Tuesday, December 2, 2008

History and the Internet According to Cohen and Brown

Over the years, the internet and other forms of technology have influenced how history is recorded, preserved, and presented. From websites to blogs to CD-ROMs, technology has made historians question the effectiveness of the medium on historical narrative. Does presenting historical information, such as primary sources and pictures, on the internet promote easier accessibility to the public? Should one be skeptical about the authenticity of a historical account of 9/11 on the internet? Does history portrayed in digital format promote active inquiry?

This week’s readings answer all of these questions. According to Daniel J. Cohen’s article “History and the Second Decade of the Web,” the internet has contributed as well as complicated the recording and preservation of history. Through e-mails and blogs, historians have been able to communicate back and forth, sharing information and reading each other’s findings easily and cheaply. With sites such as the September 11 Digital Archive and Syllabus Finder, various sources are easily accessed by the public. While history has benefited from the internet from a communication and accessibility standpoint, Cohen also points out disadvantages. The internet is an open system that everyone can use to access historical records and partake in historical discussion, and unfortunately, according to Cohen, only a few take advantage of its perks.

In Cohen’s article “The Future of Preserving the Past,” the realities of the internet and digital collections are explained. Due to their complicated nature, the preservation of digital mediums unknown, among other issues, numerous people have shared their doubts about displaying history digitally. Authenticity is another subject that many skeptics have brought up. How dependable are historical accounts on the internet? According to Cohen, the pros outweigh the cons. Because digital collections are so extensive and broad, they are able to contribute different perspectives to historical record. And while communicating on the internet through blogs or emails may seem complicated, interactivity has promoted discussion and research findings in an easier, more cost effective way. Cohen also trusts the authenticity of blogs and other internet postings. With researchers dedicated to contributing to accurate historical evidence, authenticity should not be a major concern.

Joshua Brown also contributes to the discussion of the internet and historical record in his article “History and the Web, From the Illustrated Newspaper to Cyberspace.” According to Brown, the internet, while promoting access to historical information and interaction with historical information, can also dissuade active inquiry. With The Lost Museum website as his example, Brown explains that while users were able to navigate through Barnum’s American Museum and view what a museum might have looked like during the late-1800s, they were uninspired to question what they were seeing and experiencing. Because the website focused too much on a Clue-inspired plot to figure out who burned the museum down, it kept people from truly observing the historical material. According to Brown, historical images on the internet alone promote active inquiry and true interest in history.

Overall, these articles sought to dig up the truths behind the internet as a medium for promoting access to historical records. Although both Cohen and Brown shared their concerns on history and the internet, they also gave the other, more positive argument to the discussion. Another important factor presented in these three articles is that history presented on the internet has yet to, and probably will never rival the importance and liking of physical books. While the internet promotes access to various historical records, it will never make books obsolete.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

My True Reaction to Three Journal Articles on Film and History

I started this week's by reading Natalie Zemon Davis’s “Movie or Monograph? A Historian/Filmmaker’s Perspective.” Throughout her article, Davis encourages historians to grasp the medium of movies and media as a way to access the public about history. Because they have the ability to tell a story through cinematic performances, movies have the potential to narrate about certain people, events, and issues of the past. While movies do have this possible positive influence on the teaching and narrative of history, Davis qualifies that movies often leave out the specifics and instead focus on the historical context of a certain time. This especially bothered her when the costume director of The Return of Martin Guerre decided to dress judges of Parlement in red robes instead of black robes during a trial. Discrepancies like this, explains Davis, should encourage historians to question movies portraying historical events and to research and discuss the topic at hand.

Yes, that makes sense, I thought.

After reading Davis’s article, I moved onto Robert Brent Toplin’s “Cinematic History: Where Do We Go from Here?” Like Davis, Toplin sees the potential of “historical cinema” in accurately portraying history. Through entertaining Blockbusters, the more analytical “experimental movies,” and television specials, historical cinema has interpreted historical people, events, and issues. Toplin does go beyond Davis’s argument, saying that historians need to perform behind the scenes research of various film projects. He encourages historians to read and analyze correspondence, to interview artists on their vision of a certain costume, to discover the director’s vision. By performing this level of research on historical cinema, the meaning and intention of the film is better understood.

I nod in agreement in my cozy chair.

