New Digital Histories?

Last Sunday I took my newly minted membership to the Professional Historians Association (WA) along to the professional development afternoon held at the State Library (my second home, these days). There were a number of speakers discussing community histories, editing, interpretation and more.

What I found most interesting, however, was that as soon as questions were opened to the floor, the topic turned to digital media, electronic books, referencing websites and similar issues. It was obvious to me that there are a lot of questions out there for professionals who are grappling with how new media will change their practice.

While I didn’t participate directly in the discussion (I’m just a newbie after all!), I do think a lot about these issues and I honestly believe that searching for answers is the wrong way to approach this area.

You see, the thing about digital-ness, the Internet, communications technology or whatever label you want to put on it is that it provides solutions. When it really boils down to it, that is all it does.

Want to find out who is reading your work? Who visits your museum? What people think of your brand? How to connect with helpful/knowledgeable/essential/completely out-there people? Need a platform for your project?

The answers to these questions are not ebooks or websites or little clicky counters mounted near a door. The solutions come from the discipline of digital-goodness but the answers are yours to find.

When you hear people say that the only limit is your imagination, it really is true.

(Okay, so money is an issue too but lets just leave that to one side for a moment – anyway, sometimes it isn’t the issue you think it is).

What is the difference between answers and solutions? As I see it, a solution is the medium by which you will develop your answer. If your question is about visitors to a museum what do you really want to know? Numbers? That’s good, but perhaps a breakdown might be nice. Okay, well, how long did they stay for? What did they look at? What did they like? At what point did museum fatigue set in? How can we collect or capture this information? How can computers help us?

What are you really asking? What do you really want to know and why? Just writing that list of questions I came up with a heap of different ideas about interactivity and museum displays that may or may not be technically possible…yet!

The other VERY important point here is that the digital-verse – that place where we all play – is one of the most democratic/anarchic places you’ll find. The beauty of it is that not only can you find your own answers and develop your own solutions, but you have the absolute freedom to go ahead and try it out, upload, post, twitter and let it loose. You don’t have to ask permission.

So what does this mean for Historians? I think it means that asking questions (while the staple of our professional practice) is not the way to approach these issues. Thinking, talking and, most importantly doing, is a hundred times better.

Don’t like the way footnoting is done online? Change it.

Worry about website referencing being too impermanent? Do it differently.

Think people will steal your work? Make them pay for it.

Find it all too much? Forget it and get on with your work.

The answers you come up with that address the questions you have, if you think about them usefully rather than fearfully, will lead you to the solutions to be found in this digital world.

Embrace it, enjoy it and ignore it when it isn’t what you want. All responses are valid.

But, please, don’t complain that you don’t like how things are done without doing something about it. After all, those who are currently doing it “wrong” are probably just trying out ideas they had – why don’t you connect with them and discuss it?

Radical? Not for the new media.

I’m off to the Museums Australia (WA) Conference in Kalgoorlie tomorrow to present on Digital Storytelling so my next post will be “on the road”!

Photograph by David Blaikie

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