Found History

by Tom Scheinfeldt

Finding History

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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.

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