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.

MemoryWiki and The Remembering Site

I just had an interesting meeting with Marshall Poe, historian, author, and founder of MemoryWiki, a MediaWiki-powered site that allows visitors to store personal memories. Last week, I had lunch with Sarah McCue, who launched The Remembering Site to help people record their family histories. MemoryWiki and The Remembering Site represent two different approaches to popular historical documentation, the former concentrating on particular events as the primary units of memory, the latter on whole biographies. But both sites are dedicated to fostering the kind of non-professional historical production to which Found History is dedicated. Good luck to Sarah and Marshall!

Storm Stories

Just like VH1 and MTV, The Weather Channel has padded its schedule with history. Filling the gaps between this week’s flood, last week’s blizzard, and the tornado two weeks from now, Storm Stories is one of the Weather Channel’s only non-news programs:

Storm Stories focuses on the inspiring experiences of ordinary people who are placed in extraordinary circumstances due to the weather. Storm Stories features diverse programming ranging from a historical look at a typhoon that battered the Navy during WWII; to a Mid-Western family struggling to survive a tornado; to a group of snow rescuers falling victim to a deadly mountain avalanche.

The Weather Channel, presenting narrative accounts of past weather events, every night at 8 p.m.

Lincoln Billboard

I noticed this billboard on I-84 in Danbury, CT on my way back from Christmas in Massachusetts. Since then, I’ve been kicking myself that I didn’t stop to get a picture for Found History. But now I’m glad I didn’t. As I learned in my online search for the billboard, it turns out to be sponsored by something called The Foundation for a Better Life. Here’s how they describe their operation:

The mission of The Foundation for a Better Life, through various media efforts, is to encourage adherence to a set of quality values through personal accountability and by raising the level of expectations of performance of all individuals regardless of religion or race. Through these efforts, the Foundation wants to remind individuals they are accountable and empowered with the ability to take responsibility for their lives and to promote a set of values that sees them through their failures and capitalizes on their successes. An individual who takes responsibility for his or her actions will take care of his or her family, job, community, and country.

You can draw your own conclusions.

In any case, it looks like they’ve spent an awful lot of money on billboards and TV ads in which not just Lincoln, but a host of prominent historical figures, are used to embody certain selected (family?) values. Thus, Lincoln is “persistence”, Edison is “optimism”, Ghandi is “soul”, and Churchill is “commitment”. Obviously there are serious problems with this kind of historical argument, first and foremost the attempt to write biograpy in a single word. There’s also the choice of subjects, the choice of values, and the parings between the two. Still, I think the billboards do a pretty good job of tapping into popular notions of historical biography and are probably worth paying attention to … if only to know what we’re up against in our pursuit of the popular historical imagination.

I want my HTV?

Many people have commented on the disappearance of music from music television. Fewer people have looked closely at what has been installed in its place. Whereas music videos were once mainstays of MTV and VH1, historical programming increasingly dominates these channels, especially VH1.

The move towards historical programming at VH1 began in 1997 with Behind the Music, a program the network describes as taking, “an intimate look into the personal lives of pop music’s greatest and most influential artists, tracing their struggles, setbacks and successes in more than 150 episodes to date.” The historical orientation was made more explicit and became more entrenched with the hit series, I Love the 80s, in which:

Each one-hour episode takes viewers on a stream-of-consciousness tour of one year of the Eighties with vivid flashbacks of the people, music, movies, TV shows, products, fashions, fads, trends and major events that defined pop culture that year.

This success was followed in turn by I Love the 70s, I Love the 90s, I Love the 80s Strikes Back, I Love the 80s 3-D, and I Love the 90s Part Deux. VH1 now offers a wide range of historical programming, including Behind the Movie, Before They Were Rock Stars, Driven (a sort of celebrity hagiography), and 40 Most Awesomely Bad [blank] Songs Ever. To a lesser extent, MTV has also entered the history biz with programs such as The Social History of Hair and The Social History of Body Piercing.

