Monday, December 1, 2008

Cohen and Brown review

The three articles that we were assigned for this week explored the pros and cons of digital collections and the prevalence of this type of archive within the 21st century. For both Cohen and Brown, a digital archive provide a relevant medium in which people, who already use the web as a way to express their emotions and thoughts about an event, can contribute and search through in new and exciting ways.

In his article, “History and the Second Decade of the Web,” Daniel Cohen describes the web as an immature medium but one that also possesses the ability to open up conversation among people all over the world. I was reminded of a class I am taking now, Digitizing History. In it, we learned that the main role of the archive is to facilitate and increase the access that researchers and even the general public has to primary sources within the archives. Cohen speaks directly to this by saying that the web allows interested parties to access an essay or photograph at any time, in any place and provides a way for the user to search specific keywords or phrases. This would seem to be an archivist’s dream if it is true that access is their main concern. Cohen also believes that a pro for digital collections is its ability to combine different mediums in order to obtain the full breadth of a subject. His example of the 9/11 digital archives shows that oral interviews, audio, photographs, and emails are all combined in order to a complete story of how Americans reacted to that day. A book could only provide a fraction of that information and certainly could not involve audio or video into its work. In this way, digital collections are unique and exciting.

In his other article, “The Future of Preserving the Past”, however, Cohen also brings up the cons of digital collections. Unlike the traditional ink on paper, digital mediums such as CDs, DVDs, tapes, etc can become obsolete much faster and are more likely to fail upon the first onsite of wear and tear. CDs may be able to hold much more information than a book is, but when it is scratched, all that information can be lost. Also, because of their astounding amount of storage space, digital collections lack the refinement that physical archives often have. The archives have to almost edit what they accession into the library because they know they only have so much physical space in which to keep it. This leads them to be very careful about the kinds and amount of knowledge they accept. Digital collections instead accept everything, pertinent or not and can result in false, unrelated, or scattered documents within it.

Joshua Brown, like Cohen, ultimately sees the web as a worthy medium to facilitate learning and dialogue between both historians and the general public. He claims that our understanding of the past is based on visual images rather than textual and therefore web archives, which contain a dearth of video and photographic documents, are more likely to present the past in an understandable way. In his P.T. Barnum CD-ROM, he hoped to merge entertainment with education so that people are achieving a goal and yet still learning about their history. Although this project ultimately failed, I believed it represents a new way of thinking about history and the web. It showed history, albeit specific events in history, in a visually pleasing package that attracted those who may not normally sit down and read a history book. Ultimately, if Brown could fix the CD-ROM so that it allowed for active inquiry, as he put it, I think he would have a winning combination of both history and the web.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Davis, Rose and Corley, and Toplin Review

All three of the articles we read for this week deal with the relationship history has within the cinematic world. All consider the complex issue of the validity and accuracy of history within the world of filmmaking and what role historians should play to increase this accuracy. For Davis, the answer is an accompanying book that complements the film, explaining historical detail that was not portrayed in the film. For Rose and Corley, the answer lies in historians learn and become well versed in the cinematic trade, rather than leaving it up to filmmakers such as Ken Burns. Finally, Toplin believes historians would do better to realize that scholarly history and “cinematic history” are not always the same and that that difference is not always merely a lapse of judgment on the filmmaker’s part.

After reading the three articles, I began organizing my thoughts for this blog by asking myself what I personally thought about historical accuracy in the cinematic medium. And I came to the conclusion that my beliefs for historical accuracy were dependent on the type of cinematic genre being considered. I agree with Davis’ assertion that a historical film should open discussion much like a historical book, but I do not believe that the film needs to be absolutely accurate. There is quite a difference between the documentary and the Hollywood blockbuster as far as my own standards for historical accuracy goes. Thus I found myself agreeing with Rose and Corley’s review of Ken Burns. As a documentary filmmaker, Burn holds a responsible to present history in a concise and entertaining way but one that is also accurate. Burns claims that historians’ work has become esoteric and abstruse and his mission is to save history for the general public. Why, then, does he often leave out important historical events or developments that are crucial to the particular story he is telling? Why, then, does he essentially feed lines to the historians that he interviews, cutting them off if they diverge too much from what he wants to hear? According to Rose and Corley, Burns claims “artistic license” with his work, thus explaining the discontinuities that may arise between the historical record and his documentary. I don’t believe, however, that Burns has much right to claim such if his medium is the documentary. By its very nature, documentaries are suppose to capture life as it truly was, not how Burns would like it to be.

