sustainability and public history

Today, as I prepared for a discussion with sustainability scholars about digital tools and sustainability, I found myself mulling sustainable public history, which is the theme of the NCPH this year.

Some preliminary thoughts. Sustainable history suggests projects and approaches that engage the public, and that continue to shape community discourse well after the project period. In other words, sustainability requires substantial project investment. For this, we can perhaps find models in citizen science, which have used distributed computing models as the basis for engaging communities in science (and informally teaching science.)

Some of my favorites include: (Project Squirrel); (Big Butterfly Count); cornell ornithology lab;
atlas of living Australia,;
process radio signals to detect alien trasmissions (SETI@home).

Surely, we should explore what makes such initiatives so successful.

The New York Public Library Digital Lab, with its Menu Collection, Stereograph, Building Inspector (http://menus.nypl.orghttp://stereo.nypl.org also remains a model for all of us in public history, at least terms of using crowdsourcing effectively, and building a sustainable infrastructure in this regard.

Also from a low-cost, low-technology, deep community perspective I remain impressed with Ushahidi (, especially the projects being spawned outside the developed world. See, for example, the Voices of Kibera:

Interestingly, I am also struck by the question of whether sustainability and digital projects should have certain ethical or moral components, about which we in public history may not be asking. The digital community, including myself, often evangelize openness as a basis for for public projects because openness promotes democratic engagement. In other words, it suggests a form of justice. However, one must ask whether Creative Common ( is really a solution for impoverished communities or non-educated communities. Is it too complex? Are its protections sufficient?  What if communities of color or indigenous communities want to share and retain control over their culture? There are tools, such as Mukurtu ( which allow for different levels of community permissions.

But, still, the questions are larger: who benefits from openness and is open a necessary component of sustainable? Indeed, “closed” projects may be able to build community just as effectively as open communities, albeit different forms of community. And, open is not synonymous with public. For example, open source demands relatively high degrees of skill and/or training in the high technology sphere.

Will likely add more later, but this was a beginning point for thinking about what makes for sustainable in public history.

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