Once I reached Vivian Ellen Rose and Julie Corley’s “A Trademark Approach to the Past: Ken Burns, the Historical Profession, and Assessing Popular Presentations of the Past,” I admit that my blood pressure went up a little. As a Ken Burns junkie, it was hard for me to grasp and understand some of their negative commentary. Sure, I am guilty for crying here and there during The War, a usual response to a Burns documentary which Rose and Corley scoff at. And yes, I admit that I have all the DVDs and the box set of music to The War. So does this make me a horrible person for owning this documentary? Should I feel ashamed for liking this “formulaic” version of telling history?

My finger nails dig into my poor cozy chair. I somehow feel offended.

Yes, I agree that Burns should be more open-minded and apply more of the research the professional historians provide for the documentaries. Yes, historians and history students alike should discuss the discrepancies present in Burns’ documentaries. And yes, it is a little strange that a historian cited Burns in her journal article. Although I agree with Rose and Corley on these issues, I still felt their argument lacked in certain areas. What did those historians who were hired by Burns for the Not for Ourselves Alone documentary truly feel about their experience? Like Toplin discussed, do not directors have creative licenses in writing and creating historical films? Like any historian, is not Burns entitled to create his own argument with the information he is given?

My pulse is back to normal and I have a smile on my face. I just realized something – I am becoming an inquisitive historian.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Oral History in the Eyes of Two Americans

This week’s readings delve into the importance of oral history as historical evidence and to collective memory. In Studs Terkel’s Touch and Go, he describes oral history as more of a colloquial medium of collecting historical evidence. Throughout his own life experiences and interviews, Terkel expresses the importance of empathy in capturing a truly emotional, yet integral part of historical narrative. In Michael Frisch’s A Shared Authority, oral history is more of a procedural, systematic practice that is riddled with questions. Who is speaking? What is he/she talking about? Who has the authority in writing history? While Terkel's writing may be more captivating and easier to grasp than Frisch's, both are important in spelling out the importance of oral history in narrating the American historical narrative.

According to Terkel, oral history is more than just drilling someone with questions off a questionnaire; it is also more than just being an expert at using recording equipment. Instead, oral history is the art of need, naturalness, and true appreciation. Whenever Terkel interviewed someone, he made sure the interviewee felt needed. Terkel, historians, and the community needed the memory of the past recorded and preserved. Oral history, according to Terkel, was also meant to be a natural conversation rather than a scripted, almost robotic procedure. One of his secrets, Terkel explains, is “logorrhea” – the inability to stop talking. By engaging in informal conversation, not only does the interviewee tend to open up more, but he also understands the need of his story to historical narrative. In the end, Terkel explains that the overall appreciation of the oral history is essential. Not only is the spoken history appreciated by the interviewer, but it should also be spread, understood, and incorporated into the memory of a nation. Unfortunately, Terkel explains, this appreciation by the public is absent in today’s American society. Instead of opening a book and taking more than a second to look at a newspaper, the American public has only absorbed what they deem satisfactory – pop-culture, bottom-line news, and sports updates. In the end, this has led to an American culture stripped of intelligence and the absence of a sense of decency. (233)

While Terkel successfully expressed the importance of oral history by relating it to his life experiences, Frisch takes a more research-based approach in A Shared Authority. Through various essays, Frisch takes a look at the seemingly complex nature of oral history and other aspects of public history. Some of the issues he discovers are how oral histories are conducted and how they should be conducted, how oral histories have been used by the media, how oral history has been influenced by certain events, and so forth. A lot of his findings are based out of an American Studies program he chairs at SUNY-Buffalo. Rather than being focused on the emotional, almost sentimental side of oral history like Terkel’s book displayed, Frisch takes on a more systematic, almost drone explanation of an otherwise interesting topic.

While I liked Terkel’s book more and Frisch’s book did little to capture my interest (let alone gave me a headache because the text was too close together!), both are important glimpses into what oral history really is. On the one hand, Terkel successfully transformed oral history by placing a potential face, feeling, and understanding to an interview. On the other hand, Frisch poses the reality and complexity of oral history and public history. Together, Touch and Go and A Shared Authority create a coherent description of oral history.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

John Bodnar’s Look at Commemoration in America

According to John Bodnar’s Remaking America, commemoration in America through pageantry, monuments, and festivals has entailed more than just parades and waving the nation’s flag. Instead, it is a story centered on “ordinary” and “official” people in certain forums and how their ideals on commemoration progress through time. Another important factor expressed by Bodnar is the influence of patriotism on commemoration. While both ordinary and cultural leaders express patriotism for their country and its history, each share a different view on it when related to commemoration.

