"The Worst Natural Disaster in American History"

This morning on Fox News Sunday, the President’s new Chief of Staff, Josh Bolton said something in passing that has become conventional wisdom in Washington on both sides of the aisle. Talking about the many reasons for high gas prices, Bolton mentioned Hurricane Katrina and the damage it did to drilling and refining operations in the Gulf of Mexico, calling last August’s storm “the worst natural disaster in American history.” My own quick search turned up several similar comments, many made in the last couple weeks, including statements by House Minority Leader John Boehner, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, and Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Joe Lieberman.

Undoubtedly Katrina was and continues to be a major tragedy, but is it the worst natural disaster in American history? Very good arguments could be made for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 1900 Galveston hurricane. But this isn’t an argument we seem to be having. Even the Bay Area media seems to have conceded primacy to Katrina, commonly referring in its 100th anniversary coverage of 1906 to the quake as “the worst natural disaster in American history up to that time.” (Emphasis added.) Thus common knowledge seems to have settled what is really a pretty complex problem of historical analysis, judging Katrina “worst.”

This is a powerful example of popular historical production. My guess is that it will be a long time before professional historians revisit the question of “worst.” In the meantime, right or wrong, the popular judgement will stand as historical truth. Sometimes to historians’ surprise, sometimes to their chagrin, this is often how history is made.

Web History from the Grassroots

While professional historians are just gearing up to write the history of the web, developers and other web industry people are already busy at work. These people seem especially aware of their history and are eager to write it down. Jeremy over at ClioWeb turned me on to Roberto Scano’s amateur history of web accessibility standards this morning. And we’ve found a bunch of similar things in research connected with CHNM’s forthcoming Mozilla Digital Memory Bank, for example, Firefox lead engineer Ben Goodger’s Where Did Firefox Come From?

I can think of a couple explanations for this phenomenon. The first is the fact that most of these people maintain blogs, and it seems a relatively short leap from reflective and retrospective journaling to intentional historical authorship. Another is that these people seem to share a keen sense of change over time, even if the period they’re talking about spans only a few years. The speed at which the web has grown and the dramatic ups and downs it has experienced in little more than a decade seems to have reinforced this sense in them. Reading their work sometimes can make a traditional historian feel like he’s entered a sort of time warp, in which 1999 or 2000 represents the distant past. Mozilla community members, for example, tend to think of people who started working on the project during the Netscape days (i.e. 1998) as old timers. (One of the first things we’ll do when we launch Mozilla Digital Memory Bank is publish the oral histories Olivia Ryan and I have been collecting from Mozilla community members, and you’ll be able to hear some of this for yourself.) Scano even quotes Genesis in the introduction to his account, writing: “In the beginning… Let us take a wayback machine to travel back in time to the last century….”

This is fascinating to me, especially the ways people conceptualize and mark out time based on their own experiences of change, and I’d love to see other examples of histories written by web practitioners as people come across them.

Google, Miro, and Commemoration

I’m sure many of you noticed the recent controversy over Google’s use of Spanish surrealist Joan Miro’s work in a logo commemorating the 113th anniversary of the artist’s birth. Intended by Google as a “tribute” to Miro’s “extraordinary contribution,” the artist’s family and their representatives at the The Artists Rights Society nevertheless cried foul and demanded Google remove the logo. Without admitting any copyright violation, Google complied with the family’s request.

A lot has been made of the implications of this brouhaha for artistic freedom. But I’m worried about the implications for popular history-making. Commemoration is one of the most common and important ways the non-professional public produces and understands history. This is especially true among the business community, which should not be undervalued as a producer and disseminator of historical information. The “anniversary edition” and the “birthday sale” are among the most widespread and most visible forms of historical expression in contemporary culture.

Miro was not the first person Google chose to commemorate with a special logo. These commemorative logos bring a little bit of history to literally millions and millions of people in a single day, many more than professional historians can ever hope to reach. Next time it wants to honor someone from the past, will Google remember the Miro incident and pass? That would be a grievous instance of found history lost.

A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away …

The topic of this spring’s Washington DC Area Technology and Humanities Forum was just announced on CHNM News, and I couldn’t be more excited. On May 15, 2006 Mark Sample, Jason Rhody, and Michelle Roper will discuss “Taking Games Seriously: The Impact of Gaming Technology in the Humanities” at Georgetown University’s Car Barn. This is right up Found History’s ally.

