Many of you know that over the past year or so CHNM has been trying to secure funding for History Here, a project designed to provide improved access to Virginia’s roadside historical markers through cell phones and other mobile devices. My primary interest in this project is the mobile angle—I think it’s well past time to start thinking about how we move digital history off the desktop and into the historical landscape—but I also have a long standing soft spot for historical markers in general. My first job out of college was with the Colorado Roadside Interpretation Program, and ever since I’ve held great respect and affection for the thousands of local history enthusiasts around the country and around the world that have made historical markers one of the most visible and vital forms of public history.
In recent years, these enthusiasts have established a formidable online presence, far surpassing the official efforts of most state historical societies and departments of transportation. For example, the best place to go for information about Virginia’s markers is not the official site of the The Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which manages the program, but rather historical-markers.org, which provides photos and descriptions of more than 1200 historical markers in the Commonwealth and has recently expanded to include nearly 500 more from other states. Other ambitious amateur efforts can be found at HistoricMarkers.com and in the markers category of Waymarks.
Many of these sites are using seriously forward-looking digital history techniques. We at CHNM have received lots of praise for our collaborative online collecting projects such as the September 11 Digital Archive and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, most recently for our use of commercial map API’s to present the collections. Yet amateur marker enthusiasts are using many of the very same techniques, often very effectively. All of the marker sites I have listed are peer-produced, and while some grow simply by means of email submissions, others have deployed sophisticated web-based collecting technologies to build up their collections. The Historical Marker Database, for example, uses a wiki-style system that allows users to create new marker entries and edit those of others. These amateurs have also recognized and quickly seized upon the opportunities new geo-location techniques present for markers’ place-specific historical information. Neither implementation is perfect, but both the Historical Marker Database and Waymarks’ marker community use the Google Maps API to maintain their markers’ ties to the historic landscape.
Historical markers tend to get a bum rap from professional historians. Very often they’re criticized as biased, one-sided, incomplete, or just plain wrong. Very often these criticisms are just. But professional historians should also remember that it’s tough to cover the history of an entire city in 50 words or less, that (in most cases) any history is better than none, and that what historical markers lack intellectual context they often make up in physical context. Few forms of historical production have such dedicated and enthusiastic followings and are so enduringly popular. I think this mostly has to do with reaching people when they’re ready and keeping it real (so to speak). A cast iron sign read on a windswept scenic overlook has something a hard bound monograph read in a library will never have, and we would do well to think long and hard about just what that something is.