Updated: Dec 20, 2020
In my previous blog post, I discussed UT Austin’s digital history project Not Even Past, which is aimed at making the discipline more accessible to people. I also mentioned 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 project called History Starts Now. I’d like to share some background with you on that now. Although I am a historian working within the confines of the academy, I received a graduate degree from an institution with one of the top programs for Public History in the United States. (You can check out their program here: https://www.mtsu.edu/programs/public-history-phd/ ) So, I am aware of some of the tensions and cooperation that occurs between both fields. I believe, however, that making history accessible is an incredibly important goal in terms of social responsibility, and both types of historians must work together to do our part. Accessible scholarship and engaging educational experiences will boost public knowledge at a point in time when there is such easy access to horrible information and malignant propaganda all across the internet. Likewise, historic preservation should be the responsibility of all historians, and in a climate where museums and archives are closed history may literally be on the chopping block requiring our intervention. If the Covid-19 pandemic results in an economic downturn or worse, then historians and history departments may even be on the chopping block as institutions pare down faculty and reassess curricula and enrollments. So, in this period of uncertainty let's do our best to be supportive and stay engaged.
Three years ago I was in downtown Chicago and walked into the Cultural Center for a break. This ornate building, the former Central Library and a Civil War memorial, 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.” The French novelist turned politician is implying that what we know now is an investment made by those who came before us, and therefore we have the responsible to pay that forward. Any archival methods course worth its weight will tell us we cannot preserve everything around us, but we must not become so consumed by our individual projects, grading term papers, trying to meet tenure requirements, and so forth that we forget the real value and importance of engagement and preservation of not only the history around us but also our everyday lives.
This is why I a project like History Starts Now seems important to develop. 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. Diaries and letters have been replaced by Facebook, Instagram, and text messages among other options. 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. 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 could be valuable to a historian in the future.
Photography is a great tool for preservation for historians working on both rural and urban projects, and it has been made so simple by technology. Video clips social media are also great ways to record the present, but then the issue of saturation arises. That newest TikTok dance craze is not likely to hold the same cultural weight as "the twist" because of the quick proliferation of a new challenge. Likewise, those Instagram selfies without context or retweets without comment are not going to help historians of the future piece together the past.
Before and After photos of St. Stephen's Catholic Church, Lyon County, KY after private individuals received permission from the USFS to restore it.
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? This year has presented so many challenges, and we may have raw reactions to events. Record them so you have them. Maybe in the next week or month, your reactions have changed or you can place that moment in a broader context. You are under no obligation to share your deepest thoughts on every issue with historians of the future, but the development of a personal record for yourself is powerful.
In teaching, I have found that sometimes we learn best by making the past relative and relevant. Contextualizing current events is a start and commemorating anniversaries is also useful as long as there is some critical analysis behind it. In future blog posts, I will be doing a blend of this in an attempt to engage the present, preserve it for the future, and to think critically about the past. I hope the myriad posts will be interesting and informative.
History starts now. Engage the present. Preserve the past.