Steven Lubar points out as rule number 4 in his “Seven Rules for Public Humanities” that, “community is complicated, and best defined by the community, not by academics looking in” (n. pag.). Following his idea, this paper reflects on the process and importance of building “Visualizing History” as a digital project in the intersection between the Digital Humanities and the Public Humanities to facilitate a small community in Lincoln, Nebraska with the tools to engage with and define their history and sociocultural heritage in a new and accessible manner.
The project was part of the DH Practicum at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and involved the creation of a digital source that could portray the almost invisible history of The Malone Community Center, which has served the African American community in Lincoln for more than 60 years. On the first iteration of the platform the team envisioned a finished digital product that would tell their political and social history in a scholarly manner. However, upon revising the great amount of long unchecked social and cultural artifacts this center holds in its private archive, we soon realized that producing a traditional digital archive was not adequate for this organization. Being immersed in our academic environment, we at first failed to see the benefits of allowing the community to take active part on the re-contextualization of their voices, in order to also reflect the Center’s position in the city today: work to honor and strengthen their community by creating a space where every participant can develop to their full potential. Thus, we focused on creating an accessible DH project that could facilitate people in this community with limited access to technology the tools to easily participate in the curation of history, and the ability to pursue the interest of a broad audience of community members, scholars, and the general public.
As a context-provider that prompts community members to write/speak and be read/heard, we hope that this tool will start a collaborative dialogue on the production of this history for, as Lubar points out, public humanities “opens the opportunity for many voices, many ways of telling a story” (n. pag.). In order to start the conversation, we have integrated a small-scale crowdsourcing movement to it. Defined as “the act of taking work once performed within an organization and outsourcing to the general public through open call for participants” (Ridge 1) the project will benefit from it as it draws attention to the idea of collaborative and cooperative work to achieve a particular goal; in this case, the goal is making an otherwise forgotten history visible for the community, the city and cultural heritage in general.
In sum, “Visualizing History: The Malone Community Center” is a primary example of a DH practice that showcases an alternative to the academic field because it articulates a new manner to give visibility to a community by providing its own members with new tools to rediscover their past, to learn about their present, and ponder the future.
Written with Alex Kinnaman.