What’s public about the digital humanities?

October 17, 2016

The digital public humanities are having a moment. Universities, museums, and other cultural institutions are exploring how technology and new media are changing the ways in which individuals create, perceive, and interact with cultural heritage. Forward-thinking museums have capitalized on new technologies in 3D printing, apps and messaging, and audio guides to expand the ways in which the public interacts with culture. For its part, higher education works to prepare the next vanguard of digital scholars, creating new hubs with hiring clusters and graduate programs and certificates.

Recently the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities formally adopted the digital public humanities into its curriculum, hiring a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Digital Public Humanities (shout out to Jim McGrath), creating courses on topics ranging from digital communities to digital storytelling, and creating a graduate Curatorial Fellowship on teaching and technology, of which I am the first/inaugural recipient.

The popularity of the digital public humanities doesn’t show signs of slowing. But in this excitement surrounding interactive products, I’ve found myself hungry for more conversations on method and pedagogy. As a Master’s student in the Public Humanities, I’ve spent the better part of the first semester meditating on the term “public humanities.” How do the public humanities distinguish themselves from the “private”? Who are our publics? How do these relationships affect our practice and the institution?

In search of answers to some of these questions, I spoke with a number of institutions similarly navigating the space between the digital and the public. A result both of these conversations and my own reflection, the points that follow are not solutions for the field, but rather thoughts to consider as we students, faculty, and staff at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities continue to map the relationship between the public and digital humanities.


Ever wander through a gallery, participate in a public program, or click through a digital exhibit and wonder how it got made?

Open documentation is a major facet of digital humanities’ capacity for engagement. Under this model, researchers make their questions, methodology and sometimes even their data as public as the final project.

Purdom Linblad is the Assistant Director of Innovation and Learning at the Maryland Institute for Technology and the Humanities. She was formally Head of Graduate Programs for the Scholar’s Lab at the University of Virginia where she managed the Praxis Program supporting an interdisciplinary cohort of graduate students who design, develop, and build a digital tool for humanities interpretation. In her mentorship, Purdom emphasizes the need for and value of open documentation, stating, “we push ourselves...to be transparent in our research.”

The Praxis Program, of course, is not alone in this. There are others embracing open documentation as an integral part of their work. Much like citations in a printed text, blogs, notes, tweets, and memos provide a breadcrumb trail for our colleagues interested in doing similar work. Where open documentation online distinguishes itself, however, is in its rapidity. These materials invite audiences to engage with projects even before they’re finished, creating an active dialogue between project and user.

In addition, open documentation can demystify cultural labor for the public.  Open documentation can enrich the relationship between institutions and their publics by helping the latter understand how a story comes to be. Outlining our question, processes, milestones, and challenges may make us vulnerable, but I think we’ll also be better for it.


Public humanities is grounded in interdisciplinary work. Our program thrives on the partnerships it fosters among historians, educators, artists, performers, poets, and activists.

Teresa Mangum is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Iowa and is on the steering committee for the University’s Public Humanities in a Digital World initiative which focuses on the impact of the digital humanities in academics, society, and civic life. The initiative encompasses multiple organizations at the University of Iowa, including the University of Iowa Libraries and the Office of Teaching, Learning and Technology.  There is an art to navigating the different motivations and capacities across collaborators, but the labor is worth it.

The value of institutional partnerships is well understood in the digital public humanities. I wonder how we can apply this model beyond the academy—I’m thinking not only about how we can exchange resources, skills, and capacity with local organizations, but also about what exactly digital public humanities projects give them in return. As Mangum emphasized, the interdisciplinary foundation of her initiative and the digital public humanities creates a community of students and faculty “imagining a different kind of digital presence.” They actively reflect on how their work is valuable and meaningful to broader audiences.

Digital projects, especially archives and exhibitions bring narratives to a variety of individuals, including those who are unfamiliar—or even uncomfortable—with a museum or cultural institution. This work need not stop at curation, but may encompass programs of social justice, equality, and civic education (there are researchers who are asking these questions, documenting social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter online). I’m eager to see how this continues to unfold. For example, as media literacy and digital literacy become an increasingly important aspect of public education, I wonder whether we can create tools in partnership with local schools or afterschool organizations that build on this curriculum.


The enduring question in the public humanities—both analog and digital—concerns audience. Who are they? What do they want? How do we reach them? There’s an assumption that digital humanities projects are inherently public: everyone’s online, so everyone has the opportunity to reach your work, and vice versa. This, of course, is not enough.  An emerging line between the digital humanities and the digital public humanities is defined not only by the visibility of these projects to various audiences (expected, underserved, underrepresented, etc.) but also their relationship with them. Once made known, that is, how does a digital public humanities project respect the interests, needs, and input of its users?

Market research and branding are playing increasingly vital roles in the development of digital public humanities projects. Sheila Brennan, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, described this development in relation to their recent project, Histories of the National Mall. The Mall sees millions of people each year, including international and national tourists, DC locals, school groups and families. To create a project that would resonate with each constituency, Brennan and her team created various user personas and put them in dialogue with each other and compared the needs, assumptions, wants, and concerns of each.

Jeremy Boggs, a Design Architect at the Scholar’s Lab, provides a cautionary note, however, noting that in some cases it may be important to not only ask who your audience is, but also “who is your program excluding?” With the broad appeal of the Web, it’s difficult to anticipate who is accessing your work and to what aim. While the work may not appeal to everyone online, resources should be available to help every online user access it on the some level.


The proliferation of digital public humanities programs in higher education reflects the increasing value of digital work in museums and cultural institutions. As the cultural sector seeks to hire those who can design and develop digital projects, academic departments across the U.S. have responded, adjusting their curriculum and offering new degrees and certificates. But I’m wondering if training alone is enough.

Digital public humanities programs may equip their students with the skills and expertise to work in a digital capacity for museums and cultural institutions, but conversations about how this work is valued and distributed in a professional context are increasingly necessary. Those of us formally trained in the digital public humanities are too frequently singled out as the “digital guy,” carrying the weight of those projects alone.

Earlier this year, Miriam Posner wrote on the mental and emotional labor spent on digital humanities. There exists a “boom-and-bust cycle” of employment, support, and security that wears on even the hardiest of scholars. Her post went viral, resonating with others in the field. However, I think her concerns ripple beyond the academy.  I believe that as digital public humanities programs equip their students with the skills and expertise to work in a digital capacity for museums and cultural institutions, there need to be conversations about how this work is valued and distributed in a professional context.

I’m sure these questions about the digital public humanities will change almost as quickly as the technologies that support them. But fortunately, I’m not alone. In the academy and in the field, there’s a lot of making, building, and thinking pushing this thing we’re calling the digital public humanities forward. The field is highly interruptible, willing to take pause and incorporate new tools.  These projects are also open invitations to researchers, users, academics, and students to invest in a broad, interdisciplinary community.

I can’t wait to see what we all accomplish.

Andrea Ledesma is a Master’s Student in the Public Humanities and the inaugural Teaching with Technology Innovation Fellow. Through her academic and professional work, she explores the use of new media in museums and cultural institutions, especially as it relates to public history. After graduation she hopes to pursue a career in exhibition development. Follow her at @am_ledesma

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