Blogs, Journalism, and History’s View: Week 4

E.H. Carr wrote a book called “What is History?” in 1961. The book questions what it means to be a historian. Carr wrote this work in a time when history was moving from Great Men and the Long Duree to the addition of cultural studies and anthropology to the discipline. Many did not know what history would become. Just last week, we read as Hayden White questioned the idea of narrative and its place in history.

I do not mean to make the advent of blogs to be as dramatic a change as the Cultural Turn or Postmodernism. But I did find myself asking Carr’s question as I went through the blogs for this week’s discussion. History as a field is often held back by its archaic nature. We look at old things, we use old media to talk about said old things. But this approach means that when we are presented with historical work that uses new technology, we question it.

Take “A Christmas Abortion.” Gillian Frank’s article about the murder of Jacqueline Smith is heartbreaking. It uses her murder to highlight the cultural stigmas surrounding unmarried pregnant women, and the lack of access to contraceptives that inevitably led to her illegal abortion. It uses hyperlinks to connect the reader to related sources and information.

But is it history? In Cold Blood is a fascinating true crime novel, and it, too, was well researched by its author. But it is not seen as history. The difference between Gillian Frank and Truman Capote is that Frank has a position at Princeton. I do not doubt the validity of the post. But i wonder about what category it belongs in.

If Cummings and Jarrett are to be trusted (which I by all means do,) then the crucial difference between what the man in the Ivory Tower and Joe Historian call history is peer review. A piece of historical research must be read by other historians, and they must give approval and opinions. But I do not believe blogs are free of such. Look at any article or blog ever written. There are comments. There are edits, some of which the author uses after the fact. Most certainly there are opinions. Moderators might be necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff, but that technology exists, and if I can watch someone play League of Legends without someone calling me an inappropriate name, then Frank can write “A Christmas Abortion” without being called “tasteless.”

Will blogs ever be placed in the same prestige as a monograph? I do not think we can answer that question yet. Again, I find the example blogs from this week more as pieces of journalism than history, but that could just be bias talking. I would certainly rather read an article than a book for research. I also would rather write an article instead of a book. Does that make me a journalist, a historian, or lazy?

If we are being honest with ourselves, probably all 3.

-Jacob Dent

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