Blogging the Past: Part I

3 July 2024Cartoon Ben Franklin sitting at a computer

In our first installment of the “Blogging the Past” Roundtable, we’ll begin by introducing our contributors before jumping into the questions.  More about the digital publications they represent can be found at the end of this post.  Thanks to all the participants for the work that made this Roundtable possible.  Thanks also to Elena Telles Ryan for helping develop thoughtful questions to pose to our panelists.


Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Meet our Contributors

  • Emily Arendt (Moderator) is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Montana State University Billings. A scholar of partisan politics in the early American republic, she began serving as editor of The Panorama in 2023.
  • Nicholas Breyfogle is Professor of History, Director of the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching, and co-lead of the Environmental History Initiative at The Ohio State University. He is a specialist in the history of Russia/Soviet Union and in global environmental and water history, and has worked extensively in public history. Since 2007, he has been co-editor of the online magazine/podcast/video channel Origins: Current Events in Historical PerspectiveA Well-Informed People, and most recently of Picturing Black History. In 2022, he received the AHA’s Herbert Feis Award for Distinguished Contributions to Public History.
  • Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, a specialist in American cultural and intellectual history of the 19th and 20th centuries, urban history and public history, and the author of 7 books. Before joining the faculty at Miami he was a professor in the history department at The Ohio State University where he co-founded Origins and founded the Public History Initiative.  He also is a founding co-editor of Picturing Black History.
  • Menika Dirkson is an urban U.S. historian who researches and writes about race and policing in post-1968 Philadelphia. She is also an Assistant Professor of African American History at Morgan State University and the Lead Senior Editor at the online publication, Black Perspectives.
  • Jessie Kratz, Historian of the National Archives, is managing editor of Pieces of History. She also manages the National Archives History Office and runs the agency’s oral history program.
  • Sarah Lerch is the Program Director at Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation, a living history farm located in Ridley Creek State Park in southeastern Pennsylvania. She is a lead editor at the National Council on Public History’s blog, History@Work.
  • Will Mackintosh, Associate Professor at the University of Mary Washington, is a cultural and social historian of the 19th century United States, with particular interests in the history of leisure, the history of crime, and the cultural history of capitalism. He is author of Selling the Sights: The Invention of the Tourist in American Culture (NYU Press 2019) and served as editor of The Panorama from 2017-2023.
  • Liz Polcha (she/they) is Assistant Professor of English and Digital Humanities at Drexel University. Liz is a co-founder of Insurrect! Radical Thinking in Early American Studies, and has worked as the Submissions Coordinator for the publication. She also frequently moonlights as both style editor and content editor in the review process. Liz draws inspiration for Insurrect! from their experience with multiple digital archives and electronic text encoding projects, such as the Early Caribbean Digital Archive, the Women Writers Project, and Our Marathon: the Boston Bombing Digital Archive.
  • Alanna Prince (she/her) is a PhD Candidate at Northeastern University and a managing editor for Insurrect!. In addition to her work with the publication, she has also done research for the Early Caribbean Digital Archive, the National Parks Service, and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), where she has grown a deep investment in public intellect/history, media, and digital humanities. You can learn more about her on her website, here.

Emily Arendt (Moderator): First question, broadly framed, what purpose do you see your site—and other digital publications—serving?

  • Jessie Kratz (Pieces of History): At the most basic level, the purpose of our blog is to inform readers about the important mission of the National Archives to provide access to public documents. We use original documents from our holdings to tell stories with the goal of having people discover who we are and that we are available to them as a resource.
  • Nicholas Breyfogle (Origins & Picturing Black History): We produce two publications:  Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective and Picturing Black History (in collaboration with Getty Images). The purpose is a bit different for each one. Origins aims to bring to life the words of Toni Morrison: “For insight into the complicated and complicating events …, one needs perspective, not attitudes; context, not anecdotes; analyses, not postures. For any kind of lasting illumination the focus must be on the history routinely ignored or played down or unknown.”  Picturing Black History, by creating and disseminating photographic essays, leverages the combined experience, platforms, and networks of Origins and Getty Images to contribute to an ongoing public dialogue on the significance of Black history and Black life and to bring new perspectives on the current racial crisis to a wide audience.
  • Steven Conn (Origins & Picturing Black History): I see us almost as a translation service. We invite academic historians (faculty and PhD students) to write for the wider public in ways that are accessible.
  • Sarah Lerch (History@Work): History@Work is an online publication comprised of blog style articles to encourage the sharing of and engagement with all manner of topics relating to the practice of presenting history to the public. The blog tracks about 40,000 visitors to the site each year and prioritizes an accessible format in length and language selection. The intended audience is anyone interested in public history and we welcome submissions for a wide range of related topics from authors with various backgrounds and life experiences. Digital publications serve an important role in connecting people across disciplines and geographic locations in the exchange of ideas. It offers the opportunity for many diverse perspectives to be added to a broader conversation, sharing creative solutions to ongoing challenges or even to provide encouragement and empathy.
  • Liz Polcha & Alanna Prince (Insurrect!): Insurrect! was founded by history and literature graduate students in 2020, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when we faced increased precarity in our academic careers. Insurrect! offers a platform for junior scholars and scholars outside of the tenure-track to publish their work, we pay our authors and editors, and we publish radical approaches to early American studies. We organized Insurrect! within what we see as an on-going moment of global reckonings with white supremacist violence, US imperialism, a police state, the pandemic as a mass disabling event, legislative attacks on queer and trans people, and retaliations that seek to ban histories of feminist, queer, and Black and Indigenous liberation from being taught altogether. With this in mind, we emphasize that early American history can be narrated through topics like transgender rights, two-spirit history,  reproductive justice, and collective organizing. Like many of the publications included in this roundtable, we aim to be accessible, moving beyond the gatekeeping methods and formal channels of academic publishing, by calling in all sorts of people.

