Each year thousands of undergraduate history students across the world graduate from their respective universities. If you were to ask any of these graduates what they learned at university, you would probably be told two things. The first would likely be the skills, experience and attributes that studying at university allowed them to gain and develop. The second would be the array of exciting and detailed subjects that they had the opportunity to study in their three or four years while at university. However, if you asked the same graduate a year later, which of these learnings have helped them in their career outside of history, it is highly likely that they would only reference their previously mentioned skills, experience and attributes. The knowledge of the detailed subjects that students learn, for example, the role of anaesthetics in the Crimean War, are of no use in most careers. As a result of being unusable in the work place, the majority of this knowledge goes to waste, typically either forgotten in order to be replaced by more job-related information, or left on a hard drive to stagnate.

What if this didn’t have to be the case, and that there was a way for this valuable, discarded knowledge to be utilised. Instead of thousands of students’ essays, book reviews, dissertations and articles remaining unused, what if a website could be created that allowed the public to read any of these academic works, as well as creating their own histories. Demiac, as it will be called, could significantly benefit public history, allowing all of these works to be read for free, anytime, any place.

Historian John Tosh defines public history as involving ‘the free access of the public to the findings of historical scholarship’.[1] Fellow historian Faye Sayer, defines it as ‘history for the people, by the people, with the people and of the people’.[2] Therefore, if Demiac is to be a success it must adhere to the criteria within these definitions. However, before it is shown how Demiac shall address this criteria, the basics of the website need to be explained.

Demiac will be, in the simplest of terms, a completely free online forum that any member of the public may join and contribute to. Once they have joined, members will be free to personalise their profile page with their historical interests, and they may also begin to upload their pieces of work. Their individual profile page will allow members to show off what work they have written, who they are and what they wish to get out of Demiac.

When members come to the home page, they will be greeted with other members’ pieces of work that relate to their historical interests. For example, if a member is interested in the Napoleonic Wars, any piece of work that is uploaded with a tag such as ‘Napoleonic Wars’ or ‘European History’ shall be shown on their home page. This customisable content will allow the public to filter out those pieces of content that are irrelevant to what they wish to learn.

The final basic principle is about content. When a piece of work is posted, it will be linked directly to the member who posted it. It will have a title, tags and a reason why it is being posted. The piece of content will then be checked by a computer programme to check for both plagiarism and inappropriate content such as hate speech. When it has passed these checks, the content shall be published. Once it is published the work can be read by any member. Members reading the work have the option to interact with the work by giving ‘kudos’ to show they appreciate the post. They may also review the work by giving it a rating out of 10, flagging up debatable statements, etc. This peer review will allow for credit to be given where credit is due, and will help increase the quality of writing that appears on the website.

With the basics now understood, the ways in which Demiac will address the criteria with the stated definitions can be explained. Accessibility is the main point within Tosh’s definition. In terms of accessibility, Demiac has been designed to be accessible to as many members of the public as a piece of public history possibly can. In order to have worldwide access, the online platform was chosen. This allows anyone with a computer that has internet access to be able to be involved in the Demiac community. Tosh has himself stated that, ‘in the 21st century, the internet is what counts’.[3] Sayer agrees writing that public history needs to be relevant to the present, and so it makes sense that this piece of public history reacts to modern times.[4] However, the accessibility is not entirely perfect, as there is likely to be a few issues regarding both the appropriateness of the site’s content to certain ages, and the ability of some to fully utilise the website. With Demiac trying to show off content that is to a degree of academic standard, children under the age of around fourteen are unlikely to profit from what the site has to offer. The internet aspect of Demiac also causes issues for the older generations who are no adept to new technologies. Therefore, accessibility is limited in these respects.

Demiac intends to live up to Sayer’s definition. In trying to create ‘history for the people’, as already stated, the website is completely free and open to almost everyone. The ‘history by the people’ will be covered as many of the works posted shall be written by members of the public. In attempting to creating ‘history with the people’, Demiac will be looking to invite students and professional historians to join. With students and historians involved, members can look at their works for guidance on creating better quality pieces of work, as well as referencing what will be a ‘self-help’ section of the website. This will allow them to learn the basics of historical research and writing.

