Rosenzweig and Thelen: The Presence of the Past, Introduction, Chapter 1
How do regular people interact with history? What is the amount of time an average person spends in their personal life thinking about the past? What is the extent to which the past features in someone’s sense of self and identity? These types of questions are important ones to answer for public historians, to bring the past to the present, to make it relevant to people’s presently lived experiences and to democratize historical interpretations on subjects.
There are of course many different approaches that a public historian can take and this weeks reading from Cavin focuses on public history writing with an interesting intro section that talks about three issues that pervade the different fields of public history: “interpretation, fiction and sustainability (through protection and fundraising).” (p.107) I found the intro section on historical fiction a really great base on what general principles a public historian should keep in mind when writing or working on a project that is historical fiction. When creating historical fiction know that it is impossible achieve a level of detail about a historical subject or era to the same extent that an academic book would be able to. The goal is to “create a filmic reality that allows the audience to believe a story as if it were true.” (p. 109) On the other hand you have to depict something that is plausible and to do that you need to make it as historically accurate as possible which also requires a lot of historical research on subjects that may not be well documented like common everyday tasks. In addition to these principles Cauvin describes how public historians should write for a mass nonspecialist audience, small words, straight to the point and so on. A important point that Cauvin makes on historical fiction is that this approach calls for creative and entertaining writing which is not exactly easily found in the academy. A important note to mention is that historical fiction is not limited to novels, tv or movies but also includes forms like children’s books, comics, graphic novels and digital public history platforms like wikipedia and blogs.
The other reading this week deals with the questions at the top of the blog post and how a group of academic historians struggling with how to connect to wider audiences realized that they did not know “how people outside their own circles understood and used the past.” (p.2) From this seed came the idea that a survey of Americans would allow them to find out “how people used the past in their daily lives, to map out patterns and to define starting points for deeper investigations.”(p.3) The book Presence of the Past is the result of that survey and its first chapter is sort of a broad overview of what they learned, with the other chapters focusing on specific themes that emerged. One of the big things that they learned from this survey was that the past features prominently in American’s lives, that what makes them interested in history is less national narratives but rather familial and intimate memories. A common theme from the survey responses, which were conducted through interviews over the phone, was that someone’s entry point in being interested in the past came through those types of connections or events. A relative’s hobby of collecting coins or a family reunion is a common way for people to connect with the past. What was also interesting was how common it was for these same people who in some cases had a very intense interest in the past were bored, not interested or thought it irrelevant when they were taught history in school. To relate a personal example, I basically do not remember at all the contents of my required Pacific Northwest History class that I had to take in high school other than I, and the rest of my classmates, were forced to write and perform a rap song to pass. The larger point still stands however, most people experience things personally and for most people traditional historical narratives seem very far removed. It is the task of the public historians to bridge that gap and engage in a conversion with the public about the past.
The story of Cheney as a town is not all that dissimilar to the stories of other small towns throughout the American West.The impetus for its creation was due to the fact that the Northern Pacific railroad decided to locate a depot to service its line at the small springs they found during their initial survey. The process of building and servicing the great rail lines that connected the American East to its West during the late 19th century transferred large populations of people and instantly created settlements throughout the western half of the North American continent. For the town that was to be called Cheney it meant that locating a rail depot at its springs brought a newly created community and real estate speculators buying up the surrounding lands, betting that Cheney would in the future become a bustling city. The initial explosion of settlers and speculators would only two years after its founding would be enough to forcibly take the county seat away from Spokane, then called Spokane Falls for a brief period of time. Locals from Cheney in the dead of night stole the election ballots, declared Cheney the winner of the referendum on where to locate the county seat and also stole the county records for transfer to Cheney. Cheney’s ascendancy over Spokane would be very brief and by 1886 Spokane would grow enough to take back the county seat.
Cheney would settle on its name on September 1880, taking the namesake of Benjamin P. Cheney a prominent director of the Northern Pacific railroad and he would in turn provide $10,000 for the creation of an Academy also named after him which would eventually develop into Eastern Washington University. After the contest with Spokane resulted in Cheney languishing as Spokane was becoming the regional metropolis, its fortune’s became tied with the University. The Benjamin P. Cheney Academy would close its doors by 1890 but the new Washington State Legislature decided to locate one of its three “normal” schools, schools for the purpose of training school teachers for the state, in Cheney. This basically secured Cheney’s future and its growth is directly tied to the fortunes of the University. Up until the Second World War the school was primarily a teachers college and the majority of the student body were women. The post war boom after the Second World War in which returning veterans used their G.I. bills to get a college education has marked a period of constant growth for the institution. Over the course of the twentieth century it became Eastern Washington College of Education in 1937, Eastern Washington State College in 1961 and Eastern Washington University in 1977. Cheney’s current population is around 10,000 permanent residents, and the University has a current enrollment of similar size.
One of the perks of going to EWU is that the eastern Washington branch of the Washington State Archives is located on campus. In addition to being one of the first archives built ground up to store digital records it also stores state, city and county paper records of the eastern most counties in Washington. We toured the paper archives this past week and afterwards we examined an interesting excerpt from the archives.