The forum’s topic touches on something I’ve been thinking about for a long time: the extent to which fantasy and science fiction (both closely tied to gaming culture) are indebted to history for both substance and narrative structure and style—that is, the extent to which fantasy and sci-fi are written as history.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that fantasy is just alternative history and science fiction the imagined history of the future. The sources seem to say as much. The original Star Wars, for example, is framed from the outset as a story from the past. Introduced by the words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” the movie (and its sequels and prequels) goes on to present a plot based loosely in Roman history (“the Republic” vs. “the Empire”) and characters based loosely in Greek epic (Han Solo as the unseasonal hero, for example). Each Star Trek episode reproduces an entry in Captain Kirk’s diary, invariably beginning with a reading of the “star date.” Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a presented as a history of the third age of “middle earth” and even begins with an explanation of “archival” sources in its “Notes on the Shire Records.” A professor of Anglo-Saxon literature and language at Oxford and an expert in the chivalric romances of the middle ages, Tolkein borrowed heavily from the genre, which was itself a kind of fiction masquerading as true history. Finally, like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings also has its prequels in The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. Indeed, the “prequel” seems a distinctive feature of science fiction and fantasy, and is yet another giveaway of the genres’ preoccupation with the past.

I first noticed the connection between sci-fi and history in my doctoral research, which examined the history of inter-war interest in science’s past, both in higher education and in more popular contexts such as World’s Fairs and museums. Among the most important figures in this story are George Sarton and Charles Singer, the founding fathers of academic history of science in America and Britain respectively. Exploring the correspondence of these endlessly-fascinating giants of early-20th century history, I noticed that both men (themselves close friends) enjoyed long personal acquaintances with H.G. Wells, the renowned author of War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and other science fiction classics. This led me to look more closely at Wells, and it turns out that while we remember him only for fiction, he and his contemporaries may rather have identified him as an historian. In fact, in terms of total number of words, Wells probably wrote more history than he did fiction, and his thousand-page Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind easily went to as many editions in the author’s own lifetime as the sci-fi books for which he is better remembered. Moreover, during his lifetime Wells traveled the world on paid speaking engagements, where he usually spoke on topics in history, religion, and ethics, rather than reading from his fictional works. Thus in Wells we see that sci-fi and fantasy are tied not only to history internally and textually, but also externally in the circumstances of their production and the interests of their authors.

Of course, I’m not the first person to make these connections. More recent authors of science fiction and fantasy most certainly have. Neal Stephenson, for example, definitely recognizes the connection, switching easily and expertly between stories set in the future (Snow Crash, etc.) and stories set in the past (his incredible Baroque Cycle). He sometimes even carries characters over from the past into the future (the mysteriously immortal Enoch Root, for instance). Another example is The Years of Rice and Salt by acclaimed science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, which in its account of what might have happened had the Black Plague destroyed European civilization entirely, is really alternative history rather than science fiction.

I’m not a gamer, so I can’t speak at length about how historical models play out in video games. But it seems to me that at least one genre of fantasy and sci-fi games, in which players retrace a highly-authored (albeit forked) narrative through a historically-inspired space (e.g. the Myst and Zelda franchises), seems ripe for this kind of analysis. I’m really interested to see what the excellent panel at the Tech & Humanities Forum has to say about that.

A Million Little Pieces

This is a little (lot) late in coming, but I want to say something about this past winter’s Oprah-James Frey controversy. For those of you who don’t remember, the controversy erupted when Oprah discovered that James Frey had “lied” in writing “A Million Little Pieces,” the memoir of his struggle with drug addition, which Oprah recommended to her viewers as part of “Oprah’s Book Club.” In a memorable episode, Oprah invited Frey to her program to scold him for his disingenuousness and to demand an apology. A clearly frightened Frey aquiesced to Oprah and dutifully took his medicine.

This episode excited an army of pundits, most of whom joined Oprah in condemning Frey. It also elicited widespread commentary on Oprah’s cultural importance, both as an arbiter of ethics and taste and as a king-maker in television, publishing, and other media.

There was also a discussion of how now to shelve Frey’s book, as fiction or non-fiction. Most of this discussion hinged on just how much of Frey’s book was factual and how much was fabricated. Implicit in these discussions was a firm equation of the terms “non-fiction” and “fact.”

This equation, I think, demonstrates a key difference in the way professional historians view history and the way the general public views history. Or at least in the way the two groups view historical sources. That is, I don’t think there are many professional historians who would surprised if they found certain details of any given memoir, whether by Frey or Honest Abe, to have been fabricated, exaggerated, etc. Trained to be critical of sources, historians view even “non-fiction” books (especially memoirs) critically, and they do not trust every “fact” presented to them as such.

At the same time, this does not mean that historians dismiss out-of-hand any book containing factual errors or fabrications as wholly untruthful. We all know that a lot of valuable truth can be gleaned from mis-recollected, or exaggerated, or self-serving personal narratives. I guess you could say that historians have a more subtle notion of the relationship between “facts” on the one hand and “truth” on the other.

I hope nobody thinks I’m defending Frey. The guy is a confessed liar. But sources—especially auto-biographies—are always slippery, and they always stand in complex relationship to historical truth.

Finding History in the September 11 Digital Archive

Because it follows from some talks I’ve given in the past, this may be cheating on my resolution to start writing more. But I think it really belongs here on Found History, so I’m going to post it anyway. In some ways my work on the September 11 Digital Archive inspired this blog, and I think I should explain how.