As already understood, Demiac will encourage professional historians to join. While they may not be allowed to publish lengthy works due to contracts with publishers, they will be encouraged to contribute in many ways. By reviewing the works of members, or by giving ‘kudos’ to pieces of work that they found interesting or were impressed by, historians will be able to create a better profile for themselves in the public sphere as well as providing helpful tips for members.[5] Historians will be able act as voices of encouragement, and by using Demiac, they will help provide a safe but challenging environment in which people can develop confidence in their own abilities.[6] They will also help to dissolve boundaries between these professionals and the public, something that Sayer insists upon.[7] They may also publish small excerpts from their works to give the public a taste of their work, which would hopefully benefit their sales. This would allow both parties to gain something from their experience with website. Demiac would allow historians to be effective consultants to the histories being written by the public, and as a source of insight into the world which responsible citizens attempt to understand.[8]

The best way to cover ‘history of the people’ would be to use an example case study. A good example would be Ardoch 2000, which was a book written by William C. Hutchison and published by the Ardoch 2000 Millennium Committee.[9] The work covered the history of Ardoch Parish up to the end of the second millennium, allowing members of the village to learn about their heritage. Demiac wants to tap into this genre of history, aiming to encourage members to find out about their own community’s heritage, and to post it online for the world to see. As stated by David Thelen, ‘the past should be treated as a shared human experience and opportunity for understanding’, and if members contributed their histories to the website, Demiac could become the central hub of this shared experience.[10]

While addressing the criteria within these definitions, Demiac intends to address other issues. The role of the state has long been a contentious subject in the world of public history. State funded history is open to heavy criticism as it can sometimes be seen as a way in which the state can manipulate the past. By funding certain projects, the state is choosing what history the public is more likely to see, and this is something that could be considered unethical. Historian Ludmilla Jordanova has stated that, ‘understanding the role of the state in funding, and of elites in shaping, historical displays, is a vital part of examining public history’.[11] To the delight of members, Demiac will not be affected by either the state or by the elites. Instead of state funding, the website will use ads to fund the sites administration fees. This will allow the site to expand the scope of history from the national and political past taught at many state funded exhibitions to the personal and experiential, as well as allowing people to connect with one another by sharing knowledge about ‘their’ history.[12]

Overall, Demiac intends to provide something for everyone within its chosen demographic. For members of the public, it will provide a world of free, scholarly material that they will not have previously have access to. It will also allow them to learn how to write history, while also giving them a platform to write their own history. For students, it’ll be a place where they can either continue to part time study or to show off what they did at university. Employers may use the site to read the works of these students, in order to get a better sense of the student applying to work for them. The same self-promotion can be utilised by historians, who may contribute in a number of ways in order to help increase the accuracy and quality of public history. For their contribution, they will be rewarded with publicity, something that may help in the sale of their works or stature. Bringing all these people together in one place is the aim of Demiac, and with the future of history likely being online, the site hopes it can achieve this aim.

Footnotes

[1] J. Tosh, Why History Matters (Basingstoke, 2008), 119.

[2] F. Sayer, Public History, A Practical Guide (London, 2015), 4.

[3] J. Tosh, The Pursuit of History (Oxford, 2015), 285.

[4] Sayer, Public History, 4.

[5] L. Jordanova, ‘Public History’, History Today, 50, 5 (May 2000)

[6] H. Kean, People, Historians, and Public History: Demystifying the Process of History Making, The Public Historian, 32, 3 (Summer 2010), 37.

[7] Sayer, Public History, 4.

[8] Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 287.

[9] W. C. Hutchison, Ardoch 2000: A Brief History of Ardoch Parish to the End of the Second Millennium (Braco, 2000)

[10] D. Thelen, ‘Afterthoughts: A Participatory Historical Culture’, http://chnm.gmu.edu/ survey/afterdave.html (accessed 14 April 2019)

[11] L. Jordanova, History in Practice (London, 2000), 155.

[12] M. Foster, Online and Plugged In?: Public History and Historians in the Digital Age, Public History Review, 21 (2014), 13.