One Day in History

The English History Matters (not to be confused with the U.S. History Matters—CHNM’s own “U.S. Survey Course on the Web”) is encouraging all England and Wales to submit entries to a “mass blog” on October 17 as part of their One Day in History drive. Organizers say they picked October 17—an “ordinary day”—because they are looking to record the “mundane and ordinary lives of citizens.” They are also asking participants explicitly to reflect on “how history itself impacted on them—whether it be simply commuting through an historic environment, or how business history influenced their decision-making, or merely that they looked up some old sports statistics or listened to some pop music from the 1960s.” Entries will be archived with the British Library, the National Trust, and other agencies. The group, a heritage advocacy organization, also encourages regular public contributions of photographs and stories to its website through it’s Share Your Thoughts section.

Late Update (10/13/06): “One Day in History” is now open for contributions in advance of the main event.

Late Late Update (10/18/06): “One Day in History” looks like a success. As of this writing, more than 500 people have contributed to site. Based my own experience with online collecting, I’d say that’s a more than satisfactory day’s work.


One more amateur history of technology site and then we move on to other things. provides an enormous—if poorly organized and badly designed—wealth of annotated photos and links relating to the development of digital camera technology. Like the Browser Archive, DigiCamHistory solicits user contributions, and although it is hard to say how much of its content is user-generated, the organizers’ stated interest in collaborative collecting once again suggests that amateurs may be our best bet for extending the practice of online collecting.

Collecting Computer History

Together with colleagues at CHNM, I have been working for several years now on ways to elaborate and extend the practice of online collecting, especially in the areas of history of science, technology, and industry. Some of the results of that work can be found at CHNM’s Echo: Exploring and Collecting History Online website, where our own efforts and many others are catalogued in the Collecting Center. There are lots of great projects listed in the Collecting Center, but most (if not all) of them are institutional or professional efforts of one kind or another. Two sites I recently stumbled upon make me think that we need to do a better job of including amateur efforts as well.

The first is Pastelero, which isn’t really a collecting site at all, but rather the personal blog of a Brazilian student, who in one post has put together a great collection of 25 years of television commercials for personal computers. Because it’s not soliciting submissions from the public, Pastelero doesn’t really qualify as a collecting site under the definition we’re using for Echo. But it’s close, and I think if we could encourage casual collectors like Pasterlero to open their sites up to include public submissions, we might have more success in achieving our aim of extending the practice of online collecting.

The second is the Browser Archive, which more clearly qualifies under Echo’s criteria as an online collecting site. The Browser Archive is a truly amazing collection, which catalogues and provides free downloads of literally hundreds of more or less obsolete web browsers. (Take a look. No matter how geeky you think you are, I’m sure there are some you haven’t even heard of, much less used.) According to its founder, web developer Adrian Roselli, the Browser Archive started simply as an internal resource for his company’s usability testing work. Along the way, however, it “took on a life of its own” and was released as a public archive. It now encourages browser contributions from the general public, and from what I saw in the “Recent Changes” section, the public is responding.

The Browser Archive may not have started as a historical effort, but it now stands to become a real resource for computer historians. In that respect it shares a development trajectory with some of our greatest museum collections, many of which started without anything like history in mind. This amateur and unintentional aspect to historic preservation is a fact that we at Echo would do well to remember as we work to support online collecting in the history of science, technology, and industry.

Late update (10/18/06): It looks like PC World has tried to steal some of Pastelero’s fire with it’s own compendium of old computer ads.

Apple History Roundup

Like many enthusiast communities, the legion of Mac users seems particularly interested in its history and in the history of its cause: the Apple computer. This takes the form of both casual interest by ordinary users (e.g. “Early Apple sound designer Jim Reekes corrects Sosumi myth” and “Steve and Steve in 1976”) and also more dedicated research and collecting (e.g. This Day in Apple History,, The Apple Computer History Weblog, and especially The Mothership).

Obviously historical impulses aren’t limited to Mac users. Indeed, we’ve seen lots of non-Apple computer history right here at Found History, most recently Eric Lenevez’s fantastic timelines. But Mac users seem much more historically engaged than their PC-bound brethren. Admittedly it’s an imperfect experiment, but all of the top ten links in a Google search for “Apple history” are enthusiast websites, compared to only three for “Windows history” (five if you count the two Wikipedia articles that turn up). I can imagine several explanations for this. Perhaps Mac users are more creative and energetic. Perhaps they feel beleaguered and are desperate for attention. Perhaps it’s just a function of Apple’s relatively smaller marketing budget. Whatever the case, the wealth of amateur Apple history online certainly makes for good browsing.

P.S. If anyone knows of other examples of Apple enthusiast histories, I’d love to hear about them.

Late Update: I’m embarrased to admit that I neglected to mention probably the most successful amateur Apple history site of them all: Thanks to Steve and Jeremy for pointing out the oversight.

Late Late Update (10/30/06): Here’s another: Low End Mac.

What is a Museum?

This one comes from Found History reader Tim, who wanted to hear my thoughts on NPR’s recent story about the Museum of Online Museums (MOOM), a directory of online collections. Aside from being a treasure trove of found history, MOOM raises the question—at least for NPR’s editors—of what constitutes a museum. Should we or should we not call MOOM’s listings “museums”?

Arguing the affirmative is Jim Coudal, one of MOOM’s founders, who points to one of two definitions of “museum” in Webster’s dictionary: “a place where objects are exhibited.” Arguing the negative, is Wilson O’Donnell, director of the museology program at the University of Wasington, who says that calling MOOM’s listings “museums” is “like calling Wikipedia an encylopedia.” I actually take issue with both lines of reasoning, but ultimately I come down on the side of Coudal and MOOM.

You could say that Coudal and O’Donnell make converse mistakes. On the one hand, Coudal employs a definition that is too vague and too broad and leaves the museum without a distinct identity. If anyplace that displays objects is a museum, then we should consider department stores, the Home Shopping Network, the fun house at the county fair, the row of expensive whiskeys behind the bar, the auto show, and a million other things “museums.” Historians of museums know that our modern notion of the museum was born out of a 19th century “exhibitionary culture” that included things like World’s Fairs and department stores, as well as museums. But no one mistakes Macy’s for the Met.

O’Donnell, on the other hand, makes the opposite mistake, attempting to reify and dehistoricize the museum. In fact, things called “museums” have been around in one form or another for 400 years, and for most of that time they have borne little resemblance to our modern museums. I’m not sure whether it is Wikipedia’s amateurism or its unfamiliar digital format that irks O’Donnell, but the truth is that for much of their history, museums were both largely amateur endeavors and existed in formats that would be unfamiliar to us today. Many of the great European museums (the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers museums in Oxford are good examples) were founded as private collections in private homes and were organized around criteria and displayed in formats that today would seem very foreign indeed.

For my part, I’d pick Webster’s second definition: “an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value.” I probably have to think about this more, but to me it’s not the simple act of display, nor is it “professionalism,” that makes something a museum. Rather it is the collection and display of stuff with a preservative intent and historical mindset that makes a museum. That is, by my definition, MOOM’s “museums” are really museums … and all museums are pieces of found history.

Apologies to Tim for the long delay in answering his very good question.

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.