Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The History Books Forgot About Us

In the 1960s, the study of history began to change. My teachers in the decades that followed compared the "new social history" to the study of what they called "dead white men." The 1960s shift lead to the development of various branches of history including research based on gender, ethnicity, and more. We weren't just studying the famous or powerful in the late twentieth century. We began considering how various communities influenced society, molding and changing civilization.

The shift continues today with the Internet. Outside the scholarly world of history, individuals are finding their own voices. They are recording their memories for posterity -- perhaps not always consciously. They broadcast their ideas to the world. Archivists are paying attention. We are thinking about how we are going to save these individual voices for the future.

Our words are important to the study of history

The Voices

The Internet, and social media in particular, provides a unique platform for the history of the future. And the platform is quickly changing to emphasize those individual voices. Consider Facebook's shift to its "timeline," for example. The platform are giving us the tools to share our life stories as completely as possible. If we can save these voices and stories, historians will have a new unique tool to explore our heritage in a whole new way. The history of dead white men is truly dead. Millions of voices are replacing it.

History is About Us

I am curious to see how history books will not forget us in the future. How will historians sort out the voices to project them in a logical way to students? A few years ago, I came across a theory about teaching history backwards. The concept behind this is that if students see themselves as part of history, they can reach back to better understand the context of events. How did historical events get us to where we are today as a society? How has history helped create the life you live today? History is about us and if we start from that perspective, the context and importance of it all can neatly line up from there.

An Archivist's View

This is my own view and does not necessarily reflect the views of my fellow archivists. (I am interested to hear their comments.) Over the past ten years, I've promoted the idea that caring for your personal papers and caring for the papers of your community can lays a foundation for our archives work in small institutions. This approach fits quite well with the idea of studying history backwards. If we take care of what is most important to us -- our own personal papers and digital records -- and learn to recognize how they fit in with a larger society or collections of papers, than we have more of a vested interest in saving archives. Society has an opportunity to ensure that history books will no longer forget about the general populace. Saving our own memories in recorded form gives historians the tools they need to consider larger groups. Furthermore, a plethora of safely stored recorded information cannot be ignored.

The Internet gives us a unique new tool for the study of history. It is changing our ideas of what a "community" is. It is giving us more communities to consider. Still, our presence is recorded beyond the computer. The papers in our homes still provide a valuable perspective on our lives. Our individual histories exist online and offline. We have the opportunity to care for these recorded perspectives so that history remembers us. Our descendants will look to our lives to better understand their own if we give them the tools.


  1. While I wholeheartedly agree with your message here, Melissa, I have to remember that half of my own ancestry happens to be comprised of what some historians disdainfully toss aside as "dead white men."

    I like to think of those "dead white men" as the infrastructure of Western history's timeline. They shaped the major trends that changed our world, for better or for worse. Much like Escher's hands drawing themselves, as they shaped world history, they also bestowed me with my own family micro-history. I, too, become what I make of myself, but also what that heritage has produced in me. In order to understand myself and my heritage, I need some infrastructure on which to hang that overarching meaning. So I can't really just ditch that pre-1960s "outmoded" look at history. I need it as a tool of trend- as well as self-evaluation.

    And yet, we do see life from our own perspective, seeing outward from our own familiar story. That "other" history impacts us much more than we impact it. But that perspective becomes an integral tool in teaching young people about the trends of the past--how their own timeline, and that of their own family has integrated--or clashed with--the macro-trends of history.

    A lot to think about here!

  2. Good point Jacqi! Actually, one of the reasons I moved to New England was because of those "dead white men" stories. When I got here, I learned more about people such as the mill girls and midwives and realized they are equally fascinating. It's not a matter of one community's story taking precedence over another. It's a matter of giving diverse stories equal weight - ensuring that the "underdocumented" are documented so that we know how all members of society influenced each other.