By David Cline
I am honored to be a guest this month in this column, just as I have been honored to work with the Lambda Archives over the past two years. Since most of my work has been on social change movements, including LGBTQ+ history, and is conducted hand in hand with local history groups and community members, I quickly found Walter Meyer and Lambda Archives. Last fall, students in my undergraduate public history course spent hours in the archives with Walter and archivist par excellence Ken Selnick creating finding tools for many of the collections.
This past spring, I had graduate students back in the Archives with Ken while an entire class of undergraduate students in our digital history course attempted to apply to Lambda some of the latest digital tools and an understanding of how they can help community history projects, especially in terms of access and outreach.
I align myself with two specialties that most folks have never heard of before — what the heck is public history and what are the digital humanities? Public history describes the study of all the many and various ways that the public gets its history, from museums and historic sites to archives, documentaries, roadside markers, and websites and other digital projects.
Digital humanities are defined as “efforts to study digital technologies and culture, employ computational practices in research and teaching, and reflect upon the impact of the digital.”
My own students in the digital history class this past spring semester also got in on the fun. I’ll be spending the summer polishing up the projects before they go online via the Lambda Archives and San Diego History Center websites, though, so please be patient.
So, what did we set out to do and why? The answer is simple: To bring analog, real-world experiences into the digital world and thus provide another, and very different (and potentially hugely expandable) access point. I split my class in half and assigned each student to one of two projects — translating Lambda’s LGBTQ History of Hillcrest walking tour into an online, mapped, exploration using the program StoryMap JS; and working with Lambda and the SDHC to create an online LGBTQ timeline based on Lambda’s collections and the current SDHC exhibit, “LGBTQ+ San Diego: Stories of Struggles and Triumphs,” using a program called Timeline JS. What’s different? Just about everything, but the primary attractions to me are access (so many more people can be reached) and expandability. For example, rather than lasting a few hours with limited information, the walking tour can be expanded online with infinite more locations and information and pictures and video interviews, and on and on.
One of my students, Mayra Cortez, had this to say in a recent blog post for the history department: “Digital media is transforming the way we interact and view the past [and] digital history is changing how we access information as we go from paper to digital copies, making history more accessible to anyone and everyone around the world. As a current SDSU student, I have had the opportunity to complete a vast array of research, interpret, evaluate, present theories, and inform others of certain topics; the internet has been an important factor in helping me accomplish these tasks.”
Another student, Chelsea Coble, added, “Digital history is so much more than digitizing books or photos and publishing them to the web. Digital history includes interactive websites that can show a 3-D rendition of a building or sites that show the progression of ships or armies in video format. It can bring history to life in a way that books lack.”
And Brenda Samoun noted: “I believe digital history could act as an advocate for voices of the past.”
Historian Ed Linenthal praises those brave, or foolish, enough to “commit history in public.” Lambda Archives takes that risk and deserves our praise. Not only have they collected the material culture of a community whose history has often gone unpreserved and unrecognized, but they do so with accompanying outreach into the community and promoting a simply wonderful level of visibility. And using digital tools to do this, too, will only bring the work to more people. Can’t make it to the Archives? Explore their resources via their website and through SDSU’s Special Collections. Can’t make it to the walking tour this month? Preview it by exploring Hillcrest neighborhood history online. Miss the SDHC exhibit once it comes down? Well now it can live on online and continue to expand and incorporate new research. So, thank you to Lambda for the opportunity to collaborate. And check us all out online!
— David Cline is the associate professor of History and the Digital Humanities, San Diego State University.