Tuesday, December 2, 2008

History and the Web

This week’s readings were three essays on the recent development of web based tools for historians to use. Dan Cohen’s articles, “History and the Second Decade of the Web,” and “The Future of Preserving the Past,” focus on digital archives on the web and the advantages and disadvantages of this new resource. Digital archives have the advantage of holding a vast amount of materials from written documents (including new formats such as e-mail and instant messages), to film and sound recordings as well. Not only can a digital archive hold more sources, but it also does not take up the space that the physical documents require in an actual archive. Cohen also discusses the perks digital media offers such as database searches that search several archives from across the country and world, an extensive and time consuming feat to be done physically but can now be done at the press of a button. Of course this new format isn’t without its drawbacks. Technology is constantly evolving and rendering past “state of the art” advances obsolete in most cases. Also, digital formats for storage are not indestructible and in a sense are more fragile than the physical documents themselves. As Cohen points out, a simple scratch on a CD/DVD can render it unreadable, and hard drives crash more often then not; and heaven forbid somehow a magnetic force got too close and completely wiped out the system altogether. Cohen goes on to remind us that although a technical glitch can wipe out an entire source, physical documents can still be interpreted despite the mild damage that comes with age. Documents on the web can also be scanned quickly for keywords to help the researcher analyze a document more quickly and proficiently which reminds me of what the Boca Raton Historical Society has done recently. In the last year or so the archivist at BRHS has digitized all of the early issues of the first newspaper in Boca Raton (the name escapes me at the moment), but not only can you read these scans of the paper, but you can have the computer search the text for keywords so you don’t have to waste time trying to skim every article for what you need. I’ll never forget how excited Sue (Sue Gillis the archivist at BRHS) was when they finally completed this and had it available to the public through their website. And it was exciting to see a small organization such as them have this new digital resource available for anyone interested.

Joshua Brown’s article, “History and the Web, From the Illustrated Newspaper to Cyberspace: Visual Technologies and Interaction in the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries,” also discusses web based media (including CD-ROMs), but also looks more at early illustrated newspapers. I was amused to read how, “nineteenth-century pundits predicted a decline in cultural standards caused by this proliferation of cheap pictures.” I know Brown compared this to the current pessimistic view some have of the internet, but I can’t help but think of how true their sentiments were because I immediately thought of supermarket tabloid magazines and similar media to that effect. If those old pundits were still around I have no doubt they would be shaking their fists at us saying, “I told you so!” Despite the somewhat tawdry and cheap avenue that has developed since its inception, it was enlightening to read about the interactivity that these early illustrated papers had with their readers and how these papers often included conflicting points of view on a subject as a means to please everyone. Brown also discusses his work on CD-ROM technology, as an educational supplement and as a form of entertainment. However, the “game” prototype wasn’t successful due to its inability to get the user to think critically for themselves in order to actually learn from the game. CD-ROMs as an educational supplement are a great idea however and are successful in furthering a student’s knowledge in the subject.

While these new developments in technology certainly make historical research more accessible and convenient, it cannot be wholly relied upon entirely. Books and other physical documents will always be the norm when it comes to the bulk of research, in my opinion. Web related material is too easily manipulated and not entirely reliable, although as historians we know that the same can be said for printed material as well. The new technology being used for historical collections and research is new and exciting and it will be interesting to see how it continues to develop over the years. Will digital media eventually develop into the norm, or as the one and only means for researching and collections management? I truly doubt that, at least in my own time; maybe in a thousand years or so when we’re living like The Jetsons, but we’ll just have to wait and see until then.

Monday, November 24, 2008

History and Hollywood (Or, The Longest Blog Yet)

History and Hollywood; that is the theme to this week’s readings in public history. The article by Robert Brent Toplin, “Cinematic History: Where Do We Go From Here?” addresses the study of cinematic history, how the study of film has advanced, and how it can (and in some cases already has) evolve into a more thorough research process to discover more about the time period the film was created in then how the film accurately or inaccurately presents the historical people/events/places. What I enjoyed most about Toplin’s article is his notion of second and third level research that moves beyond the study of a film’s historical accuracy to the study of the public reception of the film and the production experience of key figures who worked on the film, and even further, to the study of the history of the production itself. Toplin explores how historians can learn more about cultural, social, political, and economic issues of American history by using these “second and third levels” of research of films. Toplin raises some great points about what can be learned from this more thorough study of film, but I can’t quite make the same leap that he does at the end of his article when he states that “the work of cinematic artists…are becoming our most influential historians” (91). I agree that a lot can be learned from this new study of cinema, but can film makers really be labeled as historians because we are learning more about a time period by studying the production history and public reception of a film? This blogger doesn’t think so.

