- Beyond the Ivory Tower:Doing Public History in the Digital Age
Those of us who are historians take for granted that history provides an essential foundation for understanding the world around us, and we see its implications, analogies, and echoes in our everyday lives. But outside of the academy, history too often gets a bad rap. Most people encounter history in grade school as an overwhelming and often boring assortment of dates and events, antiquated costumes and dusty artifacts. As an historian, therefore, I’ve often felt that part of my role is to serve as an “evangelist” for the field of history, arguing for history’s relevance and potential interest to the regular person. When choosing my dissertation topic (on the American women’s health movement in the 20th century), I was concerned with finding a subject that would be accessible to anyone who reads a newspaper, that wouldn’t cause my friends’ eyes to glaze over or assume a blank expression whenever I mentioned it. In part, this was a survival strategy—I couldn’t imagine dedicating years of my life to a project that I could only discuss with a few colleagues—but it was also borne out of my commitment to scholarship that engages more than an expert few.
This commitment ultimately brought me to work as a public historian, most recently and significantly as Director of Public History at the Jewish Women’s Archive (http://jwa.org), a virtual archive devoted to uncovering, chronicling, and transmitting to a broad public the rich history of American Jewish women. Straddling the boundary between the Ivory Tower and the community, between the academic and the popular, is not always a comfortable position, but it serves as a generative space for considering the roles and tools of history in the 21st century.
One way in which public historians make the case for history’s relevance is to search out and promote historical figures who can serve as role models. This biographical approach is relatively old fashioned, and comes under legitimate criticism as privileging the individual over the collective and reducing history to a few great actors. Despite these potential problems, the biographical model remains one of the most accessible ways for the public to encounter historical figures and imagine themselves into the past. Biography can also be updated—made subversive, even—by expanding the canon of famous figures to include lesser known or traditionally excluded characters. Some of the Jewish [End Page 55] Women’s Archive’s (JWA) Women of Valor poster series and companion web exhibits exemplify this combination of traditional biography with unorthodox role models; the series highlights the life stories of accomplished women but (with the notable exception of Henrietta Szold) focuses on women whose stories were not already included in the standard narrative of American Jewish history, either because they were primarily known for work outside of the Jewish community (e.g. writer Emma Lazarus, business woman Beatrice Alexander, scientist Gertrude Elion), were considered “treyf” because of the nature of their activities or beliefs (e.g. Emma Goldman), or were simply forgotten except perhaps in their local communities (e.g. Gertrude Weil). Even when pursuing the biographical role model approach to history, JWA took care to avoid a purely celebratory angle on the lives of the “Women of Valor,” mentioning (where relevant) the figures’ blind spots or failures to live up to contemporary expectations.
The emphasis on identifying role models speaks to one of the significant differences between academic history and public history: identity building as a central agenda of the project. The notion of an agenda, one might argue, is itself anathema to academic history, which purports to be objective and exists to produce knowledge for its own sake; institutions of public history, in contrast, must identify goals to justify their existence (and raise funds for their support), and these goals often include not just the production of knowledge but the shaping of subjects. Within the Jewish community, identity building takes on particular urgency. Many (if not most) Jewish educational institutions—institutions of public history among them—exist in large part to promote the relevance and importance of Jewish...