Throughout Bodnar’s book, he describes the different views of commemoration shared by ordinary and official people. Ordinary people are those individuals who can be found in the American public, while official people are those cultural leaders and government officials who express power in society. In relation to commemoration, Bodnar believes that ordinary people display a vernacular ideal, focusing on the individual and smaller local communities. In contrast, commemoration to official people is a unifying force and a tool often used in the twentieth century in attempt to calm the public when political dissolution occurred.

In his argument, Bodnar displays the difference in ideals between these groups in three different forums. In the communal forum, Americans in various ethnic groups view commemoration as a way to “consent” and “descent” from their ancestral heritage. To Norwegian-Americans during the early twentieth century, they shared a desire to remember and commemorate their ancestral descent while also sharing the consent of incorporating the ethnic group’s influence on the founding of America. In a regional forum, Bodnar used the Midwest as an example of how a specific area and group of people search for symbols when commemorating their past. Throughout the Midwest, the pioneer was used as a symbol depicting the region’s progress and individuality. In the national forum, Bodnar describes the influence of the National Park Service (NPS) on historical interpretation starting in the 1930s. While the NPS had the final say in what historic sites were recognized and commemorated, Bodnar argues that their decision and information related to the sites were influenced by the efforts of local and ordinary people throughout the nation.

Within these forums, patriotism played an integral role in how commemoration and American history were presented. To ordinary people, patriotism meant individual valor and how one influenced a community through their progressive thinking. The pioneer in the Midwest retained this influence as people looked up to their ancestors as a way to remember traditions and the past. In contrast, government and cultural leaders view patriotism in relation to commemoration as a unifying force and an effort to create a broader national history. At the local level, cultural leaders and upper class citizens lead various state centennials and other celebrations, influencing how history was celebrated at more personal levels. The NPS influenced historical narrative of the nation by relating historic sites to the overall narrative of the creation and progression of America.

Overall, Bodnar’s Remaking America is an interesting look into commemoration practices throughout American history. Through the influence of ordinary people and cultural leaders, commemoration has evolved into a complex national pastime. As time progressed and ideals changed, so did commemoration practices. Various ethnic and regional groups lost their individual commemoration as leaders at the national level consumed their history as part of the whole historical narrative of the nation. To some extent, cultural and national leaders popularized commemorative celebrations for capital gain. What once seemed to be a reflective, personal look into one’s past has now become an effort to create a popularized, and an almost desensitized national practice.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Monuments: Nothing is Set in Stone

Overall Message
Since the beginning of the semester, we have read and learned the realities of public history and how its different areas of museums, historic preservation, archives, and so forth are influenced by controversy. This week’s reading of Written in Stone by Sanford Levinson is no exception to this theme of controversy. In his book, Levinson describes the issues and questions surrounding the legitimacy of memorials. According to Levinson, memorials are more than just physical, marble structures in public areas. Instead, flags, names, and sites are just some of the memorials that communities and states create to symbolize and honor their history or culture. While this attempt to memorialize a person or an event may initially have good intentions, questions always arise. Why should Confederate soldiers be recognized? Why should the Confederate flag be flown over a state capitol, or why should it not? Should old monuments symbolizing a previous totalitarian regime in a current democratic society stay in public squares, or should they be demolished?

According to Levinson, issues surrounding monuments are a result of a current multi-cultural society questioning the government’s efforts of popularizing certain aspects of the country’s history. Currently, Levinson argues, government officials in the United States, among other countries, have attempted to neutralize and censor the country’s history, creating a national hegemony. Why else would we as Americans think that naming a street after “Bull” Connor questionable, when in reality he played an important part during the Civil Rights era? Why would some think that placing a Confederate soldier memorial in front of a state building unethical?

