Community Historians and Their Challenges

Scholars and local historians have the same overreaching goals: to preserve history and to present historical events and facts to the public. While they share overreaching goals, scholars tend to focus on how the historical information fits into a larger picture, for example, highlighting the role, outcome, and affects of a particular battle during the Civil War. Local historians and local historical societies on the other hand are interested in highlighting the local history and creating a local community identity. In her article “Community Exhibition: History, Identity, and Dialogue”, Tammy Gordon describes community curators and local historians as individuals who want to help their community by illustrating the community’s interests to outsiders, connecting generations together and creating a sense of shared past.

An example of this can be seen in the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative. A scholarly resource where partner institutions and scholars can create exhibits of multi-institutional archival materials, the subject matter focuses on the history of the Lowcountry region in South Carolina. Their goal is to emphasize the history of African Americas, Native Americans, colonial and antebellum slavery, women’s history, class and labor struggles, post-Emancipation, and the civil rights movement within this particular area. To do this, individuals submit exhibit ideas where they focus on one of these aspects using digital materials from various institutions. The material is reviewed by project staff before being published on the site.

This project is a great example of a focus on local history, however many groups are unable to do this. One of the biggest struggles they face is the inability to develop, maintain, and pay for a website or to digitize their materials so that they can be accessed online. Other projects wish to have community members participate and interact with their projects. This can be done by submitting first hand accounts or having collaborative works. However, other challenges arise when trying to determine content control and accuracy and how it can all be reviewed, in addition to building and maintaining a community of active, contributing users.

As I think about my personal project, I know that I want users to contribute by assigning metadata to the materials as well as transcriptions. The user contributed metadata are currently options that can be used to search the overall collection. But what happens when users are no longer actively participating, and materials haven’t been assigned a document/object type or keywords? With that in mind, I am currently thinking if I should change what fields can be used to search the collection until user engagement and participation has been established as well as what steps should be taken in order to help maintain their interest.

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