To mark the launch of our first SAS/Senate House Library ‘Public Engagement Innovators Scheme’, we asked some staff from across the School about their experiences of public engagement and how it has influenced their research and professional practice. In this fourth post Jane Winters, professor of digital history at the Institute of Historical Research, answers our questions about her experiences engaging the public during the Being Human festival of the humanities.
- Could you tell us a little bit about who you are and the research that you do/your role in SAS?
I’m a professor of digital history at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), where I have worked for around 18 years now in various roles. My PhD was in medieval history, focusing primarily on the thirteenth century, but my work at the IHR has encompassed digital projects which range from the late Anglo-Saxon period to the early twenty-first century.
- What public engagement activities have you been involved in at the School?
Most recently, this would be my contribution to the Being Human festival. My involvement with Being Human was largely on the first day of the festival, which was concerned with ‘Too Much Information: being human in a digital age’. There was a fantastic programme of events throughout the day, held in Senate House. I was part of a team presenting a research project which is exploring how historians and the general public can engage with the archived (rather than live) web. Together with colleagues at the British Library and the Oxford Internet Institute, we’ve been developing a prototype interface which supports access to the archive of UK web space from 1996 to 2013. We organised a drop-in workshop, running throughout the day, which gave festival attendees the opportunity to experiment with the interface and use it both to find information about themselves and their families contained within the archive, and to understand how they have interacted with the web in the last two decades. If anyone is interested in finding out a bit more about web archives, we’ve produced a short animated film which looks at ‘What is a web archive?’ .
- Why do you think it is important for researchers to get involved in public engagement?
It’s very important for researchers to get involved in public engagement. The humanities are relevant to everyone, and there is an enormous public interest in history in particular. Today we have Wolf Hall (in all its incarnations) and the extraordinary recent interest in the re-interment of Richard III, but historians and historical research have been in the news for decades. For the 90th anniversary of the IHR in 2011, I did some research into news coverage of the Institute’s annual conference. Not only was the 1931 event widely reported in both national and local newspapers, but it was opened by the then prime minister, Ramsey MacDonald.
- What have been the three most challenging experiences while undertaking public engagement activities?
I suppose the only thing that might count as challenging was being asked to step in at the last minute to chair a discussion about ‘Digital humans, digital research’ on the first day of the festival. The chair, the excellent David Berry from the University of Sussex, was stuck on a train so emergency measures were required! In the end, the speakers (and audience questions) were so good that I needn’t have worried. There are also inherent dangers in presenting quite complex digital projects which rely on the technology functioning properly on the day. Fortunately, so far any glitches have always been fixable.
- What have been the three most rewarding things that you’ve taken from public engagement?
I’m not sure that I can identify three separate benefits, but the wonderful thing about public engagement is that it helps you to see the value of your research through new eyes. When you’re working on a project it’s often hard to find the time to step back from it and look at the bigger picture, but public engagement allows you to do precisely that and to be excited by your research questions all over again.
- Do you think that getting involved in public engagement has helped your research? If so, how?
Definitely! Public engagement is very much a two-way process – I’ve always learned as much from the people who attend the events we organise as I hope they’ve taken away from our research.
Now read on:
Further information about the Big UK Domain Data for the Arts and Humanities project can be found here. Professor Winters has also appeared recently in Times Higher Education talking about Digital History Online and her new role as Professor of Digital History. The feature can be read here.