Emily Arendt (Moderator): One of the values of these kinds of digital history publications is that they offer the opportunity to reach a wider audience than traditional academic journals. What approaches do you take to diversify your readership? How do you balance professional rigor with a style that is approachable to a wider audience?

  • Jessie Kratz (Pieces of History): Since we are the U.S. National Archives, our records relate to nearly every event in U.S. history. We use the diversity of our holdings to tell the widest variety of stories possible. We partner with other National Archives public blogs and social media accounts to highlight each other’s work, all with the goal of increasing awareness of who we are and what we do. Our writers work with archival records every day and want to share their passion for the topics. Their training to describe and not interpret records carries over to writing in a conversational tone, as in a blog.
  • Liz Polcha & Alanna Prince (Insurrect!): Insurrect! aims to offer a platform and compensation for intellectual work produced by scholars in precarious positions, in other words, people who may face barriers publishing in traditional academic journals. In terms of our editorial approach: each piece received by our editorial team undergoes both content and style editing, ensuring that there is rigor applied to the quality of the research, but also that it is written from the perspective of co-learning and collaboration that benefits all parties. Instead of a traditional journal that goes through the more elusive double-blind process, we are able to speak directly to our writers and have a back and forth about such choices. We edit pieces so that they are accessible to the reader, stemming from a process that is more agential for the writer.
  • Steven Conn (Origins & Picturing Black History): Our house-style is: no jargon, no footnotes, no historiographic debates. The general public cares little about such things. Our quality control is that our authors are experts in the area they write about and our editorial process is rigorous.
  • Nicholas Breyfogle (Origins & Picturing Black History): We build a diverse readership through aggressive promotion efforts through social media, email, and targeted marketing to teachers, professors, and students globally.
  • Sarah Lerch (History@Work): Submissions to History@Work are reviewed by the lead editing team that includes individuals across the spectrum of public history work including academic institutions and a wide range of museums and cultural institutions. The review process is intended to ensure the right fit for the blog, keeping in mind the style and audience. There are no education or professional work prerequisites to submit, however, the editing team is selected based on their experience in the field to lend their expertise to the editing process. This expertise may include sharing other relevant publications or research to expand a contributor’s frame of reference. Authors are encouraged to use accessible, conversational language, include relevant images, and adhere to a word count. The editing team created, and regularly reviews, editing guidelines to ensure standard best practices are followed. NCPH utilizes social media to engage with a broader audience, both within and outside the public history community, to bring traffic to the website. While NCPH includes a membership component for the organization, History@Work does not require contributors nor readers to be members.

Emily Arendt (Moderator): In the digital age, anyone with an internet connection is constantly assailed with a deluge of information. Although digital publications offer a level of accessibility beyond that of traditional scholarly journals, as they proliferate, it seems like a real challenge to break through the noise of the web. How do you cut through the static and set your forum apart?

