholarly knowledge we gain through public work to multiple, diverse audiences? 



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