That said, I also believe Toplin is right when he claims that cinematic history is yet one more genre of moviemaking. Movies like the Patriot, Braveheart, or Pearl Harbor are not necessarily devoted to historical accuracy from the get go. Do I believe that they should be able to run free with history? Absolutely not. I do not believe, however, that they hold the same responsibility as Ken Burns’ documentaries do. When I go to see The Patriot, I do not necessarily go to see a completely accurate portrayal of American colonial life. I do, however, expect to see an eventful, interesting story complete with all the genre stereotypes mentioned by Toplin. When I go to see a Ken Burn’s documentary, however, I do expect to get an accurate portrayal of whatever the topic is and take what he says as truth. Historical plausibility and understanding in blockbusters are, as Davis put it, the goal, but are not necessarily required for me to enjoy the movie. I am willing to overlook the fact that the red robes worn in The Return of Martin Guerre are not accurate although the public trial vs. private trial was a major misstep. Maybe Davis’ suggestion of a companion book is a good suggestion, providing history that the film was not able to address although I’m not sure that too many people (unless they are history nerds like we are) would actually go out and make an effort to read this books.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Review: Touch and Go and A Shared Authority

Before this reading assignment, I had never heard of Studs Terkel. (well, I take that back. The very first time was hearing about his death on Halloween. But, knowing I was about to read his memoir, I didn't do any research at the time, assuming I would find out more about him later) Even into Chapter 5, I was still wondering why we were reading his story and what relevance it would have to our class. Then I read Chapter 22, “Didn't Your Name Used to Be Dave Garroway?” For me, the most important words in the entire book were written in that chapter. “Oh, to be remembered – isn't that what this is all about?” (Page 216). His understanding of this simple thought is the reason why I believe Studs Terkel was such a good oral historian and just overall a unique human being. He understood that Oral History hinged on the idea that the person telling the story and explaining their actions needed to be remembered just as much as the person reading or listening to their stories needed the information that could be obtained. Terkel understood both of these needs, having experienced it himself in the back of a taxi cab, and knew that the “this” he references in his quote provides the basis for oral history as a whole: for people people to be remembered long after they are forgotten or gone.

I have to say, it really was unfair to assign Frisch's A Shared Authority the same weekend as Terkel's book. I'm afraid I had a hard time giving it a fair chance when comparing it's academic set up to Terkel's informal, often zany travels into his memories. In A Shared Authority, the relationship between pure history and public history, specifically oral history, is explored using many essays and articles that he had written that were published in other places. As mentioned earlier in the semester, this authority is shared between historians who write and examine history and everyday people who live and tell history. When does oral history become a subject of historical fact and when does it become a collection of “what might have happened?” Using Terkel's book Hard Times, he makes the distinction by adopting Terkel's believe that oral history is a collection of truths as the people telling the stories knew it, not as historians know it. They truly believe what they are saying and therefore their stories are valid within the historical framework regardless of whether it checks out to be accurate or not. Often oral historians, such as Terkel, place their importance on what the interviewees had to say rather than whether or not they are telling the unblemished truth. Overall I think Frisch's work informs us on the development of public history between the authority of that which makes up the “history” aspect of oral history and those that provide the “oral” part.

