Public History Website Review

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.

Princeton & Slavery

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”.

The Junto

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.

7 thoughts on “Public History Website Review”

  1. I agree that community engagement not only in the production of the project but on the website itself is sorely lacking. With so much material accumulated and put online, it is inevitable that the site would become inundated with information, and it can feel difficult to navigate because there are so many avenues to wander down and materials buried behind long series of link clicks. What I found really great about this site was it’s interactivity. It isn’t gimmicky at all, the timeline you can scroll through, map you can explore, etc. are all extremely well executed, clean, and make effective use of the “stay as long as you want” principle many internet sites benefit from.

    1. It occurs to me I didn’t specify in the main text that I was specifically responding to the Princeton site.

  2. The Princeton site is interesting to me, specifically because it involves an organization responding to its own complicity in something horrible by trying to clear the air about it. No matter how open and honest they try to make it, I feel as though the fact that they retain executive control over how the information is organized and presented is a little off-putting. From a quick scan, the “Holding the Center” info page does seem to do a pretty good job of talking about major issues – I particularly like the “politics of memory” subsection.

  3. The Princeton & Slavery site is excellent. The use of primary source materials, and the availability of stories (not too long and not too short) makes the site a pleasure to use. And I like the “talk back” and “for teachers” sections. I’m having a hard time imagining a way to make the site more interactive without opening up an opportunity for hate speech. On the whole, I think it’s one of the most well done digital projects I’ve seen.

  4. I really like your comments on the Junto – particularly your questioning of who it is for. This is an interesting issue – particularly with the field of early America, which does draw a lot of very well informed history buffs who, nevertheless, are not part of the academy. I think that you are right, that the site does sit in an odd position of one who has materials that are meant to appeal to the general public, while maintaining a solid footing in academic history. I wonder if it might be better for the “About” page to be even more specific, and explain some of the strictures that govern its choice of subject and authors – are they all academics? Do they consider people from museums, popular authors, etc. This is a really great website – but it might be good for people who read it to know that they are not seeing the fullest possible picture of the field

  5. Wow, Amelia! Both of your sites are really neat.

    First, Princeton & Slavery is a great example of public history that’s not the strictly nostalgic sort of content most commonly generated by universities. At Mount Holyoke’s archives this morning, my supervisor commented that not all of our posts on social media should be warm and fuzzy– which made me realize they generally are. As a site it is excellent: it tells a complicated story about abuse and resistance in Princeton, and the layout is clean and appropriate to the subject. I also like that it has been powered by the work of undergrads from the start.

    The Junto, like you say, seems like a good resource for staying on top of Early American history discource. A lot of history enthusiasts would like to stay in the loop, but as you say, journals and database access outside of academia is expensive.

  6. Wow these were two sites that i had no idea existed and I cant believe it. The content on the Princeton site is still growing, but looks so promising. Really enjoyed that they had a segment that explains how to cite the materials, which is very useful. The Junto website makes me very curious. The layout is very common, but informative. After visiting the site it makes me curious to listen to the podcast.

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