The issue of credit for digital and public projects is a key and not-at-all clear one within the academy. I have long claimed that public and digital historians generally have to do double duty. We are expected to develop exhibits, web sites, and other public-facing forms of communication to engage the public and train our students. This is while still meeting the same standards for peer-reviewed scholarly publication — a book with a university press and some articles for tenure, and another book for promotion.
There are a handful of dissenters of this assessment. Mark Souther, co-creator of Cleveland Historical, disagreed in the course of a UHA roundtable on digital urban history, pointing out that selective, thoughtful strategy could allow faculty to create digital/public products and scholarly products from the same base of research material. This is true — in some cases, publishing about public engagement experience can help cover both bases, as Andrew Hurley did, for example, writing about a St. Louis neighborhood in his book Beyond Preservation. The NCPH History @ Work blog is a great resource for these kinds of debates and discussion.
But I think most public/digital history faculty generally agree that they are expected to do more. My basic reading of this is because the nature of public projects is not well understood by non-public/digital history faculty. There is a clear understanding of what a scholarly publication looks like: a work of original scholarship based on primary source research, peer-reviewed in a recognized journal within the author’s subfield or sometimes a broader, discipline-wide journal. However, the expected primary source basis for a public or digital history product and how to convey primary research is not clear. There is no consensus format for citing primary source research in an exhibit, for example. Even if there were, it would normally be inappropriate or unnecessary for a public audience. The materials we point to are often secondary sources because they are intellectually and physically far more accessible to the public/non-specialist audience than a primary source collection. This inherently obscures the original research that goes into an effort like an exhibit. The wide variety of formats (like the wide varieties of sensory perception we have and media types to engage them) also throws things into confusion for evaluation and credit. How to “read” a museum exhibit? Or a web site? Or a data visualization? Is there an introduction, body and conclusion? Is there even a narrative structure?
I don’t blame non-public historians for not getting it all. It takes special training to work with all of these — the training that public/digital historians undertake. BUT it is an expectation we must have and we must impose on non-public/digital faculty — these are the people who create the positions and hire public/digital historians to their faculty in the first place. We must not hire the faculty without developing the appropriate competencies and processes for judging them.
Another way that faculty should think about the work of public and digital historians is in terms of arguments. This is a recognizable concept for academics. Historians are making arguments all the time. We are evaluating arguments, agreeing and disagreeing and revering the quality or novelty of arguments. However, because of the limited audience for scholarly publications, we are not winning arguments. Most scholarly arguments have little impact on society because few people read them and those only specialists. This is an awful failure of the academy. Our ideas deserve greater place in civic debate.
The original historical research on the HOLC redlining maps, for example, was by Ken Jackson in a Journal of Urban History article and a Bancroft-award winning book, Crabgrass Frontier. It had some public impact, especially through other public-oriented scholars and journalists. But Mapping Inequality will likely eventually surpass the impact of the book (even while it contributes to it) by making the wide variety of HOLC materials available directly to the scholarly and non-academic public alike enhanced by an accessible interface and contextualized by minimalist, updated interpretation written for the public. The project treads with Ken Jackson’s arguments but then cuts its own interpretive path.
Public and digital historians win arguments. They conduct research and communicate it in a museum or over the web or in person to shape public understanding of a topic. They take good arguments that suffer from jargon or otherwise mediocre prose and synthesize and edit them in new ways to reach non-specialists. They build on existing arguments and find new primary source material to explore or support the argument, and they rewrite it for the public. And the public pays attention to these arguments, in a way that they do not to scholarly publications. This is what stands equal with scholarly publication — the creation a work of historical interpretation and argumentation, based on original research, with impact on society. This more generalized or abstracted way of thinking about our work builds on the importance of arguments to put public and digital work on even footing with journal publication.
NB: For reference, this is informed by the 2010 OAH/NCPH white paper on engaged scholarship. It made the case that departments should value engaged scholarship, but did not make specific recommendations for how. I saw how it was a useful for opening a conversation about credit, but not one for closing with an agreement.