History Engine: Putting public history values into the classroom

31 Jan

Finding examples of new and exciting digital history projects is not a terribly demanding task nowadays. However, finding a digital history project that forces me to reconceptualize public history was challenging, perhaps because my understanding of public history continues tohistory engine evolve and is constantly challenged in the courses that I take. Nonetheless, I eventually discovered History Engine, a project that incorporates public history values in an unconventional way, and made me ask what impact public history can make in a more traditional academic setting.[1]

In 2008 Andrew Torget (digital humanist and founding director of the Digital Scholarship Lab at University of Richmond) and Scott Nesbit (postdoctoral fellow at University of Virginia) created History Engine, a tool that allows students at participating universities to share their own research and writing with public audiences and peers from across the country. Taken at face value, History Engine is a typical tool for the academic dissemination of historical knowledge. It is not terribly different from any other database of research articles, except that it includes tags and rudimentary story mapping. However, what this tool does for the students who use it has the potential to revolutionize how we, as public historians, understand our work.

History Engine is rooted in the academy; however, upon closer examination, several public history values are at work in this digital tool. For one, History Engine fosters collaboration. As public historians, we recognize the value in multiple perspectives. History Engine allows students to read and rate the work of their peers, and while the rating system might be enhanced to allow for more specific commentary and sharing of opinions and arguments, the fact that collaboration is emphasized and encouraged is a great start. Second, History Engine makes history accessible to widespread audiences. Anyone with Internet access can read “episodes” of history that students in universities across the country produce. Further, it teaches students that history is not something locked away and out of their reach. It encourages them to access and actively engage with the past through archival research. Most importantly, History Engine pushes the bounds of history education in the classroom. I cannot pretend to be any sort of expert on curriculum standards or methods in teaching history; however, I know from experience that history education is in a sad state in many schools and universities across the country. I learned history from high school teachers who cared more about coaching baseball and softball than igniting a passion for the subject in their students. I also learned about archival and primary source research not in a university classroom, but by being thrust headlong into projects at internships. History Engine does what too many schools and even universities neglect to do –it brings students into direct contact with primary sources and public history professionals (namely archivists) who work with those sources. It also has the potential to instill in students an excitement for the past and a realization that studying history can be a far more intimate experience than just memorizing names and dates from a textbook.

So, History Engine employs public history values like collaboration and accessibility, but what is it about it that prompts me to reconceptualize my understanding of public history? It does not use advanced GIS technology or cutting edge virtual reality simulation, and yes, there are ways that it might be improved. However, History Engine makes me realize that digital tools rooted in public history core values can be used in classrooms of all levels across this country to bring new life to history education, and even instill in students an excitement for the past that might eventually lead them to a career in public history.

While History Engine evolved out of experimentation and consultation with professors of history, I see an opportunity here for public historians to enter conversations with educators about how to effectively connect students to history in the classroom.[2] The History Engine project is in the vein of what public historians do everyday in museums, nonprofits, historic sites, and numerous other settings –it is built on collaboration and conversation, and makes history accessible. Most of us are becoming public historians because we envision our careers lying outside of academia, but if our task is first and foremost to engage audiences and ignite a desire to learn about the past, then we might ask how some of the tools we use in public settings can translate to classroom settings. I think that there could be great promise in increasing collaboration between public historians and high school teachers/college professors. After all, in essence public historians are educators too.

[1] The Digital Scholarship Lab, “History Engine,” The University of Richmond, http://historyengine.richmond.edu/pages/home (accessed January 30, 2013).

[2]Perspectives on History, “History Engine: Creating a Writing Assignment for the Digital Age,” American Historical Association, http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2009/0905/0905for14.cfm (accessed January 30, 2013).


2 Responses to “History Engine: Putting public history values into the classroom”

  1. angelabpotter February 1, 2013 at 2:17 am #

    I was really interested in the site. Having been a practicing historian for over a decade, I still find the process of writing history a bit of a mystery at times, a bit like the engine in my car. How exactly do we take the stuff of history and turn it into a narrative? Trying to understand it yourself is hard; trying to explain it to others is really hard.
    I was struck with how this combines blogging and open-access journal content. It would be interesting to see multi-media added to the episodes. (Maybe there is on some but the ones I looked at did not have any. ) I wonder though, the utilty of the site for sharing “historical” information. Typing one of the topics from the episode, about a Brittish writer in the American Civil War, and the site did not come up on the first 50 hits on google. I think more would need to be done to link this to other databases of information if it were to be used to really share information. I can see this beign really powerful to share within a large American History Survey class at a University.

    Now when I see anything like this, I want to know who did that and how did they do that. The University of Richmond site in general is amazing. I played around in their site where you can tour the slave auctions. The data mining really interested me. I had been a bit skeptical of some of the word mapping concepts that I saw in other sites, because they seemed a bit flashy with little substance. I used the site to compare “negro” and “nigger” data mining and was really struck by not only the regional differences in the uses of the term, which I expected, but the gender dimensions which I did not.

    The History Engine graphics do seem a bit like the workings of my brain this week.
    I need to get my history engine in gear!

    • apcurtin February 4, 2013 at 10:24 pm #


      I agree that this site could be really cool if it incorporated more digital media. Your comment about linking this to other databases of information is especially relevant in terms of our topic for this week: the semantic web. I definitely see a great deal of potential in History Engine!

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