Doing History: A Changing Narritive

This week’s readings focused on conflicting opinions of how history should be done. What is the appropriate way to approach the process, and how have advances in technology changed how history can be done as well as consumed?

As an archaeologist, I have often argued that the discipline I practice is a “soft science” (when I am having a really bad day in the field, it gets demoted to “pseudoscience”). We are scientists in how we approach the collection of our data, but the analysis and explanation of that data requires a human touch. Archaeologists excavate to collect data. After analysis, that data is used to tell a story about the human past. Historians do the same. The type of data and how it is mined is different, but one thing is true for both archaeologists and historians – the data we collect is used to report on the human experience. The data is for showing what happened and how, but the “why” is often left up for interpretation – and without explaining the why, these two disciplines are reduced to statistics. The human element is the key to the “why” – and a narrative voice is a useful tool in presenting this key element of these disciplines. Those who would argue that history is a social science are not wrong – but it is not entirely so, and to place it in this category removes a major portion of its makeup. History is about telling a story based on data. It is about thinking critically about what the data means – but not dehumanizing it.

I would argue that history becomes most valuable when it is relevant to the people whose story it is telling. It must be presented in a way that matters to the masses. People relate to narratives. Yes, it is an academic discipline, but the value of it diminishes when we cannot interest and engage the public. This does not mean “dumbing down” history, but making it more widely accessible. History is more humanized when it tells a story, and it becomes accessible when historians embrace one of the most powerful tools for both research and distribution – the internet. Both Burton and Cohen advocate the use of the internet for doing – and sharing – history. Digital libraries make doing history a democratic process and provide a platform for the world to access vast amounts of archival data that haven’t seen the light of day in a long time. Blogging allows historians to take a multimedia approach and enables them to present history in dimensions that the format of print cannot. Cohen claims that many historians are hesitant to get on board with these new methods of doing history because of the ease of publishing and the lack of peer-review may diminish the quality of work. However, when forums are open and blogs allow comments, it seems to me that the internet provides an even better environment than the academic journal for comment, feedback and peer review, and collaborative work can flourish. The takeaway, it seems, is get with the program or get left behind, but after clicking on some of the dead links embedded in Burton’s article I can’t help but consider the issues that may arise with digital curation. As digital technologies rapidly change, it is imperative that we defend our archives from the toll of outdated technology. Digital curation is a tool, but not a substitution for the physical. Nor can the digital library be abandoned once it has been created. Physical collections will always be of great value, and digital collections must be maintained to ensure they are still accessible by up-to-date technology.

–  Pam Enlow


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