Continuing on this study of the role of film in public history, Vivien Ellen Rose and Julie Corley’s article, “A Trademark Approach to the Past: Ken Burns, the Historical Profession, and Assessing Popular Presentations of the Past,” looks at historical documentaries more so than big Hollywood movies. Most of Rose and Corley’s article focuses on Ken Burns’ documentary of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony entitled Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The authors argue that Burns’ documentary creates a simple, one-sided story of these two women and their fight for women’s suffrage by frequently omitting historical facts that do not conform to his narrative, completely disregarding current research of the two women and the women’s rights movement, and using music, photos, and quotes out of context with the narrative. What was really interesting about this article is the authors’ critique of the industry Burns has successfully marketed based on the success of his historical documentaries. Burns has developed in collaboration with others a whole line of educational materials based on his work and has earned numerous awards for his documentaries, including Not for Ourselves Alone which has been labeled “boringly formulaic” and “bland:…lacking controversy.” The authors expose though that these awards are handed down by media groups who have little regard for the actual historical accuracy of the film and so they pose to resolve this by having historians included in the judging of these films and/or having historical associations nominate films that accurately portray the past. The authors also advocate teaching students how to study historical films and documentaries to asses their use of sources, whether the narrative matches the visual being presented, and that historiographical debates are included. I agree with this last solution. Too often, historical documentaries are taken at face value and assumed to be the whole and complete truth on a subject because of their very nature, but Rose and Corley’s article shows that the creator’s of these types of film also flex their artistic muscle just as much as a Hollywood film maker does and should be evaluated with the same scrutiny as any written source.

Finally, Natalie Zemon Davis writes in her article, “Movie or Monograph: A Historian/Flimmaker’s Perspective” about her experience working as a historical consultant with film makers on Le Retour de Martin Guerre. Davis’ experience is a first hand example of the artistic license film makers use to adapt a story to film. Davis not only points out the little flaws in the film portrayal of a historical time period, but also the more glaring flaws that diminishes important features of that time period, misleading the public of the society in that time and place in history. Davis countered the historical idiosyncrasies of the film by publishing a sort of companion book that pointed to the historical evidence that the film was based on and also leaving open room for discussion, which she advocates both professional writing and film should do for its audience.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Oral History: A Blog

Oral history is vastly becoming a popular tool for the study of social and cultural history, which has also risen in the ranks of study in academic history. By studying the history (or stories for this blog’s sake) of the everyday people, not the elites, of the past, one gains an insight as to the way of life for the common man. Oral history is the perfect means to not only capture their story, but their emotions as well. In Studs Terkel’s memoir, Touch and Go, this idea is most strongly conveyed. Terkel’s memoir is penned in an almost stream of consciousness manner, where it seems he jumps from one person, event, or idea to the next with almost no segue, but after a couple of chapters (for me anyway) his tale becomes easier to follow. Not only does Terkel give a thorough account of his life and times, from the depression to McCarthyism and beyond, Terkel also documents his method and experiences with recording oral histories.

I would like to pause here to make two personal notes. First, let’s just take a moment to pause and appreciate what a great name “Studs” is. Having never heard of the guy prior to this reading I was a bit bummed to find out it was merely a stage name, but hey, it stuck and I think it’s great. Second, it is easy to see how this man was able to get people to open up to him and discuss their lives. His personality and quirks shine through in his writing. How can you not like a guy who refers to himself as “a hapless retardee” (only in mechanical matters of course, but still)?(p.177) This ability of Terkel to make his interviewees comfortable is a talent that allows him to capture not only their story, but their emotion. As he himself explains when he has his interviews transcribed he has every sound, every pause, and every background noise documented to truly recapture the ambiance of the interview. My favorite part of this book was when he described his quick interview with his wife in order to compare her role as a social worker with another who is quite heartless (to put it kindly). Terkel truly has a knack for recreating a scene from the past and making the reader feel as if they were there observing it all.

The other reading for this week, Michael Frisch’s A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History, discusses the particulars of oral history and the increasing role of public history in an academic and technical way that is tough to have to read after the lighter and conversational Terkel reading. Frisch’s book however once again brings in this concept of shared authority that we first read at the beginning of the course. According to Frisch, however, this notion of shared authority in oral and public history has the capacity to “redefine and redistribute intellectual authority” to be “shared more broadly” and therefore historical research will no longer be an “instrument of power and hierarchy.” (p.xx) In other words, that shared authority is bringing history to the general masses and away from the hallowed halls of academia is a very intriguing idea. Another interesting point that Frisch brings up is in his first essay (where he examines a book by Terkel no less, irony anyone?) is that oral history is experiential history. (p.7) I really like this notion and completely agree with him. Oral history has a way of bringing history to life (cheesy I know), and gives a more cohesive view of the times by making it more personal. As we saw in Rosenzweig and Thelen, the general public is relates to and is more attracted to history when it is conceived of as a personal past, not a textbook academic version of events.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Public Memory & Patriotism*

