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There are thousands of historical societies throughout the United States. These societies primary mission is to preserve and share the local history of the area or affinity groups associated with the society.. Such retelling of local history is often done in the form of public presentations or community exhibits. Such exhibitions are an attempt by the community to take ownership of their own history and not allow it to be told by outsiders. As Tammy Gordon has argued, “Community exhibition is often motivated by people who have been historically ‘othered,’ people whose histories have been told by those outside the community. For them, historical exhibition is one way to claim local control over heritage resources and to assert sovereignty. While such historical interpretation may not follow the objectivity an academic historian strives for, it is important to keep in mind that their goal is different’ it is to represent the interest of the community, often presenting it in a positive light.
Most community exhibitions or historical interpretations are still done in physical spaces. Some local history projects are beginning to emerge in the digital spaces. One example is connecticuthistory.org which attempts to crowdsource its information by letting people write well researched articles on different aspects of the evolving history and culture of the diverse groups that comprise the state of Connecticut. There are affinity-groups also for whom the digital space has made it possible to interconnect across distant places and to digitally create and interpret their history in a digital location. A good example is Outhistory.org which attempts to collect, preserve and advance lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer history digitally.
Some of the challenges doing local history or affinity-group community history in the digital space is having the public engaged and contributing to it and also having people accept the historical interpretations as valid and not simply opinions. As the people who setup outhistory.org found out and noted: “After an exciting and well-attended launch party at New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center in October 2008, it came as a shock when OutHistory.org’s site hits failed to increase exponentially as expected. It was even more confusing when the few people who did want to contribute to the site requested that someone at OutHistory.org upload their essays or collections for them.” It was also challenging for them to keep visitors to the website engaged. Some of the Professors who were involved in the project had concerns that the website was not going to be a reliable source of history for their students. They is always the suspicion that crowdsourced information is not reliable, yet when I have looked at several pages in Wikipedia that are connected to my own area of expertise, the information is near accurate as it can get.
Reading and reflecting on the experiences of some of these projects is making me think of lessons I can learn and apply as I work on my own project. The important one is to make sure that people find the project and this means it has to be search-engine optimized. I also have to make the contribution process simple. In online spaces, people do not want to spend too much time trying to figure out something as other websites are seeking their attention. I will include a clear and precise FAQ to help with navigating the website. I also will make sure the website is mobile friendly as people are spending more time on their smartphones than on their desktop computers.