New Publication: Doing Public Humanities

Front cover to Doing Public Humanities, a collection of essays edited by Susan Smulyan and published by Routledge in 2020

This week saw the publication of Doing Public Humanities, a new collection of essays edited by Susan Smulyan and published by Routledge. Here’s the official book description from the publisher’s website:

Doing Public Humanities explores the cultural landscape from disruptive events to websites, from tours to exhibits, from after school arts programs to archives, giving readers a wide-ranging look at the interdisciplinary practice of public humanities.

Combining a practitioner’s focus on case studies with the scholar’s more abstract and theoretical approach, this collection of essays is useful for both teaching and appreciating public humanities. The contributors are committed to presenting a public humanities practice that encourages social justice and explores the intersectionalities of race, class, gender, and sexualities. Centering on the experiences of students with many of the case studies focused on course projects, the content will enable them to relate to and better understand this new field of study.

The text is essential reading for undergraduate and graduate classes in public history, historic preservation, history of art, engaged sociology, and public archaeology and anthropology, as well as public humanities.

Screenshot of title page for "Teaching Digital Public Humanities with the Public Library," an essay by Jim McGrath in the Doing Public Humanities collection.

I wrote “Teaching Digital Public Humanities With The Public Library: The Lou Costa Collection, The Updike Collection, and The AS220 Collection at the Providence Public Library.” The essay centers on a Fall 2017 collaboration between my “Digital Public Humanities” graduate course and my friends at Providence Public Library Special Collections. In addition to providing a case study that focuses on the collaborative, community-centered, and pedagogical dimensions of digital public humanities in the classroom, I  provide what I call “An Early Twenty-First Century Snapshot” of digital public humanities and argue that the people doing digital public humanities initiatives should be valued and supported by institutions who claim to care about this kind of work. Many universities and institutions in cultural heritage still have a long way to go on this front, in my opinion.

Here’s a quick excerpt from my essay:

Current approaches to digital public humanities reveal a need to fully come to terms with the implications of doing and supporting this work, to valuing it as a specialized form of knowledge, to committing further resources to those who do it. We must attend to the ways digital contexts have radically transformed the work we do. We should consider not just how thinking digitally impacts our ideas of publics, but the institutional realities, forms of collaboration, and material dimensions of our work. Even the idea of “a new kind of openness” is quickly complicated by the forms of openness available on a heavily-privatized web, by the reactions of racist, misogynist, xenophobic, and transphobic trolls to particular voices, by the ways that algorithms reinforce and even reward an embrace of crude stereotypes and attention-seeking advocates for white nationalism and fascism. Many of us document lives and form online communities in privatized digital spaces like social media networks, spaces operated by companies who have monetized our interests, stories, conversations, and images, data that is monitored, analyzed, and weaponized by the aims of corporate interests, government entities, and employers. The dream of an open web was a fantasy that quickly became weaponized and monetized, a utopian vision that captivated the attention of a wide range of publics but has arguably done much to limit the imaginations of people and communities that its architects and gatekeepers ignored, felt threatened by, or otherwise disavowed through implicit and explicit actions.

So when we “Think Digital” in the context of our work, we must also listen to the voices that represent decades of thinking about the impact of digital media on our daily lives, voices that may reside beyond our current realms of expertise and fields of discipline. Much of public humanities work is interdisciplinary, inspired by a wide range of practitioners in various fields, and our work in digital public humanities should materialize along similar lines. On the subject of openness, we might look to Safiya Umoja Noble’s work on race and representation in search engines in Algorithms of Oppression, Zeynep Tufekci’s considerations of the intersections of social media and public protest in Twitter and Tear Gas, the activism of Aaron Swartz in the name of an open web, the architects of Tor and other tools that help users of the web remain anonymous, efforts to decolonize the internet by Whose Knowledge? and other advocacy groups that acknowledge global and hyperlocal contexts and constraints. These voices from sociology, communications, archives, computer sciences, are motivated by overlapping professional and personal experiences. And like the best public humanities practitioners, they prioritize polyvocality, models of shared authority, interests of audiences that extend into civic life, and the work of building a better world. 

I’m really pleased to see the piece in a collection featuring so many of my friends and colleagues at Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. It’s been a bittersweet summer, as I’m winding down my time with the JNBC. I’m grateful that Susan proposed this book project and that we were able to document our approaches and thoughts on public humanities in a more permanent way. No one can take this book away from us, which is really nice.

In any case, if you’re interested in public humanities, digital humanities, archives, digital pedagogy, or other stuff, I hope you read our collection of essays! And I’d be happy to talk to anyone interested about Doing Public Humanities and the kind of work it highlights: see the contact details at the bottom of this post for details.

One more thing: Routledge is currently running a 20% off sale on their web site. I also have a discount code: I’m not sure when it expires, but you can enter the code “FLR40” for 20% off your purchase at checkout on their online store (“Discount can not be used in conjunction with any other offer or discount and only applies to books purchased directly via their website”).

Questions, comments? Feel free to email me at james_mcgrath@brown.edu or get in touch with me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.

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