Mobile (Digital) Public History

Between my final project for Clio Wired, one of the projects I’m working on as a GRA at RRCHNM, and the fact that I rarely go anywhere without my smartphone, mobile digital public history has been percolating in my brain for a while. I really enjoyed this week’s readings for pushing some new ideas and approaches I hadn’t previously considered. Like many digital historians, I think there’s a great deal of potential in mobile implementation, as well as some serious challenges.

Obviously, one of the best aspects of mobile is its ability to explicitly link history and place. Some people, myself included, wonder about historic landscapes when we look around, whether abroad or at home. Not only can mobile-based public history answer the questions of those of us who already wonder, but it has the potential to get others to start thinking about the history of the places they see. It can ask and answer (at least in part) the question “What was Here?”

I capitalized those words not because I’ve been spending too much time reading 18th century documents but because each of them is important to the question, and, I think, to mobile public history. What (or who) asks about buildings that have been removed, landscape features built over, communities and individuals who have moved out or passed on. Here says “in this place, right where I am currently standing” and creates a connection between the past people or places and the user/visitor. The Past in Place has resonance, which is why people visit battlefields and there are so many signs that say “Famous Person Lived Here Briefly.”

Another potential for mobile, which I hadn’t thought of until this week’s readings, is providing another access point for institutional collections which aren’t on display. In the galleries, it could be a “see more items like this one” which shows you all the other teapots in addition to the one in the vitrine in front of you. (( Yes, teapots again )) You can also enhance what people are seeing by giving them more information than you can fit on label text – particularly useful if your label is simply the genus and species of a plant. Even more exciting, to me at least, is taking material from archives and digitally putting it in place in a city, as PhillyHistory is trying to do. Not only does that really put the collection items “out there,” but I would hope it also lowers barriers between the user/visitor of the website and the institution or archive which contributes the material. Historical societies and archives can feel restricted and unwelcoming; putting their collections virtually into the hands of visitors/users may be a good way to lower access barriers.

There are, of course, challenges to making mobile public history. The CHNM report lays them out quite well, but I think some of them bear repeating. The major question is, of course, whether you want to build a responsive website or a native mobile app. Personally, I prefer responsive websites, at least for building, because you don’t have to deal with two (three?) different sets of specifications for native apps, nor do you have to worry about updates to the operating systems. Also, I don’t have to remember my password and type it in to get to the content. You do, however, have to make sure your design choices work as well on a full-sized screen as a mobile screen (this can be a bonus, it just takes some thought). On the other hand, there are also benefits to building native apps, and I have downloaded some apps that I enjoy. The next time I go to Baltimore I intend to try out the Baltimore Heritage app.

On the whole, I find mobile exciting. In my head, it’s like having a museum, tour guide, and history book with me at all times. I carry my smartphone everywhere and use it all the time anyway, so having historically focused content, whether native or web-based, is an added bonus.