That said, I leave you with this interesting thought. In his book, Frisch asks the question “Who, really, is the author if an oral history?” (Page xx). Should it be the historian or the subject? In his memoir, Terkel mentions “I take my questions out as often as I can in order to create something of a soliloquy.” (page 177) Only when his question adds to the information given by the subject does he leave it in. Terkel allows the person himself to tell his own story, whatever it may be that he needs to get out. Thus the reason for Terkel's brilliant success as an oral historian. That and the fact that he is such a “hapless retardee in matters mechanical,” that the ordinary person feels superior to him. I will definitely be looking up Terkel's work in the future and I mostly certainly am now mourning the loss of a brilliance I have just discovered.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Remaking America Review

In his book, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, John Bodnar explores America's public memory and the varied interests that seek to control this memory. For Bodnar, ultimately public memory is a reconciliation between vernacular and official cultural expressions. Vernacular expressions are the ethnic, local, and ordinary acts made by usually a small group and are often dominated by those who support official acts of expression. Official on the other hand, deal mainly with the support of the nation-state and place emphasis on that which supports American memory rather than individual ethnic memories.

One of his more interesting chapters was Bodnar's discussion of ethnic communities. He seeks to explore how ethnic communities, such as Norwegians in the Midwest and Mennonites in Kansas were able to reconcile their vernacular memories with their official memories. Before World War I, the Norwegian community chose a public memory that focused mostly on their personal pioneers, i.e. the first generation to come to America. These people were seen as contributing more to the Norwegian identity than George Washington, a leader within American public memory. After World War I however, Norwegians felt the need to emphasize their devotion to the United States and therefore placed great importance on events that tied both vernacular and official expressions together. Commemorations such as the centennial anniversary of the Restaurationen in which many Norwegians first came to the United States, showed other Americans their commitment to the official memory and legitimized their vernacular memory. For Bodnar, although ethnic memory still remained important, over time it was accepted only once patriotic memory stood above memories and objects from the “motherland.”

Overall I believe Bodnar did a good job explaining America's struggle to reconcile vernacular and official memory. The only complaint I had about the reading was that it was a bit dry and therefore hard to really get into and understand. Bodnar's writing style was not my favorite and did not seem to bring this struggle to life for me. Ultimately however, Bodnar supports his argument well and convincingly shows that public memory is much more complicated than originally thought. This memory can come at a price often paid by ordinary citizens and often results in ethnic culture being placed behind national memory.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Written in Stone Review

In Sanford Levinson's book, Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies, the significance of public monuments are examined within the context of public and collective memory. He examines several controversial monuments, especially in the South, as a way to explore the different ways in which society deals with public space. Although he ultimately focuses on the American South, Levinson begins by looking at monuments in Eastern Europe, Nicaragua, and Zimbabwe. These global examples really bolster his historical argument that Southern monuments are much more controversial than originally thought. In addition to monuments, Levinson also sees objects such as stamps, inscriptions, and flags as symbols of a national identity and collective memory.

One of the more interesting points that Levinson makes is that often societies who suffer extreme regime changes often have an easier time deciding how to treat their public monuments than a society, such as the United States, that has, for the most part, experience a subtle culture change over decades of time. Within Germany, there are no monuments and statues dedicated to Hitler and SS members and this is understood by everyone. In the Soviet Union, statues of Lenin and other communist are removed with controversy. These acts represent a reaction to the “bad spouse” idea that Levinson mentions at the end of the book. In America, however, historical culture had changed a much more subtle rate, resulting in the graying of American culture. Monuments to Confederate heroes are still revered by many Southerners and therefore their removal or destruction would be hotly contested. I had never previously viewed this difference although I had unconsciously agreed with it my entire life. As Levinson says, the difference lies in the way collective memory is developed and how the “couple” parted ways.

I think it is also important to note that Levinson's career as a lawyer makes a difference in how he views public monuments. He is careful to make it clear that he believes in a person's right to wave the Confederate flag or believe in Confederate heroes but that it should not be within the public sphere. Although he agrees that Federal courts do not have the rights to order State governments to remove Confederate flags from State Capitols, he still believes that the public arena should not be a place of exclusion and biased towards one religion or one political viewpoint. Although I think he made very good points and made astute observations, I, as a Southerner, had to keep reminding myself that he was not explicitly attacking the South. As an anthropology major in undergraduate, I was constantly reminded about the language I used when talking about a culture and the importance of “loaded” vs. “neutral” words. I feel like Levinson's words were quite loaded and could end up causing some of his readers to be defensive and therefore not concentrate on his essential argument, that monuments and other memorial objects reflect and legitimize the public historical memory. This is just a minor concern however and has the complete possibility of being purely personal.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Archive Stories review

In Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, historians gathered together in order to describe their personal interactions with archives and to outline the ways in which archives support and detract the cultures that they exist in. Many of the historians tell tales of the archive supporting national identity and as Burton says, having “dynamic relationships” to their environment as well as the past that constantly change.