If there was ever a time when public history could be defined simply as history written for the public, that time is surely past. The counterculture movements of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the postmodernist turn, the culture wars of the 1990s, and now the Internet have made our publics aware of multiple narratives, competing sources, and wary of our authority as historians. Our publics are now instinctively attuned to the discursive nature of history, and they are unwilling to sit quietly at the receiving end. Public history—as it’s now commonplace to say—demands a “shared authority.”

towers.jpgThis new reality is more easily accommodated by our intellects than by our institutions. Archival and library collections, for instance, remain inherently authoritative—archivists and librarians collect and manage collections and publics are (or are not) given access to these materials. The situation is much the same in most other historical outlets. In museum exhibitions, for example, curators exhibit collections and publics are exhibited to. While trends toward “interactivity” have done something to alleviate this situation, in most cases professionals still set the terms, telling the public where, when, and how they may interact with historical materials and predetermined content. This does not always sit well amongst an increasingly sophisticated and choosy public. New forums such as the Internet allow for more than pre-determined interactivity, but also for real authorship, and an experienced public now expects productive participation in our stacks and public programming.

The situation is all the more acute when dealing with topics in contemporary history. Certainly in the case of September 11, 2001, there is little we as historians can tell the public that they don’t already know for themselves. September 11 was undoubtedly the most experienced event in American history. There must be very few Americans who haven’t seen the collapse of the world trade center from every angle, in color and in black and white, in slow motion and in time lapse, set to music, set to speeches, and overlain with photographs of victims, their families, their attackers, and their elected officials. In many respects—and with no intended disrespect to those families directly affected by the attacks—we have all experienced September 11 equally. At this point nobody needs or wants an historical expert to tell him or her what it was all about. Five years after the attacks, a better role for historians and historical institutions may be simply to sit and listen.

pentagon.jpgThe September 11 Digital Archive is in some respects an attempt to define this new role for the historical professions, to deal with the problem of “history as it happens”, and to accommodate the public’s new conviction that it should and will be heard. Specifically, the Archive works to collect stories, emails, voicemails, digital images, office documents and other “born-digital” materials relating to the attacks and their aftermath, not only from those directly affected by the attacks, but from the general public as well. Intended as an experiment to determine whether or not it is possible to collect large numbers of source documents over the Internet, the Archive has proven its hypothesis and now stands among the nation’s premier repositories of September 11 history.

Yet, though our collecting efforts were always firmly on the public, we didn’t fully anticipate the role the Archive would serve among that public. This was to meet, at least in some small part, those new public expectations I described earlier—to provide an institutional location for public authorship of history and bottom-up interaction in historical endeavor.

pyramids.jpgAs it stands today, the Archive has collected more than 150,000 digital objects. Some of these materials are truly unique in the history of collections—real time transcripts of wireless email conversations, Internet chat logs, digital voicemail recordings—and stand unambiguously as important primary source documents. Other materials are more easily recognizable—for example, the thousands of personal narratives, memorial objects and pieces of artwork produced and contributed in the aftermath of the attacks—but are less clear in their status as historical documents. On the one hand these narratives, memorial objects, and artworks are primary documents: that is, they are contemporary representations of historic events. On the other hand it is clear that many of these materials were created with a real historical self-consciousness: that is, the people who contributed these materials were very much aware of their participation as actors in the historical process. In this sense, these materials stand not as primary documents, but as secondary narratives or works of historiography.

iwojima.jpgIn fact, many contributors come right out and say so, and the ones who don’t often let on in other ways. All indications point to the fact that people are creating materials specifically to be placed in the Archive. Our logs show that our contributors return over and over again to review their contributions, to see where they stand in the Archive and how they are being categorized, displayed and used. Moreover, this is true not only of the stories we solicit, but also for the digital artworks and digital animations people submit to the Archive. In both cases, there’s a clear concern about ownership and authorship and, by extension, about participation in making history. Look at these images and read these stories, and you’ll see our contributors wrestling not only with their grief and anger, but also with September 11’s place in history, either among the pyramids of the ancients or the iconic images of the First and Second World Wars. In this way the September 11 Digital Archive is not simply comprised of passive remnants of the past, but rather stands as an institutional location for the active and intentional historical participation of the general public. Visitors to the Archive do not come to receive history, they come to navigate historical sources, to engage historical discourse, and to produce their own. In this the Archive points toward new ways of accommodating our sophisticated public’s sophisticated expectations. From the outset, we saw the Archive as an experiment, and like any good experiment, the unintended outcomes have been easily as interesting as the hypothesized results. One of these is a treasure trove of found history.

Lost … and found

Yikes. I can’t believe it’s been more than two months since my last post. I clearly haven’t mastered this blogging thing. I’m working on a couple things now, however, and I’ll try to do a better job of keeping on top of this in the future.