OutHistory.org: Gaining the participation of the public

24 Jan
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OutHistory.org logo

The tag line of OutHistory.org colorfully shouts “It’s About Time!” Pointing out the relative newness of studying and preserving LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) history. The website contains an extensive amount of information and resources on LGBT history which is the first of its kind that is free and open with an element of public collaboration. [1] Through encouraged site participation and collaboration, it archives, displays and blogs on selected historical events. They also reach out to historians and those interested in historical research to submit their work on LGBT topics that meet the site’s guidelines. OutHistory.org also encourages members of the LGBT community to contribute. Yet, that public participation has not materialized.

OutHistory.org was created by Jonathan Ned Katz who published Gay American History in 1976. Katz was an activist and presents the activism of preserving and telling LGBT history. This site is for the elders and teenagers who feel that they are alone. This site is also for educators interested in teaching LGBT history in the classrooms and lecture halls. The site was originally launched in 2008 with the help of grants utilizing MediaWiki software which allows for contributions from users much like Wikipedia. The ability for users to contribute content gives them authority and ownership of their own past.[2] However, this feature of MediaWiki has been disabled and replaced with a submission form. OutHistory.org is housed and maintained at The Digital Humanities Initiative at The New School.

from Making Gay History the Podcast

The OutHistory.org blog is quite active. The main contributors are historians of LGBT history. One recent blog post explores the Making Gay History podcast that includes voice recorded interviews of prominent figures in LGBT history or everyday members of the LGBT community. This is a great example of digital history in practice as it presents history through the popular platform of the podcast. Another recent blog post has historians reflect on the Trump presidency which is a great way to use history to view how it relates to the present political climate. There were many mentions of the progress narrative that is an engrained notion of our society forever progressing throughout history. This is a main concern of the site moderators that untrained contributors would post Whig history.[3] LGBT historian Susan Ferentinos states our present is just as complicated and complex as our past with each generation having its advances and its setbacks.[4]

For all the website does do, there is a sense that it is a work in progress and that the community collaboration element is still missing from the website. This is due to early decisions that ranked certain works as more authoritative than others. Investors into the site were worried that LGBT history would be skewed, slanted or false if they fully trusted site contributors on the internet.[5] Currently there is a form where visitors can contribute materials and stories to be added to the website by moderators. For example the Native American Timeline leads to a page asking users to contribute stories, pictures and other materials via the online form.  However, doing public history is a young field which shifts users from mere consumers to participant in the telling of history.[6] The links to outside resources needs to be expanded to include more places like Indianapolis-based, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives which is hosted through IUPUI.

OutHistory.org features great resources and can be a great starting point to those interested in LGBT history. It is an example of the intersection where digital and public history meet. The collaboration will come from the public with trust. It is a starting point to delve into academic research or as an interest.  OutHistory.org provides open access to LGBT history unlike the extensive LGBT Thought and Culture database hosted by Alexander Street which can be accessed through an institution or paid account. OutHistory.org is a site that boasts public collaboration yet without the public. With proper help tools, a clear understanding of how the site works and moderated contributions from online users, “it’s about time” that historians assist the public  in learning how to become active participants in the telling of our history.

Update: In a previous version of this post, I stated that OutHistory.org is not for academic research. Yet, there are many primary source documents that researchers could use as well as other research that can be utilized as a starting point in LGBT historical research.

I also stated that OutHistory.org was hosted at CUNY. The site is now housed at the New School.

LGBT activism from OutHistory.org

Sources:

1.Greenblatt, E. (Ed.). (2010). Serving LGBTIQ library and archives users: Essays on outreach, service, collections and access. McFarland.

2.Frisch, M. (1990). A shared authority : essays on the craft and meaning of oral and public history. Albany: State University of New York Press.

3. Gutterman, L. (2010). “OutHistory.org: An Experiment in LGBTQ Community History-Making”. The Public Historian. Vol. 32, No. 4, pp. 96–109

4. Ferentinos, S. (2014). Interpreting LGBT history at museums and historic sites. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

5. Gutterman, L. (2010). Ibid.

6. Ibid.

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