Communication Technologies and the Public Historian

History is entering a new era. The historian offering professional skills to the wider community can no longer rely solely on writing and research ability. They now also must master a diverse range of communication technologies, as video, CD-ROM, and computer databases become the preferred methods for people to receive business information and entertainment.

This is one of the founding principals of the public history company called History Enterprises, Inc. that Virginia Dawson and I founded. Located on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, we are a part of the Weatherhead School of Management’s technology incubator called Enterprise Development, Inc. While this incubator typically takes young technology companies from the university and helps them transfer their product to the for-profit market, we are the first “humanities” start up. As historians of science and technology, we are transferring the knowledge and skills we learned in academia to a larger nonacademic audience.

For four years we have been plying our craft as professional historians through a variety of new media, including two important communication technologies, video and CD-ROM.

The first time a historian works in video, he or she is shocked by the realization that they are communicating to the audience on three simultaneous channels. With video technology, the historian is like a conductor who orchestrates the interplay of words, visuals, and music to recreate a harmonious whole. This orchestrated harmony is a great instrument for conveying the past, but it also presents daunting challenges. Historical research remains the foundation of the video project, but its effectiveness is enhanced by images to reinforce the words and by music to evoke emotion. When done well, the historian’s original words are not diminished, but intensified, as the video immerses the viewer in sights, sounds, and analysis of the past.

Usually historians must rely on video production companies to create a video documentary and to refine their vision. Video professionals provide the technical expertise necessary to piece together the words, visuals, and music on sophisticated and costly computer editing systems. When historians and video companies work together as a team, the resulting documentary can be both informative and entertaining, and most importantly, it can fulfill professional historical standards.

The multimedia CD-ROM is similar to the video documentary in that multiple channels of information can be conveyed to the viewer. Unlike the video, though, the CD-ROM can mimic other forms of historical production and also allow the user the freedom to explore a vast amount of information through unique pathways. For example, a CD-ROM can mimic the turning of book pages. It can recapture the sound of long forgotten radio broadcasts. It also can reproduce full-motion video with all the sound and visuals that one can enjoy from television.

In addition to these imitative functions, the CD-ROM and DVD ROM have the ability to store an incredible amount of information on a particular subject. Archival features, such as the full text of oral interviews, can be included on the disk. Still pictures can be labeled and stored in virtual photo albums. Hyperlinks can seamlessly connect the user to even more information through the Internet.

History Enterprises is currently producing a DVD ROM project for NASA in conjunction with a book Virginia Dawson and I are writing on the Centaur rocket. The multimedia disk will allow users to explore a virtual orbiting history museum. They can read the full text of the book, listen to the numerous interviews of NASA scientists and engineers conducted by the authors, watch computer simulations of launches from a variety of angles, and link to the virtual library of full text histories on the Internet produced by other NASA historians. The preservation, historical analysis, entertainment, and synthetic capabilities of this communication technology make it a powerful tool in the hands of the historian.

Why should historians apply their skills in these communication realms? One reason is the tremendous proliferation of popularized documentaries now appearing on television or poorly informed educational CD-ROM’s. While many of these programs have little significant historical thought behind them, they prove the great interest that people have for history. Public historians can exploit this interest and raise the sophistication and quality of these video programs.

Public historians also should produce videos and CD-ROM’s because of the opportunity for creative work. Creating high quality history is an art. The supremely stimulating new communication technologies, such as video and CD-ROM, can reach new and broader audiences.

Finally, historians should learn to use these communication tools to avoid technological obsolescence. The library community recently has reinvigorated itself by integrating new information technologies into their environment and educational experience. The historical profession should begin to understand the emerging opportunities presented by new communication technologies. Until these skills are more widely taught in academic settings, public historians will have an opportunity to lead the profession.

Mark D. Bowles earned his doctoral degree at Case Western University. He and Virginia Dawson founded History Enterprises, Inc., in 1996. See <>.

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