Blog Post

Where do Digital Humanities and Public Engagement Intersect?

As I mentioned in this post, in mid-January I went to the Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy. It was an incredibly stimulating week, marked by interesting presentations from faculty ranging from archaeologists to dentists to musicians. However, I was most excited by the work of my peers, who proposed everything from activist research with GLBT communities in Honduras (Kate) to hyper-local bicycle advocacy at the urban planning level (Mark).

The emphasis of the conference was on “publicly engaged scholarship”—as modeled by professional organizations like Imagining America—and not necessarily oriented toward to the digital. Unsurprisingly, though, several participants were working on projects that had elements of the “digital humanities,” largely in the form of online presentation. Laurel Fantuzzo, for example, is working on a bilingual website that highlights the work of Filipino nonfiction writers; Sylvia Hollis’ project is a series of oral histories that will be edited and presented on the web; and Kristina Gavin is working on a way to digitally present the Iowa Antique Instrument Collection, including streaming audio of the instruments being played.

In encountering such interesting projects, and in navigating the literature about what constitutes “engaged scholarship,” I found myself increasingly wondering how and where public engagement and digital humanities might intersect. I asked Teresa Mangum this question during a presentation in which she used the incredible Whitman Archive as an example of publicly engaged work. The project started by simply trying to get Whitman’s materials online, but then took a new turn when educators at all levels began asking for materials on how to incorporate the archive in their classrooms. From there, the original researchers launched a collaborative effort with the teachers to generate instructional guides and other classroom materials. When I asked Teresa which of these components made this an “engaged” project, her answer was swift: the latter. Her response echoed what we had been reading and discussing all week. Truly engaged projects emerge from community needs, and are conducted by coequal partners. The digitization and presentation of materials alone may not be enough.

I agree, even though that means that many of my own projects that I’ve imagined as being “engaged” probably weren’t. Engagement requires immersive, community-oriented work. After the Institute, I see engagement as a process that I’m working toward, not an outcome that I’ve already accomplished. I think that a fully-engaged project for me is still on the horizon.

I would love to hear from my fellow HASTACers on some of these issues. Where does publicly engaged scholarship and digital humanities intersect, in method or in presentation? What are some projects that you would hold up as examples? (Perhaps The Knotted Line? Or something like Worldmap?) What kind of engaged practices do you try to implement in your own work?


1 comment

The Center for Public History + Digital Humanities created Cleveland Historical to curate the city in collaboration with the community. Teachers, students, community members, institutions, and undergrads have fashioned the geolocated stories for mobile apps and the web ( and for iOS and Android devices.) Based on hundreds of oral histories and community engagement, we have tens of thousands of regular users, from tourists, to neighborhoods, and k-12 schools. Not hyperlocal history, the project develops a contextual historical vision, and it rewrites the history of the city thru layered multimedia storytelling. We hope it not only recreates a sense of place but fosters broad civic reengagement.

Even better, we've crafted a mobile publishing framework, Curatescape, that uses the open-source archival CMS Omeka as its base. Nearly twenty other universities, heritage preservation organizations, historical societies, and Main Street groups have adopted the framework to build public digital humanities projects that straddle scholarship, public humanities, and community engagement.

Take a look, we think it is pretty cool how we've been taking the social history ethos of "everyone their own historian" and remaking it for the mobile age through a process of engaged public scholarship. Would low to hear your thoughts. Thanks for the post and question.

Note: written on iPad... Probably lots of spelling errors.