What we looked at were some random pages taken from the city of Spokane’s Prison Registry from 1896-1900 which sheds some light on criminal activity during this period. The page that I saw was from February 2nd to the 26th of 1900. The most common charges were larceny, grand larceny, carrying a concealed weapon or assault/battery. Most of those arrested seem to be from working or lower class, common occupations are laborer, blacksmiths, messenger, machinists, salesman, cooks, and tramps. Almost every person who was arrested was male, typically aged from their late teens to their late thirties. Charges usually resulted in fines which were then either paid, commuted or dismissed. A minority of required a transfer to Superior Court or to the county Sheriff. Spokane during this period seems rowdy where everyone was packing and out to take what was not theirs.
The theme this week is archives and the people who maintain them, archivists. I am sure to the regular person when someone mentions archives they see an image in their mind of rows and rows of shelves filled with moldy books while the image of an archivist may bring to mind an old maid with severe features obsessively collecting and cataloging an ever increasing hoard of documents. Perhaps that those images reside only in my mind when I think of archives but in truth archives and archivists play a vital role in collecting, maintaining, and cataloging important documents and materials with the ultimate goal of making sure the materials they maintain can be of use to the public now and to future generations.
Even after death, an archivist carries on their duty…
Cauvin in chapter 1 makes the point that collection mangers which includes archivists and museum mangers have to be very selective in what they will choose to keep. Principally archives usually are repositories of records generated by their sponsoring agency, a good example would be the Washington State Digital Archive which maintains records generated by Washington’s state, county and city agencies and they usually have a clearly stated legal responsibility to maintain those records. This is not always the case and frequently archives and museums have to be carefully selective in what they decide to ultimately add to their collections. Space, time, money and effort are finite so mission statements “serve as a roadmap for strategic planning and collection to fulfill the needs of the given institution.”(32) Archivists have to be judicious in what they collect, how they arrange a collection, preservation of sensitive materials and in how they make materials available to the public and researchers. A important factor that archivist have to include about material descriptions is the metadata about the object. Cauvin defines metadata as “data about data: they describe the attributes of items and give them meaning, context and organization.”(33) This activity is described as being as a core function of these institutions on par with any other core activity such as preservation, collecting, or cataloging. The role of the public historian is defined by Cauvin as being intermediaries between archivists and communities, to help in managing the tension between “Use (Access) and Storage (Restriction).”(43) Managing conflicts of interest and adhering to a strict ethics policy for historians working at archives and archivists themselves is a tightrope. Ideally the goal for archives is to make their records or objects available to the public as broadly as possible but the challenges in preserving those items along with restrictions to their availability due to things like copyright requires a deft balancing act. Former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger’s theft of classified material from the National Archives is a good case study on the challenges archivists face in maintaining control of sensitive materials. In short archives are not merely collections of disparate objects obsessively collected by archivists who are undiagnosed hoarders but carefully curated catalogs of items with the ultimate goal of making their collections available to the public and for their preservation for future generations. For more information about the core values and ethics for archivist can be found here.
The theme of this week’s readings is digital history, how the rise of new technologies is transforming the work historian’s do and how new approaches are being developed in order to present their work to the public. To be honest Cauvin’s chapter on Radio and Audio Visual Production reads extremely dated, limited to terrestrial radio, T.V. shows and movies. No mention is made of youtube or other internet streaming platforms or even of podcasting. For a text written in 2016 it is extremely baffling. Leaving aside those omissions I do find the larger point about how all of these programs are being created and produced with typically limited input from historians who typically find themselves in the role of being critics, pointing out historical inaccuracies. So if historians decide to produce these historical programs themselves or to provide their services to the producers what should be their role? There is a tension because for the producers the goal is to create a gripping dramatic story while the historical setting is merely the background in which the story is set and for the historian presumably the goal is to portray the past as accurately as possible while telling the story. Cauvin essentially states that the role for the public historian is to create “films and documentaries to provide a historical understanding of the past”(168) and to “convey a particular message about the event, and not the few historical inaccuracies” (168). These are good principles to stick to and every creative project requires some amount of compromise since time and budgets are always finite.
The next chapter is about digital public history which is the intersection between public history and the transformation of historical work brought about by new digital technology and techniques which can be termed digital history. Cauvin states that digital history is “based on the use of new media and computers in order to analyze and understand historical information and/or to communicate its result” (175). Digital history is distinct from its roots in digital humanities through less emphasis on textual and linguistic analysis being “more connected to cultural issues through oral history and folklore studies” (176). The development of digital history to public digital history seems really based on user engagement, like user generated content and “crowdsourcing”. In order to build an audience user engagement is really important for these digital public projects and the form that it frequently takes is in soliciting user participation in the form of crowdsourcing through the internet. Defined as “the act of taking work once performed within an organization and outsourcing it to the general public through a open call for participants” (179) crowdsourcing is a powerful tool with its own particular strengths and weaknesses. Wikipedia is probably is the most well known example of a crowdsourced or rather user contributed encyclopedia. Thousands of users have created and maintained articles but making sure that the information is factually correct instead of opinion and making sure that each page meets a standard quality is a challenge which other crowsourced projects have to deal with. Some interesting examples of digital public history projects can be found in the websites section underneath this weeks reading at the top of this post. A interesting user generated map that includes ICBM, ABM and Nuclear sites of interest during the Cold War in the U.S. that I came across earlier this week can be found here. I never knew that Spokane had some early ICBM sites which the remains of which can still be seen.