  • Steven Conn (Origins & Picturing Black History):  This has been a question we’ve struggled with since 2007. It has become clear to us that without using social media platforms our publications would not reach nearly as many people. We’ve tried to leverage the cachet of Ohio State (and since 2015 Miami University too) but without a big budget for promotions (which we don’t have) this is very difficult.
  • Nicholas Breyfogle (Origins & Picturing Black History): Social media, and paying to promote our material, is one of the few consistent ways to cut through the static and reach readers. That said, we’ve been around a long time and our essays, videos, podcasts are being used regularly in classrooms around the world. Our longevity is a crucial means to keep people coming back to our sites.
  • Liz Polcha & Alanna Prince (Insurrect!): Part of diversifying our readership is demystifying the process of publication, especially for graduate and undergraduate student writers. Since 2022, we have held a summer fellowship program that financially supports graduate student writers. We are mindful that we may be the first editors some of our writers have worked with, and so in addition to editorial suggestions, we also offer guidance on how to approach the editing process more broadly. In 2022 we held a panel for graduate students on how to write for a public audience. With the recent collapse of Twitter, our previous digital jaunt, we have been trying to imagine new ways of growing; we recently created an Instagram account where we hope to meet up with other digital migrants from Twitter (RIP).
  • Will Mackintosh (The Panorama): I am much less clear on who reads The Panorama, and how to build and shape the readership.  Here, I want to embody the radical modesty modeled for me by Cathy Kelly back in 2015.  In my daydreams, The Panorama cultivates an online community of diverse readers interested in serious history presented in an engaging and playful fashion; but in reality, I have very little idea about what kind of positive, proactive steps to take to make that happen.  Honestly, I don’t feel bad about that. Seven years of working on this problem has led me to realize the even professional marketers, people with meaningful budgets and a flimsier commitment to serious knowledge production, don’t know how to reliably produce coherent online communities.  Building those readerships—let alone creating virality—is ultimately alchemy, and the philosopher’s stone eludes me just as it does them.  If the professionals can’t do it, then how can one expect someone with esoteric scholarly training to do so?  What I am left with at the end of this experience is a tired truism: just do the work to the best of your ability, and hope for lightning to strike.  The Panorama’s readership stats, online engagement, and professional reputation suggest that this strategy has worked, very modestly—perhaps more sticking a fork in an electrical outlet than a real lightning strike.  But it’s a start.

Emily Arendt (Moderator): Look for our next installment of “Blogging the Past,” where our contributors tackle questions of the role of digital publications in dismantling academic ‘gatekeeping’ and the potential downsides of online journals.

More About Our Contributors’ Publications

  • Black Perspectives is a public-facing, intellectual history blog that features articles based on original historical research along with book reviews, interviews, and listicles concerning the African Diaspora. Since 2014, the blog has featured scholarly articles from dozens of regular and guest contributors every year and currently has a readership of nearly 50,000.
  • History@Work is a multi-authored, multi-interest blog for all those with an interest in the practice and study of history in public published by the National Council on Public History.
  • Insurrect! Radical Thinking in Early American Studies is an online publication devoted to anti-colonial frameworks and critiques of racial capitalism in Early American Studies.  It publishes writing related to the historical and cultural legacies of colonialism in the Americas and Atlantic World, broadly defined.
  • Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective is a digital, multi-media platform, which connects history with today through rich stories and engaging analysis through long- and short-form essays, videos, three different podcasts, and teacher resources with an annual audience of more than 4.5 million people across the planet. A trusted, insightful, and free public history platform, its central mission is to produce historically based, insightful analysis of today’s most pressing current events and to make this knowledge and analytical understanding easily available to a diverse public.
  • The Panorama serves as an online hub for all who appreciate the past—academics, public historians, secondary educators, and other general-interest readers—to engage with approachable and exciting content relating to the history of the early American republic.  Launched in 2017 to provide the Journal of the Early Republic with an online presence, The Panorama publishes work that reflects on the processes, problems, and opportunities of researching, interpreting, and teaching the early American republic.
  • Picturing Black History is a collaboration between Origins and Getty Images that emerged in the wake of national and international Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers in 2020. The editors recognize that Black Lives Matter is a contemporary outgrowth of a long history of Black racial protest in the United States. Picturing Black History is a collaborative effort to contribute to an ongoing public dialogue on the significance of Black history and Black life in the United States and throughout the globe. It embraces the power of images to capture stories of oppression and resistance, perseverance and resilience, freedom dreams, imagination, and joy within the United States and around the world.
  • Pieces of History: A Blog of the National Archives tells stories using original records from the holdings of the National Archives. These stories highlight a variety of historical events, the history of the National Archives itself, and information on our holdings.

Next Articles

Blogging the Past: Editor’s Introduction
Editor Emily Arendt introduces the newest Pano Forum, "Blogging the Past," in which editors from other leading digital history sites take stock of what role digital publications serve for the profession and the larger reading public.
Blogging the Past: Part II
In the second installment of our "Blogging the Past" Roundtable, contributors tackle questions of the value and the potential downsides of digital history publications.