Reimagining the Forgotten: Using Digital Archives and Augmented Reality to Reconstruct Lost Spaces


Thanks to ongoing efforts of archives, public libraries, and other institutions, a wealth of digital archival documents and other historical data are now available to the public. Many existing online sources serve as highly functional repositories that feature a wealth of documentation on any number of important historical events. However, it is important for communication historians, particularly those interested in new media technologies, to continue to contribute not just to the preservation and collection of historical documents but also to ensure that innovative digital tools are used to provide essential historical context to existing and yet-to-be-created digital archives.

One especially relevant area worthy of scholarly theoretical and applied attention is the use of augmented reality to reimagine lost historical sites and people, such as in cases where government or private corporations destroy existing structures and communities for profit, public use, or revitalization projects. Examples may range from the displacement of people and flooding of lands for government-funded dam construction projects to gentrification of low-income communities. In these and other cases where structures or people are essentially erased, placing digitized archival documents in geographic context via augmented reality helps preserve the history of an area and reimagines life as it was before a major change occurred. Placing existing digital archives, such as oral histories, still images, films, news coverage, and other textual documents in geographic context may help future populations better understand a multitude of truths related to displacement events and forgotten peoples. 

This work fits within the greater social movement of many public institutions today that are re-telling historical narratives bringing to light alternative histories and counter-narratives, such as academic institutions in the US acknowledging the contributions of slave labor in the construction of campus buildings. This paper argues for communication historians to use more interactive, place-based approaches to counter-narratives and the reimagining of the presentation of digital archives. Using user-friendly, free or low-cost digital tools such as Google Tour Builder and ThingLink, communication historians can facilitate a higher degree of interactivity among digital archives and help to fully immerse audiences in historical events. Through innovative technologies combined with digital archives, scholars and practitioners alike can illustrate previous landscapes or people that were previously erased or have fallen out of cultural memory. In this way, digital archives not only are shared with the public in greater historical context but they are also used to digitize a lost sense of place and people, particularly in any marginalized population.