While the internet has become a significant tool in student research over the last decade, academic outreach online has made much more halting progress - especially in the humanities. The online forum “AskHistorians” represents a grassroots effort to fill that gap, creating an unprecedented space where anyone can have their questions about history answered by experts in the field. By directly engaging with people at all levels of understanding—from the preteen to the postdoc— AskHistorians makes history accessible in a new way, fundamentally different from approaches used by institutions such as museums and other historical organizations. AskHistorians is an all-volunteer, multi-platform new media forum with over 350,000 subscribers, making it the largest historical space of its kind on the internet.
Unlike most outreach, the forum is structured like highly public ‘town hall meeting’ on a global scale—a question-and-answer session in which knowledgeable experts publicly interact with individual questioners while an audience watches. By inviting individual lay readers to ask a question, AskHistorians allows them to set the topic and thus direct their own learning. By making it public, other interested parties can both learn from and join in the discussion to take it in new directions, fostering total engagement. But this new environment creates many challenges. The volunteer operators of AskHistorians grapple with problems prompted by the anonymity of the internet, along with limitations posed by the forum environment, and the need to introduce an ever-changing audience to best practices in history as it emerges in this new space. In its nearly four years of existence, AskHistorians has repeatedly had to examine its rules and policies to address these needs. These activities must work in harmony with the democratic nature of the site; a delicate balance of appealing to both the subject-matter experts who form the main knowledge base and the average member, who may have less than a high school level of history knowledge. In the process, the Moderators have exposed lay readers to the making of history, promoting invaluable insight into how history is done. In this series of talks, the volunteers of AskHistorians will describe how our moderation team has developed strategies to connect with our global audience; we will explain some of the challenges and rewards of employing these strategies; and we will then invite inquiry into how those lessons can be applied to education and outreach on the web in general. AskHistorians represents a bold experiment in engaging the public with history, one that defies easy categorization into what traditional ‘public history’ is and how it works.