Accessing the world’s knowledge: the importance of public humanities


This semester I’m lucky enough to teach my own research area in a MA/PhD course for my college’s interdisciplinary War Studies graduate programme. Together my class and I are reading exploration narratives from across the nineteenth century: Capt William Allen and Dr Thomas Thomson’s Narrative of the expedition … to the river Niger in 1841; Capt WE Parry’s Journal of a Third Voyage for the discovery of a Northwest Passage; and Arctic Miscellanies, the published version of an onboard newspaper produced and enjoyed by members of Capt Horatio Austin’s 1850 polar search for the missing Franklin Expedition, among others. It’s a distance learning course, and when I meet my students online, they could be anywhere the CAF has them stationed: Germany, Florida, CFB Alert, or on a ship with no fixed address. That’s part of the charm of teaching by distance. But distance teaching has as many challenges as it does charms: how to get books to students with no access to libraries or bookstores? How to access archival documents, the foundation of all our discussions, learning, and research?


The answer to these considerable challenges: the wonderful world of digital and public humanities to the rescue! And it’s not just for online courses: the only way this material is available to most of us is through the amazing spaces offered by nonprofits like HathiTrust, that prioritizes “sharing the record of human knowledge,” and Internet Archive, whose mandate is to “provide Universal Access to All Knowledge.”

internet-archive-banner-black-logoIn our course, we look critically at historical exploration narratives to see how the lessons their writers and institutions learned can suggest different ways in which we (and our own military institution) can thoughtfully interact with our world. There are remarkable lessons to be gleaned from these texts, so relevant to public and military service today: how racism and cultural paternalism masquerade as idealism, how imperialism lurks in scientific objectivity, how failure can be read as success if it’s given the right spin. But the titanic task these nonprofits take on is way more important than just making texts available to grad students: the world needs these texts, and is a richer place as each new one gets added to the online collection. We would miss out on so much knowledge were these narratives to stay locked in a library accessible only to onsite scholars with special permission; we can’t learn from history if that history isn’t made available for reflection and consideration.

HathiTrust, Internet Archive, and other Public and Digital Humanities organizations celebrate and practice collectivity and stewardship of knowledge; their online repositories are a pure expression of their commitment to community and the public good. They bring the past to the present, and allow readers to use it while figuring out the future. Public Humanities recognizes that we’re all in this together, and so we all need access to as much information as possible. After all, without collective memory, history becomes more likely to repeat itself.

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