Making Digital Public History Useful

With a seemingly limitless list of interesting digital public history projects and innovative tools to talk about, I decided to start with a much more basic topic: audience.

After all, what’s the point of a cutting-edge web site if no one uses it?

I’ve been thinking a lot about audience for my own digital history project at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. While browsing what others have done, I recently stumbled across an interesting 2009 analysis of whether public history sites are gearing their web content toward K-12 teachers — a prime potential audience for many digital history projects.

Prompted in part by news reports that K-12 schools were cutting out field trips to save money, researchers Ward Mitchell Cates and Paige Hawkins Mattke decided to look at whether public history institutions were offering online educational resources that could replace the disappearing class visits. (Sorry, I wasn’t able to find a digital copy of the Educational Technology article online; you’ll have to read it the old-fashioned way.)

The authors created a “representative” sampling of 66 institutions, from National Park Service sites like Gettsyburg National Military Park to independent sites like Tudor Place Historic House and Garden in Washington, D.C. They used a process not unlike what a social studies teacher might use: they searched Google for 14 terms including “historic house museum” and “public history Websites,” and searched books and associations’ and schools’ web sites for leads.

Cates and Mattke grouped possible educational resources into 12 categories, from “online instruction” at one end of the spectrum to “communication tools” — offering a way to contact the institution — at the other.

They found that 95.5% of the sampled public history web sites offered the least intensive resource: communication tools for contacting the site. But it went downhill from there. Fewer than three-quarters of the web sites included some type of online exhibit. Fewer than half of the sites offered teacher resources. Only one in eight offered online learning activities, and only 3% offered online guided tours that included audio as well as images.

Apparently, public history institutions were not offering web content to replace the disappearing class field trips.

Of course, 2009 was a long time ago in web time. I have no doubt that a good portion of the historic sites evaluated in this study have since added new web resources.

Nevertheless, Cates and Mattke remind us that teachers may not need or want highly specialized digital resources that don’t support what they’re already tackling in the classroom. They may be looking for tools we’re not creating. And we may not be telling them about the digital resources that are already available, let alone working with them on the grand new tool that’s coming down the pike.

We public historians need to talk to real, live teachers (and other potential audiences) about how to make digital projects fit their needs. We need to think about how well our digital history projects fare in search engine results, and how we’ll get the word out to teachers (and other audiences) who might find the new resource useful.

And sometimes we need to check out resources that our audiences are reading, like Educational Technology magazine, to see what they’re saying about us.

Among the 16 historic sites in the Mid-Atlantic region included in Cates’ and Mattke’s sampling, only four web sites offered educational resources in at least half of the researchers’ categories: St. Mary’s City (MD, 9 categories), Historic Cold Spring Village (NJ, 8 categories), Gettysburg National Military Park (PA, 7 categories), and Adirondack Museum (NY, 6 categories).

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