Semester closes with some answers, more questions

The second semester of studying digital public humanities through George Mason University has taken us deeper into thinking about and doing historical research, but I have been surprised at how much of what I have learned has application beyond the coursework.

The course, Digital Public History, is part of a two-year graduate certificate program and focuses on how to turn research into something that engages the public through digital media. Reading about — and doing — public history has moved me closer to comprehending and being able to voice why researching the past always has appealed to me. The tension between history as an elitist academic profession and history as a product for public consumption is perhaps now a false dichotomy, but within that conflict is the answer to the question I have often been asked by students and those closest to me: Why history?

“Historians do not perform heart transplants, improve highway design, or arrest criminals,” Peter N. Stearns observed in a 1988 commentary.1 So what good are historians? Why study history? The answer is not as simple as reminding the questioner that the past informs the present and the future, nor is it as easy as arguing that a knowledge of history helps build good citizens — although both are legitimate benefits. I can’t say I have a firm answer to the question of why do history, but my conviction that it is important is more powerful than before. If nothing else, that has been confirmed by interactions with individuals who have expressed interest and support for my digital history project, Latvian Baptists in America, 1890-1940. Hearing personal stories about why history matters to them is inspiring.

Thinking through the various considerations necessary for a successful digital history project — such as developing personas, planning a social media strategy, and pondering overall user experience — has been a good reminder for me that slowing down is critical in the creative process. Some aspects of the process I already knew, but others I did not, such as the work with personas. Besides helping with my digital history project, I have passed on information about the benefits of personas to students as part of an assignment in a visual communication course. Personas also recently came up in a faculty meeting in which we discussed how to increase collaboration across the programs in our academic department.

The semester also brought some frustration with questions of sustainability and manageability of digital history projects. These are common concerns, it turns out, and must be considered in any long-range planning. The coursework thus far has provided the framework for further thinking about these issues.

1. Peter N. Stearns, “Why Study History?”, American Historical Association, accessed May 8, 2017,