John Bodnar’s, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, is a study in the role of vernacular and national interests in shaping public memory through acts of commemoration. Bodnar’s study finds that local, vernacular interests play a large role in national memory; however they do so through time and manipulation by those in power. Vernacular interests are those of small local groups, either ethnic communities, or small towns in general. Their interests in acts of public commemoration revolve around their town settlement (the original pioneers), or the local townspeople who fought in any of America’s wars. Essentially, public memory, in local instances, involves emotional ties and personal history. Bodnar found that once those generations that had an affiliation to either pioneers or war veterans had passed, the vernacular interest shifted to a general national patriotism, but was still fueled by the local association to the national story.

Government officials who worked to establish a strong patriotic positive national public memory stressed the importance of progress. Whereas vernacular interests lay in the past, national interest tried to focus on progress and looked to the future. Officials, however, couldn’t deny the power of local acts of commemoration and therefore tried to use that attachment to their local history and its symbols and incorporate it into the national story. In other words, officials realized that in order to raise national morale and patriotism they needed to incorporate vernacular history into the national story. The ability of government to do this successfully is what allows that national patriotism to increase as the earlier generations who are tied closest to the vernacular history pass on.

Overall what Bodnar finds in his study that vernacular interests feed into the national story. While government officials would rather have public memory focus on the national story and increase the public’s sense of patriotism, they’ve realized that local (community, ethnic group, town, etc.) history is what ignites people’s passion and interest. By playing into that interest and weaving it into the national story, the national government can achieve this goal. I can’t help but be reminded of the Rosenzweig and Thelen study that found that people connect to history on a personal level, they look for their personal connection to the past in order to relate and to have a vested interest. The success of local acts of commemoration illustrates people’s desire and ability to connect to a past that they relate to, but as each generation moves further away from those pioneers that are being honored, the story must move on to look at the bigger (i.e. national) picture.

*Disclaimer: I had the worst time trying to read this book. If this blog seems incoherent and disjointed (which I think it does), I apologize. While I thought Bodnar’s book read fairly easily I felt like I was muddling through the whole thing barely retaining any of the information; as soon as I read it, I seemed to forget it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Public Monuments

Sanford Levinson’s, Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies, addresses the role of government involvement in regards to public monuments and memorials, focusing mainly on the Southeast region of the United States. Levinson’s discussion about the changing governments in Hungary and Russia and the subsequent changes in the countries’ public monuments sets the groundwork for his discussion on the legality and constitutionality of government involvement in public monuments in the U.S. Because Levinson focuses the majority of his discussion on the American South, the issue at hand surrounds the memorialization and commemoration of the Confederate past. Levinson’s experience in constitutional law helps him illustrate his point that government should not involve itself in the creation of or location of public monuments. One way in which Levinson backs this belief is by arguing that government involvement with public monuments is similar to government involvement with religion, that is, they shouldn’t be involved; but his explanation makes for one of his more interesting arguments.

Part of the process of creating a public monument is in the decision of whom or what event is to be memorialized. Levinson goes on to wax philosophically about the somewhat absurd nature of deciding what is the most important event or person in history to honor in stone. History is always popularly told by the victors and, therefore, the majority of public monuments commemorate those “great men” and symbolic events that support their (winning) version of history. In the case of the American South, the public monuments memorialize the so-called “lost cause” of the Confederacy, and because slavery was THE issue of the Civil War, these public monuments have come under fire because they are seen as a means of venerating the “peculiar institution,” that is, slavery. Levinson defends, yet at the same time offers alternatives, for these contested public monuments because they are a part of our history. If these testaments to past events and our past culture are removed or destroyed because they represent an undesirable part of our history, then it is as if we are ignoring or attempting to erase that part of our past. While there are several reasons why that is a horrible idea, Levinson expertly explains, by way of a simile (what if our parents had not met, then we wouldn’t exist), how the events of our past makes us who we (as a country/society) are today.