I suspect that at first the music channels didn’t know it was history they were doing. But they’ve definitely caught on. The producers of one of VH1’s newest shows, When [blank] Ruled the World clearly know it:

When [blank] Ruled The World is a one-hour oral and visual history of pop culture phenomena for VH1. This is not history. This is POPhistory — the story of a cultural history as it was felt collectively by a mass culture.

So by now VH1’s producers know this kind of programming is history. But the apology implied by the use of the term “POPhistory” suggests they’re worried about calling it history lest they turn someone off. This in turn suggests that VH1’s producers think their audiences haven’t yet figured out for themselves that this stuff is history.

I’m not so sure. I suspect audiences have known it was history all along and have liked it in spite—-or perhaps because—-of that. I wonder if VH1 has any research on this.

History and the New Year

checkout.jpgWhen I launched Found History over the weekend, I didn’t fully appreciate the timing. It only occurred to me yesterday in the supermarket that late-December is a great time to start collecting examples of non-professional history. For the next two weeks or so, we will be bombarded by year-end retrospectives, “Best of 2005” lists, “Top 10” countdowns, and the like. Considering that the Romans named next month after Janus, their god of change, this kind of mid-winter popular retrospection probably isn’t a new phenomenon. Maybe the winter solstice, which happens later today, naturally puts us in a historical frame of mind. Whatever the reason, I think I’ll be busy for the next two weeks taking snaps like this one.

Finding History

With the launch of CHNM blogs this week, I thought I’d better get in the game.

In fact, I have been thinking about this site for quite a while. Since at least my undergradute days, I’ve been interested not only in history and historiography, but more specifically in the kinds of history done by non-professionals outside the university, the museum, or the publishing house. My undergraduate senior thesis, which examined heroic narratives of geology’s early history among scientists, was the first organized expression of this interest. This spark caught fire in my first job out of college, where my work with the Colorado Historical Society consisted mostly of traveling to small towns pegged for inclusion in the State’s historical marker program and working with community groups to write narratives that were both historically sound and acceptable to local sensitivities. (I often say that getting an American Legion Hall full of ranchers, farmers, indians, ski bumbs, and hippies in Craig, La Vita, or Ault, Colorado to agree on a single interpretation of environmental, military, or agricultural history is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.) After Colorado, I took my expanding enthusiasm for the processes of amateur, community, and other kinds of non-professional history to Oxford, where my dissertation examined the pratice of science history during the 1920s and 30s in the university, the museum, the industrial exhibition and World’s Fair, and other popular contexts. And though that paper spent a lot of pages on academic historians of science and science museum professionals, what fascinated me most were the kinds of historical processes, narratives, and uses devised by scientists, engineers, businessmen, politicians, enthusiasts, and members of the general public.

Now at CHNM, I’m constantly bumping up against this kind of non-professional history. Indeed, our own work in digital history is considered by many of our colleagues to be unconventional in its own right. But even more exciting to me than the particular digital work we do is the opportunity this work gives me to interact with a whole range of non-academic, non-professional, and amateur historians. The uniquely public nature of web work demands contact with new and unintended audiences, and the increasing interactivity of digital history means increased paricipation by those audiences in making historical knowledge. Probably the best example of this at CHNM is the September 11 Digital Archive, where tens of thousands of people have come to share their personal histoires and interpretations of 9/11. (Some examples of popular historymaking from the 9/11 collection will appear in a future post.) CHNM’s latest project, the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, promises more of the same. Finally, I should also say that CHNM is run by the guy who literally wrote the book on popular engagement with history, so these sensibilities are really simply in the air.

To get to the point, I’m starting Found History as a place to log my encounters with this other history, to chronicle the myriad ways and places non-professionals do history — sometimes without even knowing it. Most of my posts will be textual or visual snapshots from TV, the web, and the world around me: those often unintentional forays into history by non-historians. A smaller number of posts will share my own thoughts on popular historical participation and practice. My ultimate aim is to foster a broader understanding of what history is and who should be called a historian. Over the past couple of decades, we professionals have come to realize that we don’t do history only for ourselves. It’s now about time we came to realize that we’re not the only ones who do it.