Unconventional History? A history which is born digital, a history which is born public (poster session)

@ #ncph2013 Annual Meeting

Introduction: Why unconventional?

Digital History is not a very common practice in History field of Brazilian academy yet. Although the use of the most recent information and communication technologies by historians has been increased, it still sounds like an unconventional habit.  The first signs of Digital History in Brazil arrive as a result of the increasing use of those technologies inside the History field, but indeed, it does not mean that Brazilian historians are already thinking about Digital History.

A problem that derives from this narrow understanding of Digital Media interaction with History is about the historical contents available on Internet. If they are not from universities or distinctive institutions (i.e. archives, libraries, museums), they are not taken into consideration. In other words: non-academical works – like those published on the Internet by common people – are not welcome in our scholar tradition. It could be too dilettante.

Nowadays, also in Portuguese, there are lots of websites with some historical vocation created by common people and amateurs, such as blogs, forums, social network pages, profiles, etc. It shows that a social interest in the past exists. Even though, historians still ignore these sites and consequently those people. The question is not about a prejudice related to them, but a crystallized view that hierarchizes information generators and supports. For instance, there is a small number of researchers that consider work with digital born materials in their projects.

Resources from the Internet do not inspire confidence yet.They cannot prove anything. They cannot be part of History!

What is going on in Brazil?

Historians do not want loose the control of History. Thus, they prefer to create official Digital History projects instead of considering what is already on the Internet. The main outcome of this way of thinking is that we have started to create digital projects before having accepted born digital contents as a valid format of source for History.

Therefore, the history available on the Internet that was created by historians is good. The others are not.In such scene, there are some official initiatives that are stamping their authority in digital projects to communicate historical subjects on the World Wide Web. By using digital technologies, these projects shows that different media can create new spaces where share history knowledge.  Moreover, they indicate, even for those historians that are most resistant to technology, that it can be useful to encounter fresh and varied audiences.

Case study – Identidades do Rio de Janeiro: desafios de um patrimônio compartilhado (Identities of Rio de Janeiro: challenges of a shared heritage)

As an illustration of this process, we have selected the publicly funded project “Identities of Rio de Janeiro: challenges of a shared heritage”, which is interesting even by its own name, that brings together the “sharing” and “challenge” ideas. It is also important to realize that it was a project of the Oral History and Image Lab (Laboratório de História Oral e Imagem – LABHOI) of Universidade Federal Fluminense (Niterói-RJ, UFF).

The Project:

The project received a grant named “Support to Study Strategic and Relevant Issues to the State of Rio de Janeiro ”from the Carlos Chagas Filho Foundationfor Research Support of the State of Rio de Janeiro (Fundação Carlos Chagas Filho de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado do Rio de Janeiro – FAPERJ) in 2009. It is coordinated by Professor Hebe Maria da Costa Mattos Gomes de Castro, a Brazilian notably oral historian. This close relation to the Oral History field is not a coincidence. It is just one more feature of the problem that converges with Public History. Equally relevant is the composition of the staff: the team is multidisciplinary, composed by historians, anthropologists and educators. In the total, there are 34 researchers in the project, that are involved in 05 Postgraduate Programmes of the state, besides those whom are from Public Archiveof the State of Rio de Janeiro (ArquivoPúblico do Estado do Rio de Janeiro), the General Archives of the City of Rio de Janeiro (Arquivo Geral da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro), the Museum of History and Art of the State of Rio de Janeiro (Museu de História e Arte do Estado do Rio de Janeiro) and the Institute of National Historical and Artistic Heritage (Instituto de Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional).

How does it work?

It presents hypermedia collections that allow users navigating on the historical maps, get into different pathways and periods of Rio’s history. All the paths offered deal with identity  and local memory issues in some way, from 17th Century until nowadays (in some topics). The collections present maps, texts, videos, 3D digital mockup of the city and also direct access to digital sources.

Pathways: Fire, urban life and public service in the nineteenth century; Niterói: City of memories; The Illegal trade of africans enslaved; Coffee farms; Slavery and Catholic Church; Rio de Janeiro in the time of D. João (1808-1821); Political-administrative chronology; The natives in Rio de Janeiro; Choro Chronology.

Pathways: Fire, urban life and public service in the nineteenth century; Niterói: City of memories; The Illegal trade of africans enslaved; Coffee farms; Slavery and Catholic Church; Rio de Janeiro in the time of D. João (1808-1821); Political-administrative chronology; The natives in Rio de Janeiro; Choro Chronology.

The overview bellow is from the “Slavery and Catholic Church” pathway. What is interesting to observe in this collection is the partnership between Identidades do Rio and the digitalization project “Ecclesiastical Sources in Slave Societies“. Also this project were developed in a collaborative shape, involving researches and students from three different countries: Universidade Federal Fluminense (Brazil, UFF), Vanderbilt University (USA, VU) and York University (Canada, YU).

The first step of the “Slavery and Catholic Church” collection is specifically about “Ecclesiastical Sources”

The first step of the “Slavery and Catholic Church” collection is specifically about “Ecclesiastical Sources”

The movement of “Identidades do Rio” toward a digitalization project such as “Ecclesiastical Sources in Slave Societies” shows that in some way, even if we change support, we are still looking for official sources. On the one hand, it indicates a resistance to use other kind of digital sources, instead of those from authorized projects and sites. On the other hand, perhaps, it could mean that the Brazilian historians involved in this project are not avoiding use digital media, but they still feeling more comfortable working with familiar codes. Thus, they prefer work with scanned sources that are safeguarded by scientific instituitions and have their stamp of authority.

Horizon

Notably, it could be helpful in the educational process of citizens in general, to open a dialogue between universities and popular culture. Maybe, one way to start an exchange between community and academy is giving them a voice and a space to see themselves represented by History. But not by that distant History, confined between the walls of the university. They must feel part of a History that they can touch and feel closer.To sum up it: Public History would be a good manner to break the ice and start off a conversation between academy and everybody else!

As we could see a Digital History project can be a step toward this horizon but maybe, before anything else, we need to learn how to deal with those issues that intimidate historians when they start to work digitally. In the Brazilian case, at first sight, the problem seems to be related to the “shared authority” and the “professionalization” debates.

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