As seems to be the ubiquitous question among historians in any field, this week’s readings focused on Public History moving into the future. What will the field become? What does it need to become to best serve and engage the public? What is our role in the processes through which the public learns history within innumerable public historical institutions? These are difficult questions to find satisfactory answers to, but Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski’s Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, seeks to provide tentative answers through some directional suggestions for public historians. This text is a collection of essays from various authors which fall under five main subjects: 1) Authority and the Web, 2) Communities as Curators, 3) Sharing Authority through Oral History, 4) Understanding the Visitors’ Response, and 5) Artists and Historical Authority. These five headings each answer particular kinds of questions. Of these five, the sections devoted to historical authority and the internet and sharing authority through oral history captured my attention best.
Matthew McArthur’s essay, “Get Real!: The Role of Objects in the Digital Age,” harkens back to an issue we in the Managing History class first discussed after reading Presence of the Past: the significance of historical objects in museums to visitors. However, McArthur took a different direction with this subject, asking instead what the role is of the object in digital platforms as opposed to being physically present in the museum. He began by asserting that in the digital age it is much easier for the public to access greater numbers of objects than before because so many more can be presented through an internet platform. He also asserted that the vast space available on the internet provides museum professionals immense freedom in organizing, labelling, and presenting their objects to online visitors, all the while being able to engage in conversations with those visitors online or in-person. As McArthur went on to discuss the vast numbers of previously unknown objects within museums’ collections which, he argued that these typically unseen, and for historians, difficult to access, objects could gain the most from digital presentation. The objects themselves would gain greater appreciation from a public unfamiliar with them, and greater use and study from historians and other professionals who previously could not easily access them. That being said, there is a distinct difference between the online and physical worlds within which these objects can be housed, and McArthur argued that that divide needs to be defined and consolidated into one mission for museums: to use online and physical exhibits as interacting parts of the same presentational strategy. As an example he discussed the National Museum of American History’s exhibit commemorating the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. After the attacks, the museum received a large number of artifacts that were both put on display and made available online, and both physical and online visitors were able to leave comments and feedback on both platforms. This approach to utilizing objects in a digital platform in tandem with a physical platform is something we have adopted in our own work on our prospective Spanish Flu historical project in the Managing History class. We’ve collected documents and images in folders that could be put on digital display as well as blown up into larger images for physical displays in whatever final product this project culminates in. Thus, it would at least seem, in practice, the methodology that McArthur advocates in his piece holds merit.
In his essay, “From ‘A Shared Authority’ to Digital Kitchen, and Back,” Michael Frisch began by reflecting on his book, A Shared Authority, interrogating that title and its meaning, and then applying that to Letting Go?. He made the critical point that his book was not called “Sharing Authority,” but A Shared Authority, indicating that rather than claiming historians have some authority and ought to share it, his intention was to convey historians engaging in oral and public history are not the sole authorities, because they are not the sole interpreters; that interpretation and meaning comes first from the interaction of interviewing oral histories’ narrators and from how visitors receive museum exhibits. This, he asserted, is intrinsic to the nature of an oral history interview and how visitors receive exhibits or other public history exchanges. By this very nature, he argued that we need not share authority so much as better respect the extant historical authority already shared between public historians and the public. He provided an example from his own experience of how to respect that shared authority. In working on a recorded documentary series Frisch noticed that there was no interaction between the oral history narrators and the historians who would put their stories into historical context. He argued that it would be better to put these two groups into conversation with one another to examine their different perspectives on the topic and create greater homogenized meaning for the listeners. He found similar issues in digital forms of oral history, wherein historians utilized transcriptions but would not interact with the actual recordings and glean the significant meanings they held. He then asserted that the best way to utilize oral histories in this digital age is to label, index, catalogue, key-word search, as well as transcribe them, to allow for a greater depth of use and interaction with these invaluable primary sources. This concept spoke to me. In my undergraduate career at West Chester University I had the privilege to work on the Goin’ North project under Drs. Charles Hardy and Janneken Smucker, part of which was labeling, indexing, cataloguing, keyword-searching, and transcribing oral history interviews conducted with African-American Philadelphians who migrated North during the First Great Migration around 1918, and subsequently writing biographical sketches based on their stories. At the time I was working on this project it occurred to me on what an intimate level I was interacting with the oral history interview I was assigned, and William Steffens’s story sticks with me today (Listen to his story yourself here). That being said, reading a transcription of such an interview, though doubtless fascinating nonetheless, does not convey the depth of meaning one obtains from this level of interaction with such a narration. In addition, labeling, indexing, etc. affords that narrator greater authority because their name remains on the cover, so to speak.
These two essays from Letting Go? presented two different but equally important perspectives to public history and how public historians should think of their work and how both they and that work interact with the public who receives it. There seems to be ample room to pioneer using objects digitally, and certainly every opportunity to improve the work done with oral histories, as I learned first-hand from my work on the Goin’ North project back in 2014.
 Matthew McArthur, “Get Real!: The Role of Objects in the Digital Age,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, eds. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, Laura Koloski (Philadelphia: Pew Center for Arts & Humanities, 2011): p. 56.
 Ibid, p. 57.
 Ibid, p. 64.
 Michael Frisch, “From A Shared Authority, to the Digital Kitchen, and Back,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, eds. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, Laura Koloski (Philadelphia: Pew Center for Arts & Humanities, 2011): p. 127.
 Ibid, p. 128.
 Ibid, p. 129.