In this post, I will review both Princeton University’s Princeton & Slavery and The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History. Both of these websites offer useful information on easily navigable pages that can be reached by all users, making them valuable public history resources. However, both group of creators also appear to define their public audience very differently.
Although many years in the making, the Princeton & Slavery website has only been open to the public for the past year. It represents a really incredible effort to begin a conversation about the Princeton University’s long and extensive history with slavery. The idea itself is not novel, as roughly fifteen other universities have similarly created websites to showcase how these institutional histories are linked closely with slavery. However, the website has stretched the possibilities for how these sites can reach new audiences and include room for growth. Upon the site’s launch, Princeton & Slavery immediately made available 360 primary source documents and eighty narratives interpreting the documents and specifically their relation to national, institutional, and local contexts.
The “About Princeton & Slavery” page describes the project as a collaborative one: “The Princeton & Slavery Project is an ongoing investigation. We invite you to explore the many stories and documents included here and to contact us with research, stories, and ideas of your own.” It is presented as an effort begun by students and professors of the university that invites outside contributions. Collaborating with local partners the findings of the project have been used in musical theater performances, short plays, and video productions. Explicitly including community groups into the project plays two key functions in reaching the public. First, by encouraging others to display the research in videos, performances, and exhibitions, the history can reach new audiences outside of the traditional readers of university online materials. Additionally, by encouraging local engagement, the relevance of the part that Princeton (as a town) played in the development and continuation of slavery is further underscored for local residents.
One key feature missing from the site is some way for people to be able to share feedback or add their own interpretations of the sources. On one side, the fact that each set of documents couples with a writing by a historian in the field guarantees expertise on the subject, it also leaves out room for local knowledge and memory. Aside from this, Princeton & Slavery makes an important contribution to public history sites of Early America and the 19th Century US by making available many documents and contextual stories about often under-discussed slavery in the northern East Coast. Directly providing links to other similar university projects also connects readers of the site with further examples for continuing the “ongoing investigation”.
Created by scholars of Early American History in 2012, The Junto has published almost 1,000 blog posts related to the field. Unlike scholarly journals that usually include longer articles, take months to publish, and offer little potential for direct discussion, various authors and guest writers collectively contribute roughly fifteen posts a month that focus on recent research, debates, or events. Created for the purpose of encouraging dialogue on relevant historical topics, the site offers a comment section below each blog post and a general forum.
An important question I have often wondered about this site is who exactly is its audience. According to it’s “about” page, The Junto aims to bring together “early Americanists and those interested in early American history”. Keeping to its word, all of the site’s content is accessible to academics and hobbyists alike. In my own life, I can think of many people, not trained as historians, who would be interested in the posts “Podcasts for Thanksgiving” and “#WhatComesNext? Book Ideas for the Hamilton Lover in Your Life”. One way of reaching a wider audience is through the two podcasts created by the blog. The Junto prominently displays links for both of these on its homepage, encouraging online browsers to look into downloading the podcasts.
The Junto might be most valuable for those who have not yet entered or have left higher education/academic universities. Because of the expensive price of many academic databases like JSTOR, one who cannot afford access can easily miss much of the discussion and work about Early America. In such a case, one could access the following blog posts to keep in the loop: “Doing Digital History 2016: A Recap”, “It’s Pronounced ‘Woo-ster’: The OIEAHC’s 22nd Annual Conference Recap”, “What’s Livetweeting For, Anyway?”, and “The Digital Antiquarian: Keeping It Old, Making It New”.
Despite this, the focus of the site does still remain on Early America as an academic discipline that belongs foremost to universities. Few of the hundreds of posts make any reference to historic sites and museums that also have a part in shaping public access to historical knowledge. With a larger focus on academic research and teaching, a resource page includes a general bibliography “of (mostly academic) books” and shares information about upcoming conferences and funding opportunities. Although the focus of the site clearly tends toward academic interests, its mission to make information about the field available to all who are interested in Early America invites potential students and history enthusiasts to keep up with, and even take part in, Early American historical dialogue.