Saving History: The Eternal Responsibility of the Historian

I gave my last Digital History class the day after posting my last post, about how Yahoo! has probably destroyed the most history, well, ever. I was motivated to write that post for two reasons: (1) anger that primary sources could be so cavalierly destroyed, in this era of falling storage costs; and (2) a realization that something like the geocities archive if of invaluable utility for a historian even today.

It made me realize how much history has probably been written because somebody didn’t throw something out. Jonathan Vance, a historian at Western University, said as much at a keynote I attended last month – that his greatest fear was garbage day. The war records lost when somebody passes away and a son or daughter doesn’t know what they are. All those diskettes and hard drives that might just get tossed because “who cares about that old data.” The invaluable building blocks of a future social historian.

So I laid down a challenge to my students: that they were historians now, and that they’d always be historians.

And that would be true if they didn’t go into academia, as most will not. They will still be historians if they go into the private sector, if go into primary/secondary education, if they start working for the Ministry of Education.

And, probably getting increasingly animated as I paced around our lecture room, I tried to explain what that means to me. That beyond the usual things that we know a history education gets them (great reading/writing skills, an ability to evaluate competing narratives, evaluate sources, cut through the bullshit, etc.), that there was a responsibility – a responsibility to always think like a historian.

Because I was wondering – what if a historian had been on the senior staff at Yahoo! What if a historian had been part of Google when they planned on deleting Google Video? (And by this I don’t mean somebody who might happen to have a History BA, picked up along the way – but somebody who thinks like a historian)

That they should (and would, I argue):

  • Question the destruction of sources: raise a flag when somebody suggests shredding some documents, or throwing them out en masse;
  • Think ahead to the future, especially when thinking of the digital: keep those old disks, keep those hard drives, keep backing up and making available to future generations (and to themselves, should they want to look back on their own past down the line);
  • Keep it Open; I was so happy to see several of my students slapping CreativeCommons licenses on their work, and moving out of the realm of Facebook and into websites. Facebook might not be preserved, but their WordPress site certainly will – as will the data;
  • If they see something important, keep it or at least be mindful of its potential. I made a joke about how it might not even be legal. Obviously, I don’t want my students breaking the law. How much of our history, especially around the contentious grey areas of our past, is possible because somehow something became available. Whether its advocating for declassification of materials, or in some cases, maybe even saving something for the distant future…. I dunno.

I guess my challenge to them was that they’re hopefully going to get a lot out of a history degree. And that they are historians, forever and ever. You don’t need a PhD to be a historian, let alone a BA. It’s a frame of mind, and one part of that ought to be preserving sources.

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