History as Participatory: History Starts Now. Engage the Present. Preserve the Past.

Updated: Jun 16

In my previous blog post, I discussed UT Austin’s digital history project aimed at making the discipline more accessible to people as well as the rise of the Human Library social movement, which is encouraging people to get to know others and their lived experiences. At the end of the post, I introduced my own hope for a social movement called History Starts Now. I’d like to share some background with you on that now.

I am a historian working in the academy, but I received a graduate degree from an institution with one of the top programs for Public History. So, I am aware of some of the tensions and cooperation that occurs between both fields. Making history accessible is an incredibly important goal in terms of social responsibility, and historic preservation should be part of that responsibility too.

Three years ago I was in downtown Chicago and walked into the Cultural Center. This gorgeous building is just steps from the Bean and has gorgeous mosaics, soaring Tiffany stained-glass domes, and a handful of free exhibits and events going on each week. The ceilings are filled with literary references, and one of them is a quote from Victor Hugo that inspired me to think about what we are doing to document and preserve history for future generations. The quote reads: “A library implies an act of faith which generations still in darkness hid sign in their night in witness of the dawn.” Hugo is implying that what we know now is an investment made by those who came before us, and therefore we are responsible to pay that forward.

This is why I have called the movement History Starts Now. We live in an age where the tangible sources of the past are increasingly digitized, but we are leaving fewer physical traces of our own history. This is why we must invest our time engaging with the present while preserving the physical traces of our own past and that of those who came before us.

Preservation mean a range of things. Whether you are involved in the curatorship of historic sites, taking part in the careful digitizing of old records, or just using your smartphone to document changes in the spaces we see everyday—you are doing some form of preservation work that will be valuable to a historian in the future. Photography is a great tool for preservation for historians working on both rural and urban projects! A snapshot taken during a walk may answer a question about a business that was in the area when it has long been closed or it may give historians a clue as to what a particular house looked like when only a foundation is left on the property.

Engaging the present means thinking critically about something that is happening around us and documenting it. How does it make you feel? How have you been affected by local, national, or international events? Emojis are great for shorthand in text conversations and social media, but don’t forget to take a moment to tell others and future generations how you feel and what you experienced that day.

In future blog posts I will explore relatively easy ways to capture change over time and to engage the present that go along with how we interact with people everyday. Hopefully, those who feel the importance of History Starts Now will go beyond that, but it will be a great start to investing in knowledge for future generations.

History starts now. Engage the present. Preserve the past.

#HistoryStartsNow #PublicHistory #DigitalHistory #Preservation #Engage


J.T. Carroll, Historian

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