Overall Levinson’s book was an interesting read and got me to think about public monuments in a way I hadn’t before. The only issue I can take with his writing is that he seems to try to be too politically correct at times. It bothered me that he referred to the Civil War as “the events of 1861-65” (pg. 38) and never as the “Civil War” because (apparently, I’ve never heard about this) there is much debate among scholars as to what the more accurate term for those “events” is. Regardless of that issue though, this book definitely offers an interesting perspective on and new ways to think about public monuments, from their role in society to the role of those who have them commissioned.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Archive Stories

This week’s reading of, Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, edited by Antoinette Burton is a collection of essays about archives and archival research itself across the world. Many of these essays gave a sort of “behind the scenes” look at the research process that these historians undertook, but what was really illuminating was the overarching fact that the country’s national story as perceived, or should I say dictated by the current government is what the archives base their collection on. Durba Ghosh’s essay on her research in India and Great Britain’s archives was very interesting to read in regards to her treatment by not only those working for the archives, but also what she calls the “hangers-on,” who, in their respective countries, either were disdainful of her topic or enthusiastic to help. These essays force the reader to see that an archive is not merely a repository of historical documentation, and also that the documents are held and made available at their own discretion depending on their content and whether or not it agrees with the country’s view of their own history.

Jeff Sahadeo’s essay on his work in the archive at Uzbekistan gave a very real and human look at what the reality of research can include in such countries. Sahadeo’s essay covered everything from gaining access to the archive as a Westerner, to the helpfulness of the employees and the pitiful conditions of the locals. Overall, this collection of essays illustrates the politics of archives and adversely how archives are affected by politics. These essays are very enlightening and break the idea that an archive is just a repository of information at the researcher’s disposal. It would have been nice to have had a few essays from an archivist or another employee of an archive just to get another perspective, other than the researchers. It’s also noteworthy that practically (and maybe it was every single one but I’m not positive)every essay quoted Michel Foucault in some regard to their discussions about the history and theory of archives, which I found slightly amusing (that they all did it) but those sections of the essays were the most tedious to get through. The personal experiences of these historians were very interesting to read and see the similarities in their experiences although they were in different countries and researching different topics.

One final note, I have to mention how Craig Robertson’s article about the history of the passport almost felt like he was whining the whole time about not getting access to the documents still housed in the State Department by James Schwartz. While his experience is a lesson in the reality of not always being able to get access to what you really want/need to complete your research; some of Robertson’s essay felt childish, almost as if his rant (and some parts felt like a rant) about Schwartz’s archive and unpublished manuscript that he couldn’t access was his “payback” to Mr. Schwartz in the event he should read this essay. Maybe it’s me, but parts of his story felt petty and whiney, but overall a valuable lesson in authority and access to documents.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Preservation in Great Britain and the U.S.

Historic Preservation: Collective Memory and Historical Identity, by Diane Barthel examines the differences in historic preservation in Great Britain and the United States through an analysis of controversial issues in the “Preservation Project.” Barthel is a sociologist by trade, but her knowledge in that field does lend itself to her analysis of the historical preservation movement, which is a societal event. Besides the initial difference of the top down approach that Britain uses and the grassroots approach that the U.S. preservation movement employs, Barthel analyzes the issues that concern both organizations and how those concerns highlight the differences between the two countries focus on preservation. One of the topics Barthel examines is the issue of preserving religious structures in a secular society. The preservation of religious structures in the U.S. aims at adaptive reuse; preservationists strive to adapt the structures for another use that is aligned with the proper morals and good intentions that its original purpose stood for. In Britain, due to the overwhelming amount of churches, they have a category known as “redundant churches.” In these instances there is a special agency that determines whether or not these redundant churches are to be preserved or demolished based on their historical significance or architectural quality. The other major issue for religious structures in Britain is the overwhelming amount of visitors to these churches and the minimal/lack of monetary support by the government to help with the maintenance of these historic churches and cathedrals. Some institutions have gone as far as to charge admission to help raise funds to keep up with the cost of maintaining these old relics.

One issue that Barthel addresses is the preservation and presentation of the artifacts of the industrial age. While Barthel presents a good discussion about the problems of education versus entertainment and the impact of the new social history (along with other related concerns) this section of the book felt like more of a discussion pertaining to museum studies than historic preservation. Although museums exist due to the preservation of the objects they exhibit, Barthel’s discussion of the issues of the interpretation of the industrial society appears to have more of a focus on how these issues concern museums rather than their preservation itself, thereby making this chapter feel out of place with the rest of the book.

Barthel’s examination of Staged Symbolic Communities as a representation of utopian society was most illuminating. Her assessment of this phenomenon demonstrates the many issues concerning these places of living history; including their lack of controversy (social consensus, or moral order). In an effort to be family friendly and a popular vacation destination for families these SSCs focus less on the educational quality of what they present and focus more on creating that nostalgic feel of a better, happier time for the visitors that feels more like a real community than their own. (49) Overall, Barthel presents a good overview of the different preservation issues that the U.S. and Britain contend with and it is interesting to see how they are similar, and moreover how they differ from each other. In the instances where both countries face similar concerns, it is interesting to see how differently both sides face those challenges.