Wednesday, September 20, 2006

on the politics of public history

I've been thinking about power and public history this week. Who holds it? What individuals, and what groups have exert claims on the past? Much of what we have read for our digital history, public history and understanding archives classes have to do with these questions. Our reading for Thursday's archives class put some issues that had been floating around in my mind all week in sharp focus.

Terry Cook's article, "What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift" focused on the politics of archival memory [1]. The very first archives, he wrote, existed to legitimate power. Archivists kept only that which was worthy of keeping. Material such as state documents, and politicians' letters "made it" into the annals of history. In contrast, we now often encounter a deficit of sources on what "real" people were doing in the Middle Ages.

Now, of course, our society demands that our historical memory be much more diverse. Beginninng in the middle of the twentieth century, Cook writes, archivists were finding that a surfeit of material meant they had to be selective about what they kept. They were also faced with demands that archives should reflect "more globally" the society that created them. Archivists were forced to care about social values, and to reflect them in the work that they did. Popular and widespread social change forced archivists to re-assess theory at the core of their discipline, and to affect real change to that theory.

By Thursday evening, this was a familiar refrain to us UWO public history students, wasn't it? In Tuesday's digital history class, we remember, we discussed the idea of open source. As we read, when we're talking open source, it is the user's - and not the developers - purpose that matters [2]. Now, of course, institutional archives are far from open source (I can't wander into the Archives of Ontario, pull out my red marker and improve a finding aid, for example). We remember, though, that the changes archivists have affected to the work they do has reflected a power struggle between them, the state, and disparate groups in society [3]. In another parallel, on Tuesday we discussed the idea that the work of a "creative public" [4]- on a forum like Wikipedia - could thrust a new responsibility on professional historians. Far from stripping historians of their function to produce interpretations on the past, we considered the idea that multiple, and anonymously-authored interpretations on the past might benefit from historians' refereeing. Historians, in that example, may find themselves in new roles - ones that Sanger's "creative public" has thrust them into. Could this, too, force historians to re-assess the theory at the core of their discipline? Of course, discussion in Wednesday's public history class largely revolved around this issue, too. We read Noel Stowe's view that every new project that the public historian takes on calls on her to reexamine the basic principles and issues of her discipline [5]. We debated about the process of history-making.

When I think about individuals and groups that take advantage, now, of incredible opportunities to make their own interpretations of the past public, I can't seem to decipher a simple economy of power, or of knowledge. This, of course, is only to be expected - life is complex! So why do I bother to reflect on this point? For two reasons:

1. Because we keep running into this issue of public history demanding that those who produce interpretations of the past take a good look at the foundation of their practice. That the title of Cook's article includes the term "paradigm shift" reminded me (most regrettably!) of a historiographical paper I had to write a couple of years ago on Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I'm not sure anymore exactly what I was trying to prove (truthfully, I don't know if I ever had a clear grasp of my argument), but I do remember arguing that Kuhn had forced historians to be more self-conscious about their craft. His work (when applied to history - which, if I recall, he had never intended for it to be), had challenged traditional historical methods. Yet it didn't 'break', undermine, or expose an inherent, inalterable weakness in the discipline. Instead, his study forced historians to really think about what it was they did for a living. In much the same way, what Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig refer to as "the History Web" does not 'dumb down' that which historians study [6]. It will, hopefully (and perhaps with time) force practitioners to really hone their sense of professional identity, and function. This, I imagine, could only result in a higher quality product.

2. In a similar way, I do believe now that Cohen and Rosenzweig's ever-expanding "History Web" can make for an ever more savvy creative public. The teenager that looks up "Berlin Wall" on Wikipedia knows very well - as I think Kelly mentioned in Tuesday's class - that she, as a non-expert, can alter that article. So, she shops around online for other sources to corroborate what she had read. The History Web has the potential to not only democratize knowledge on the production end of things (because anyone can produce an interpretation of the past online), but it can make for new distributions of knowledge (and power!) when it comes to the receiving, or consuming, end of things, too.

1. Cook, "What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift"Archivaria 43 (Spring 1997).
2. Stallman, Richard M. “The Free Software Definition,” (2004).
3. Cook, "What is Past is Prologue."
4. Sanger, Larry. “The New Politics of Knowledge,” Constructing the Digital Universe (31 Jul 2006).
5. Noel J Stowe, “Public History Curriculum: Illustrating Reflective Practice,"The Public Historian 28:1 (Winter 2006), pp.39-66.
6. Cohen, Daniel J. and Roy Rosenzweig. Digital History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2005.

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1 comment:

Molly MacDonald said...

Lauren, glad to hear that last week's readings conjured up memories of Thomas Khun for you too!

Sometimes I feel like history is such an awkward discipline; stuck in an epistemological no-man's land between empiricism and subjective interpretations. I think that Khun's discussion of scientific paradigms can give us courage, because he illustrates the degree to which even science is grounded on beliefs and practices that are historically contingent. Things that seemed undeniably obvious under an Aristotelian paradigm appeared utterly false with the advent of Newtonian physics, which was later called into question by Einstein's theories of relativity etc. If scientific truth is ultimately grounded in subjective frameworks, then maybe we historians needn't fret so much about the status of our own avenues to Truth. Maybe subjectivity is necessary for establishing Truth, or truth? If the scientists haven't given up on this idea, why should we?