Looking for (Digital) History?

This one has been making the rounds, and rightly so. Bill Turkel has posted a very useful and much needed roundup of digital history blogs over at Digital History Hacks. It’s not quite “found” history, but it’s one-stop-shopping for anyone looking for history online. The blogs on Bill’s list run the complete gamut of history and new media, from digitization to data mining to teaching with technology, and their authors represent some of the best talent in the field today. Found History is kind of the list’s odd duck, but we’re not complaining. It’s very flattering to be placed in such good company.

The Big Foot Riders of Wounded Knee

Rocketboom had a piece this week on the Big Foot Riders of Wounded Knee. For the past 19 years, a group of Lakota men have completed a ceremonial ride along the path Chief Big Foot followed from Bull Head, North Dakota to Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where some 200 men, women, and children were killed in the last armed engagement between the U.S. Cavalry and the Lakota Sioux in December 1890. Each winter the event draws dozens of new riders and hundreds of new spectators far into to the Dakota Badlands. Correspondent Mitt Lee closes his piece with a question, which host Amanda Congdon invites Rocketboom visitors to answer:

This event is like so many things in Indian country. Different people coming together—Indians, folks who want to touch Indians, young people who love the idea of it all, the foreign press—all of these people coming together. It’s cold, there’s not enough money, and they come anyway. Longing for what? For spirituality? For connection? For what?

This question—why ordinary people do history—is the foundational problem of Found History. And if I hear Lee and Congdon correctly, Rocketboom and Found History agree that this question will only be answered by throwing it back to those people themselves, by taking stock of the many ways they do history and listening to their reasons why.

Lots of answers are provided by the Rocketboom visitors who answered Congdon’s invitation. Here are just a few of the more than 100 responses received:
Continue reading “The Big Foot Riders of Wounded Knee”

(retro)blogger

Predictably, the Harvard undergraduate plagiarism scandal has focused more attention on the thief—sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan—than on the thieved, coming-of-age novelist Megan McCafferty. In terms of found history, however, McCafferty is much more interesting than Viswanathan. Each day in (retro)blogger, McCafferty offers a glimpse into her past, reproducing an entry from her own teenage diary for the corresponding date. Today, for example, McCafferty gives us her diary entry from May 11, 1987. On Saturday, she posted her entry from May 6, 1991. It’s probably a stretch to call (retro)blogger history, but McCafferty’s clever adaptation of the chronological weblog medium to re-collect entries from her childhood journal not only suggests her own intimate connection with the past, but also does a good job of conveying that connection to her readers, simply and effectively making the past more present for us as well as her.

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.