A Matter of Trust

I originally posted this at thanksroy.org, the digital memory bank we set up in Roy’s honor. I’m cross posting it here because I think it speaks to what makes a good public historian and what made Roy the very best.

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Of all the amazing qualities Roy possessed — intelligence, generosity, creativity, industry, wit, and so many more — the one that always stood out for me was trust. Roy trusted in history. He trusted in hard work. He trusted in fairness. Most of all, he trusted in people.

Roy was a collaborator. He was brilliant on his own, but I think he was happiest and at his best when he was working with other people. And people flocked to him.

I think Roy was able to gather so many friends and colleagues around him because he trusted them, often without prior cause and always without prejudice, and so people trusted him back. Roy showed us that the way to gain trust is to give trust, which is the same thing as saying that the way to be loved is to love. It’s the best work lesson and the best life lesson I have ever learned, and Roy was the best teacher.

I trust and love and miss him very much.

History Conversations

Well, nearly four months after it launched, I have finally managed to record and post the first real episode of History Conversations, this blog’s sister podcast. Episode 1 kicks off with a conversation with Peter Liebhold, Chair and Curator of the Division of Work and Industry at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Tom asks Peter about his daily work at the Museum, his straight and not-so-straight road into history, and the role of public history.

Click here to subscribe.

Colonial Williamsburg on SNL

Saturday Night Live had a funny sketch this weekend exposing the anachronisms inherent in living history museums and exploring how family- and employee-friendly public history venues like Colonial Williamsburg struggle with historical realities (e.g. slavery) that aren’t so family-friendly. As of this posting the video is still available from NBC, but I can’t promise it will be there for long. I’ll try to keep an eye on YouTube and if it turns up there I’ll post an update.

Late Update (10/31/06): It looks like NBC removed the Williamsburg video from its site, and I can’t seem to find it on YouTube or Google Video. For now, we’ll have to live with SNL’s summary.

Museums in the Metaverse

Late last week Richard Urban of Musematic announced the inaugural meeting of the “Museums in Second Life” group. In case you haven’t heard of Second Life, it is 3-D virtual online world maintained and governed by a company called Linden Research, but built and owned entirely by users. More than 300,000 people currently “inhabit” Second Life, making friends, doing work, buying and selling property, building homes, and doing most of the other things they’d do in “first life” (and some things that they wouldn’t). Lest you think it’s all a game, however, Linden reports millions of dollars worth of “in-world” business transactions among Second Life “residents” every month.

Now it seems some Second Life residents have created museums in this parallel universe. Presumably some of them are history museums, though I’m not sure what that looks like in a virtual world. I have to admit I’ve never visited Second Life, but this meeting may just push me over the edge. Found History is dedicated to unintentional, unconventional, and amateur history. What could be more unconventional than history in another world?

Correction: Thanks to Nate for pointing out that Second Life is operated by “Linden Lab” not “Linden Research.” A second look at the website suggests that Second Life is actually owned by “Linden Research, Inc.” but operated under the trademark “Linden Lab.” In any case, the technorati (to which Nate certainly belongs) know the joint as “Linden Lab” and that’s what we should go with.

Historical Marker Mashup

Many of you know that over the past year or so CHNM has been trying to secure funding for History Here, a project designed to provide improved access to Virginia’s roadside historical markers through cell phones and other mobile devices. My primary interest in this project is the mobile angle—I think it’s well past time to start thinking about how we move digital history off the desktop and into the historical landscape—but I also have a long standing soft spot for historical markers in general. My first job out of college was with the Colorado Roadside Interpretation Program, and ever since I’ve held great respect and affection for the thousands of local history enthusiasts around the country and around the world that have made historical markers one of the most visible and vital forms of public history.

In recent years, these enthusiasts have established a formidable online presence, far surpassing the official efforts of most state historical societies and departments of transportation. For example, the best place to go for information about Virginia’s markers is not the official site of the The Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which manages the program, but rather historical-markers.org, which provides photos and descriptions of more than 1200 historical markers in the Commonwealth and has recently expanded to include nearly 500 more from other states. Other ambitious amateur efforts can be found at HistoricMarkers.com and in the markers category of Waymarks.

Many of these sites are using seriously forward-looking digital history techniques. We at CHNM have received lots of praise for our collaborative online collecting projects such as the September 11 Digital Archive and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, most recently for our use of commercial map API’s to present the collections. Yet amateur marker enthusiasts are using many of the very same techniques, often very effectively. All of the marker sites I have listed are peer-produced, and while some grow simply by means of email submissions, others have deployed sophisticated web-based collecting technologies to build up their collections. The Historical Marker Database, for example, uses a wiki-style system that allows users to create new marker entries and edit those of others. These amateurs have also recognized and quickly seized upon the opportunities new geo-location techniques present for markers’ place-specific historical information. Neither implementation is perfect, but both the Historical Marker Database and Waymarks’ marker community use the Google Maps API to maintain their markers’ ties to the historic landscape.

Historical markers tend to get a bum rap from professional historians. Very often they’re criticized as biased, one-sided, incomplete, or just plain wrong. Very often these criticisms are just. But professional historians should also remember that it’s tough to cover the history of an entire city in 50 words or less, that (in most cases) any history is better than none, and that what historical markers lack intellectual context they often make up in physical context. Few forms of historical production have such dedicated and enthusiastic followings and are so enduringly popular. I think this mostly has to do with reaching people when they’re ready and keeping it real (so to speak). A cast iron sign read on a windswept scenic overlook has something a hard bound monograph read in a library will never have, and we would do well to think long and hard about just what that something is.

Adults Only

Digg is running a story called “The best way to learn American history.” As a piece of amateur historical work, the link has a place on Found History. However this posting should in no way be construed as an endorsement, and I’m not going to say anything more except surf at your own risk.

Yellow Arrow

Here’s another instance of amateurs beating professionals to the punch.

There has been a lot of talk lately among a certain set of public historians (lots of it at CHNM, in fact) about moving networked historical information off the desktop and into the historical landscape using new mobile communications technologies like GPS, podcasting, WAP, and SMS. Unfortunately, none of this has gone very far. The Virginia Department of Transportation, for example, recently declined funding for CHNM’s first foray into this arena, a project called History Here.

But as with web history, amateur historians seem to be getting on with getting on. While we have meetings, Yellow Arrow is coming to Washington with an SMS walking tour of D.C. punk history. There’s a lesson in here somewhere.

Thanks to Josh—my partner in pushing us into the mobile space—for the tip.

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.