As Levinson points out, historical narrative is constantly changing. As a result, the government’s attempt to reach a consensus on a memorial’s meaning is a “na├»ve” and unrealistic one. Ultimately, it is up to historians how to interpret the past and how much the public decides to believe. In reality, questions Levinson, will the “tutored” academics of history reach and influence those of the “untutored” public? As history is re-written, the significance and interpretation of monuments can change. While certain words or phrases may be set in stone, Levinson concludes and hopes future generations understand that there is always the possibility of changing a memorial’s interpretation and questioning what one sees.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I liked how Levinson used different examples from around the world to depict how truly controversial memorials really are. The one aspect that I did not like about the book was how Levinson incorporated the Constitution into the narrative. I felt that it was a forced effort by Levinson to show how knowledgeable a constitutional lawyer he really is (as he makes note of throughout the later half of the book). While I understood his argument about how states are not portraying a neutral stance on memorials, I think it could have been narrowed down to less than sixty pages and presented better.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Behind the Scenes Look at Archives and the Reality of Limited Access

To many researchers and scholars, archives can be associated to countless hours of research and miles and miles of microfilm. To Antoinette Burton and other scholars, archives go beyond the physical documents. In Burton’s Archive Stories, a series of essays were written to expose the true nature of archives. Within each archive there is a story of its creation and progression as a public, records-holding facility. Through the narrative of progression, some writers describe archives as being influenced and succumbed by the government of that nation. From varying political beliefs to protecting individuals in government, archives have been subject to the ups and downs of current politics. In turn, archivists have even related current events and political beliefs to their archival practices in terms of documentation and research access. As a result of the political influence on archives, as described by the writers, the issue of limited access to many records has been noticed and experienced. As both an obstacle and a frustration, limited access has only furthered the confusion toward archives and archival practices.

As described in most of the essays in Archive Stories, limited access to various records in archives has influenced how researchers and scholars have researched. In some archives, access to documents is limited as a result of censorship. During Jeff Sahadeo’s experience with the archives in Uzbekistan, access to archives meant waiting weeks until a form detailing his research topic was accepted and filed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In another instance, Helena Pohlandt-McCormick had to consider the archives in South Africa as incomplete and manipulated by the apartheid government of the time. Even archivists in South Africa played a role as “guardians” of the archives, making it nearly impossible to gain access to certain records that may reveal certain injustices and crimes.

In other archives, limited access is a result of political officials and movements attempting to re-write and legitimize their country’s history. During Durba Ghosh’s experience at the archives in India, archivists found it difficult to accept her research topic – defining the history of interracial relationships between Indians and Britons during colonial times in India. Ghosh faced another hurdle when the documents she needed were never processed by archivists as a result of their sexual, interracial content. From the warnings expressed by the archivists to the difficulty of researching, Ghosh concludes that these various efforts were a result of archivists and others in India trying to keep their history “clean.” By trying to prevent this “unsavory” aspect of India’s history becoming too publicized, archivists have found ways to minimize the interest and research of certain topics.

According to the essays in Archive Stories, access to archives and their records is harder than it seems. To researchers like Sahadeo, Pohlandt-McCormick, and Ghosh, access to archival records has been limited and often hard to come by. Archives have been influenced by various political and national-related issues. To many, these influences have proven to be detrimental to the accessibility of a nation’s actual history to the public.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

What is Considered "Historical?": Different Interpretations on Historical Preservation as Displayed by Eddie Izzard

At one point in Barthel's Historic Preservation, she mentions how Britain and the United States have different interpretations on what they consider "historical." Because Britain has historical sites that date back to Roman and Celtic times, they are more selective to what they consider worthy of preservation. There is also the factor that Britain has numerous historic landmarks in a small, densely populated country. In constrast, preservation efforts in the United States has been performed on landmarks as recent as the early McDonald's hamburger stands. Because the United States is a relatively "new nation," historic preservation is able to save more recent, and even commercial, entities. The United States' term of "historic" is more broadly defined because it has the room to do so. (29-30)

While I read this portion of Barthel's book, I could not help but think of a stand-up routine performed by Eddie Izzard. Throughout his act, Izzard criticizes and jokes about historical events. In one of his jokes, he makes fun of Americans and what they consider to be "history." To Izzard, Europe is "where the history comes from." Here is a link to this portion of Eddie Izzard's "Dress to Kill" routine:


Drag the starting point to 55 seconds, which is where he begins the joke about American history.

(JUST TO LET YOU KNOW: Eddie Izzard is known to use strong language in his routines. And yes, he is wearing make-up.)

Thought the class would be interested to see it! Enjoy!