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Review: Digital Community Engagement

A review of Digital Community Engagement, an open-access volume of case studies on digital partnerships, edited by Rebecca S. Wingo, Jason A. Heppler, and Paul Schadewald

Published onJul 12, 2021
Review: Digital Community Engagement

Digital Community Engagement: Partnering Communities with the Academy

Project Directors
Rebecca S. Wingo, University of Cincinnati
Jason A. Heppler, George Mason University
Paul Schadewald, Macalester College

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Megan Smeznik, The College of Wooster

Project Overview

Rebecca S. Wingo, Jason A. Heppler, and Paul Schadewald

Digital Community Engagement: Partnering Communities with the Academy is an open-access, edited volume featuring nine case studies of successful academic-community partnerships that use digital tools. The volume seeks to answer two key questions: 1) is there a cohesive practice of something we might call digital community engagement? And if so, 2) how do the digital components alter the academic practice of engaging the community, or the community’s practice of engaging with the academy? 

The volume was edited by Rebecca S. Wingo, Jason A. Heppler, and Paul Schadewald. Wingo is the Director of Public History and an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati. Heppler is the Digital Engagement Librarian and Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Schadewald is the Senior Project Director for Community-Based Learning and Scholarship in the Civic Engagement Center of the Kofi Annan Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College. Their combined expertise in digital humanities, community and civic engagement, and historical research methods are reflected in the volume. The academic contributors are interdisciplinary, coming from art, design, English, library science, history, and theatre. Their community partners are even more intellectually diverse. 

Traditional definitions of “community” tend to focus on geography, demographics, or shared values. Digital Community Engagement offers a new definition that includes communities formed through digital means and communities that only recognized their connectedness because of digital projects. Contributions to the volume come from institutions large and small, in partnership with communities and organizations, both local and national. Contributing projects were selected based on the type of relationship established, focusing specifically on projects born of genuine co-creation and shared authority between academic partners and citizen scholars. 

Digital Community Engagement models the practices it establishes by soliciting contributions from faculty, staff, and their community partners where appropriate. By proxy, the intended audience is as much the community as it is the academy. The volume opens with “A Letter to Future Community Partners,” guiding them through the volume and elaborating on some of the challenges of partnering with academic institutions. The prose in each chapter is written (and often co-written) in an accessible way, free of jargon and other gatekeeping mechanisms. 

To further reduce the barriers between the community and access to scholarship, the editors chose a press (University of Cincinnati Press) committed to open access through publication on the Manifold platform from the University of Minnesota Press. The open-access volume is interactive, allowing for user annotations and comments. The open-access edition was made possible through a TOME Award (Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem). The volume also has an affordable print-on-demand paperback option for readers who prefer a physical copy or for community elders who are more comfortable working in a print medium.

Despite its release in the middle of pandemic and a number of cancelled launch events, the volume has received a positive reception, including several course adoptions. Additionally, Digital Community Engagement won the 2021 Book Award from the National Council on Public History. 

Project Review

Megan Smeznik

Edited by Rebecca S. Wingo, Jason A. Heppler, and Paul Schadewald, Digital Community Engagement: Partnering Communities with the Academy (DiCE) is an open-access resource on successful academic-community digital partnerships. DiCE looks to answer the following two questions: 1) is there a cohesive practice of digital community engagement and 2) how do digital components affect the academic practice of engaging the community and vice versa. To answer these questions, the volume uses nine case studies to facilitate discussion on community. Moreover, the volume complicates the definition of “community” and offers a new perspective on it. Instead of solely basing it on demographics, experience, and geography, DiCE highlights how community can be born from using digital tools to find shared connectedness. By breaking down traditional definitions of “community” and “project building,” DiCE is an easily digestible handbook for a variety of readers.

Each of the nine case studies serves as a launching point and set of resources for others seeking to undertake similar types of partnerships. Prior to the case studies, DiCE offers its reader a “Letter to Future Community Partners.” This section serves as a primer on the inner mechanics of establishing such partnerships. By teasing out this information, DiCE makes the process of creating academic and community digital partnerships less daunting with a tangible roadmap. Wingo, Heppler, and Schadewald’s nuanced engagement with the idea of community is evident in the case studies chosen for this volume. These case studies range from small to large institutions with varying budgets, resources, and experience. Some of the case studies, such as People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland and Everyday Life in Middletown, highlight archives created with communities. Others, like the Invisible Project, use oral history methods in their creation. Regardless of method, all of the case studies affirm the importance of placing the community at the center of this work and positioning community members as co-creators for these projects.

Recently, DiCE won the 2021 Book Award from the National Council on Public History. This recognition attests to the significance of the volume, which illustrates the importance of scholars, museum professionals, and others resisting the impulse to claim the histories of communities as their own. Instead, it proposes, they must work in partnership to assist them with telling their own stories through their own means. Readers will appreciate that the volume avoids jargon and is an accessible read, flowing more like a conversation then a traditional monologue or volume. In the future, the field also needs to engage with narratives from staff members, like educational technologists, to explore how they fit into these community digital partnerships. With its easy prose and critical lens, DiCE will be a welcome addition to public history courses and valuable to those wishing to create similar partnerships. 

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