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History of the People, by the People, for the People September 11, 2006

Posted by McStorian in ClioWired.

Blogs, personal accounts, and oral history collection has occurred at such an unprecedented rate in the past few years, it will be interesting to see how such an abundance will shape text-based histories in the near future.  Histories are, at least to an extent, reflections of the sources available.  In the past, writers may only have had access to government, aristocratic, mercantile, or other political and economic resources.  Those manuscripts would certainly have lacked the voice of the common man.   The September 11th collection is the exact opposite of those whiggish books of the past.  Granted, authors today are much more prone to find a voice for those that have heretofore been silenced.  Sometimes historians overstep bounds to allow particular groups agency, but it has certainly been a change for the better in my opinion.  Today, we are confronted with tens of thousands of voices from all over the world.  Blogs, websites, listservs, along with traditional newspaper, political, and economic sources paint an extremely elaborate, diverse, and dense image of potentially the same event, especially when the people seem to be at odds with the “official narrative” coming from the government.  The Colonial American historian, therefore, is presented with the opposite problem from which he or she is used to: overabundance. 

This overabundance will certainly change the shape of printed histories in the future (Assuming that printed history will still be the discipline’s standard).  As expressed in Digital History, one of the primary purposes of collecting such a huge amount of personal reflection is for the future historian to utilize.  It seems like a book published 20 years from now about September 11th will be hard pressed to not be 500 pages long considering the political, social, and economic causes of the attack as well as the political, social, and economic ramifications.  Even focusing on just one aspect will unearth giant volumes of information.  The historian is presented with several major issues: 1. will the data still be accessible when it comes time for “objective” historians to make sense of the events in a larger global 21st century perspective?  Preserving the information will likely take much more time, money, and effort than in collecting it.  Archives might have to be choosy about what they accept and much might be lost to the hands of digital time – like the boxes of WANG disks that we have here in our archive that no one can access because Wang went out of business 20 years ago.  2. Will the sheer volume make such collections unwieldy?  As mentioned in Digital History, most historians have had the experience of searching hundreds or thousands of written entries for the few and far between nuggets of significance.  With Sept. 11th, historians are faced with hundreds of thousands of entries, all of which are interesting and information-filled in their own right.  That leads to problem 3. Making sense of it all.  Sure, that’s the historian’s job and probably the easiest of the three to solve, but it still seems like a daunting task.  In any event, such collection efforts will certainly have a drastic impact on the histories of the future, as the focus will likely shift even further away from the “traditional” types of data to the more individualistic, inward looking sources of the Internet.



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