A People's History? Developing Digital Humanities Projects with the Public

Susan Michelle Merriam (merriam@bard.edu), Bard College, United States of America

In this short paper I will explore some of the problems—particularly those having to do with power and access—inherent in collaboratively produced community digital history projects. I will focus on two projects currently in development in which I (working from within an academic institution and digital media lab) have partnered with people from marginalized populations located in geographic areas that have been given relatively little attention. One of my goals in initiating these projects has been to explore how to use institutional resources, including grants and IT support, to work outside of institutional structures. In each instance, my community partners and I have created projects centered on individual, personal narratives as they relate to place. Our objective has been to develop a kind of “people’s history,” giving voice to those who have traditionally been excluded from historical research and writing. In the course of conceptualizing and beginning to make these projects, however, we’ve encountered a number of thorny questions about notions of community, access, and narrative form and content.

Conceptually, these projects have been fundamentally enabled by digital technologies that allow new makers to produce historical narratives. Indeed, digital media has fed an emerging industry in small-scale, creative historical projects, many of which academic historians would term “micro histories.” Explored perhaps most famously by Carlo Ginzburg, micro histories can be viewed as correctives to “great man” theories of history or macro narratives that are easily undermined when challenged by specific circumstances. Focusing on seemingly “small” events—a day in an individual’s life, for example—micro histories often make transparent the point of view of the researcher, thus destabilizing hegemonic forms of historical writing. Micro histories can also bring attention to, or use, lacunae in the historical record, as well as offer narrative forms for “regular” people to engage in the construction of history.

Working with digital tools and a loose concept of micro history, last spring I founded Bard College’s “Mobile History Van,” which operates under the umbrella of Bard’s Digital History Lab ( http://eh.bard.edu/dhl/). Both are funded by a major grant from the Mellon Foundation. The Mobile History Van uses digital technology to record and publish local history, and has worked closely with a local library and museum on digitizing archival materials and recording community history. While these projects have excavated important aspects of the historical record, they were executed with institutional partners—a college and historical society—and are thus still inscribed in easily recognized power structures.

In pursuit of developing projects outside of institutional structures, I approached students from Bard’s Clemente program ( https://www.clementecourse.org), a college credit granting year-long course for people who earn below a certain income level. Many of these students are struggling with substance abuse issues, criminal records, and post-traumatic stress disorders, but they wish to find ways to engage in the world. My intention: to work together with them and develop digital projects from the ground up, including working with other people who might not consider themselves part of the community described by the local historical society.

The first part of this talk will briefly introduce the audience to the genesis of the projects, and to their current state. By the time of the conference, both projects will be near completion, one as a series of personal narratives mapped onto the city of Kingston NY, the other in the form of a podcast about storytelling.

The second half of this talk will examine a series of thorny questions we have encountered in the process of our work: Who controls the projects? What role does the institution play in supporting the projects, and how does this institutional affiliation shape the outcome in each case? How do we develop the projects for maximum input from collaborative partners? As we are working outside of an institutional structure, how do we define “community”? When should we, or is it necessary to, protect the storyteller? And finally, what does this type of project reveal about access to digital media?