“The revolution will not be tweeted.” Or, so read the tagline on a recent Malcolm Gladwell article in The New Yorker. In his persuasive manner, Gladwell suggested that relationships developed through Facebook, for example, tend to be shallow and rarely strong enough to create the bonds necessary for the hard work of achieving social change. Yet, we have watched as the youth of the Arab world foment revolution, successful in part due to the use of Twitter and Facebook as tools for organizing and publicizing their cause. Can social media build and sustain meaningful communities? Maybe the jury is still out on the relationship between new technologies and civic engagement.
Many of us who work in the public history field are asking these same questions. Web 2.0 tools have opened up a world of new and exciting possibilities for exploring and presenting history and we feel the pressure to use these tools, even as we don’t know its exact impact on our audience. But, I think we also feel suspicious of technology’s ability to act as a stand-in for face-to-face dialogue. How do we keep up with technology without ignoring the need for authentic, real-time interactions?
The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library is wrestling with just these issues. At the recent NCPH conference in Pensacola, Anne Conable, Project Director, and Michael Frisch, Professor of History at SUNY-Buffalo, spoke about their new collaborative project called “Re-Collecting the Great Depression and New Deal as a Civic Resource in Hard Times.”
The library is developing a unique digital inventory of primary source materials (photographs, oral histories, artifacts, buildings) relating to the Great Depression and the New Deal in western New York. This multi-media “collection of collections” will be a resource to support civic dialogue and reflection, drawing the community into the library for panel discussions and an exploration of their shared history. The project explores how the experiences of Buffalo residents in the 1930s might help provide context and perspective on the present. And, the library is experimenting with technology to help drive this process.
The central mission of the project has hinged on a series of three PastForward discussions. The topics have been incredibly timely; the first discussion in October 2010 focused on public funding for the arts and the legacy of the WPA. The second, “Our Daily Bread: Organized Labor Then and Now,” ran in February on the heels of Governor Scott Walker’s controversial plan to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employee union members in Wisconsin. Both events were well attended – at each panel discussion, over 70 members of the community came to share their views and engage with the history.
Technology has played an important, but supporting, role in the project. Both Conable and Frisch speak eloquently about the project as a “model of how digital humanities can help a public library mobilize collections to address the civic purposes central to its mission.” Event participants can, for example, create their own personalized tour – downloadable from Google Maps – of Depression-era Buffalo. (Zotero, the collections software, allows them to pull from the burgeoning collections database to accomplish this.) They can download posters with photographs from the collection. These options allow the visitor to customize their experience, while also encouraging further engagement with the programming.
If you are in the western New York region, the third discussion in the PastForward series, “Housing For All: Policy and Reality,” will be held on May 24th at 7 p.m. in the Central Library. The discussion is sure to be dynamic, and while none of us has all the answers about the relationship between technology and civic life, this project is an innovative model for the ways in which new technologies can support the work of history and encourage community building.
“Housing For All: Policy and Reality”
May 24, 2011? 7 p.m.
1 Lafayette Square
Buffalo, NY 14203-1887
For more information: http://www.buffalolib.org/