To express his need for an intermediary between himself and digital technologies, Owen Lars once complained, “What I really need is a droid that understands the binary language of moisture vaporators.” (Star Wars). And while it is probably safe to assume most public historians are not toiling away on moisture farms beneath two blazing suns, digital fluency and application is an important and useful skill for public historians. In the twenty-first century technology and digital media are a part of nearly every facet of life, including how history is presented and accessed. Digital tools and media have made possible new ways of presenting history, new ways of public participation, and new means of research. However, as these tools present a vast array of options, historians are still determining how best to utilize them.
One such way of using these tools is to develop–or assist with the development of–films, documentaries, and radio programs. Thomas Cauvin refers to films and related media as “…one of the most influential and popular sources of historical knowledge.” (163). Many historians, especially students who aspire to be historians, would grumble at the idea of films as a source of historical knowledge, but to do so would be 1) missing the point, 2) an overplayed stereotype, and 3) pretty downright lame. As someone whose interests exist at the crossroads of history and film (you will find me lying on the pavement with tire tracks running across my body), I know firsthand that the beauty of historical films lies not so much in their strict adherence to historical fact but rather in their ability to act as a catalyst. Though not true for everyone, films act as a gateway to history because they construct a visual of the past. That being said, any producer would do well to consult an historian when producing a historically based film. The little details are not what matters so much as the grand truths. As Cauvin puts it, “What matters ultimately – especially for films – is the capacity to convey a particular historical message about the event, and not the few historical inaccuracies.” (168).
While films and documentaries allow public historians and filmmakers to collaborate to present history in a specific way, the internet proves to be a nearly never-ending resource for research. In reference to Google Books, Dan Cohen states that “It is a tremendous leveler of access to historical resources.” This statement could be extended past Google Books to further reaches of the internet and still hold true. Of course, the typical cautions remain, as the internet is open to everyone. As Cauvin points out, “Everybody can comment on the Internet, it does not mean that every statement is true or even relevant.” (180). However, with cautions duly noted, the internet is a wonderful research tool as it allows old, handwritten documents to be transcribed into searchable text files amongst other things. As this video showed, even as early as 1981 the internet was being used to transcribe newspapers. Furthermore, the internet provides an opportunity to do things like this to pull a massive amount of data together and present it in a visual way. Having the locations of post offices visually represented on a map allows the user, at a glance and without sifting through copious pages of data, to see that the Cheney post office (1881) was established a year after the one in Medical Lake (1880).
Digital tools and media are a great advantage for the public historian. Film, especially, is something that reaches a massive audience and can be an effective means of igniting historical interest. Once interested in an historical topic, many individuals in the public will turn to the internet. A savvy public historian is in a unique position to present history, as it should be, every step of the way. Therefore, binary is an important means of communication for the public historian, at least until golden droids that are fluent in six million forms of communication come along.