After reading this collection, I must say I was surprised at the amount of power illustrated that the archive possesses. The archive is not just a repository for documents of historical importance, but in some instances, it can determine the path that history takes. I saw this in the essay about the archives and the German Nation. During WWII, much of what was kept was seen as a way to protect “Aryan” history and genealogy. Papers that were collected in the official archives were highly slanted towards what Germany felt was its national identity. Therefore documents representing groups such as Jews and Eastern Europeans were ignored. This leads to “the Racial Archive,” as Peter Fritzsche puts it in which whole racial groups are ignored. I had never thought about an archive having this ability before. For me, an archive is a place where historical documents are placed, no matter their subject. Of course having historical significance is a criterion, but that significance should be across the board rather than dealing with merely one racial group’s history.

Another story I found compelling was that of Durba Ghosh’s story of her time researching in Britain and India. She showed that what the archive possesses is not always what the researcher is going to receive. She shows the importance the archivists and staff working there can possess. Working in India, where there is a wealth of information about British colonial rule, Ghosh met with resistance due to the perceived inappropriateness of her topic. The “gatekeepers” of the archive deemed her topic crude and therefore did not allow her access to as many of the documents as she would like. They had much more at stake culturally than the British did who welcomed her thesis with open arms despite the fact they did not contain as much information. I had never before quite realized the impact archivists can have upon researchers. Rather than merely providing the information requested, archivists instead actively engage the researchers and inadvertently shape their topics of research.

While I found many of the essays enlightening and engaging, there were a few that I did not connect with very much. Some, such as Antoinette Burton’s own introduction were heavy handed with historical theory, so much so that I found myself skimming in order to get done with it. Almost all quoted Foucault or Derrida as away to bolster their arguments, but they often lost me in their theoretical approaches to the stories. The most engaging essays for me were those that told a personal connection with the archives or changed my perspective about them. One of the ideas that greatly upset me was during the essay about the condition archivists and researchers must live in, in Uzbekistan. It spoke to my belief that archives should be for the people since the documents within were once owned by the people. Jeff Sahadeo’s essay was told in such a way that I, as hopefully a future archivist, felt connected to those he encountered during his time spent there and felt professional empathy for their struggles.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Historic Preservation- Diane Barthel

Diane Barthel's book, Historic Preservation: Collective Memory and Historical Identity, explores the different aspects of the preservation world. She looks mainly at the differences between British and American preservation in order to explain the mind frame that determines what gets preserved and how it affects different communities. Problems that one country faces is quite different than those of another country's, creating differing practices within the same field. Barthel maintains that British preservation stems from an elite voice, searching to preserve those historical places they deem worthy. In America, as we learned in class last Tuesday, preservation is run by grassroots organizations that focus on not just the elite but rather then neglected as well as the historically important.

An overarching argument that I saw in Barthel's book was the effect preservation can have upon what it is preserving. I know I personally view historic preservation generally in a positive light, believing it is saving history for future generations. Barthel effectively shows that this is not always so. In fact, over-preservation has become a major concern both in Great Britain and in America. Before even beginning this book, I thought about to something a friend had told about his time spent in London. He mentioned that many churches in England may have only 4 or 5 parishioners but is still required to remain running. This is due to the fact that all churches are seen as historic and therefore are forced to remain open. Sure enough, in the book, Barthel mentions this very issue in regards to the cons of too much preservation. Churches that may otherwise have allowed room for new architecture are being kept open, even though often there is no justification for it to remain open.

In America, Barthel mentions the strain between private and public enterprises when it comes to preservation. Many historical landmarks such as churches and homes are privately owned, but seen as a member of the American heritage. Preservationists who strive to protect these buildings are sometimes accused of overstepping their boundaries when it comes to the private/public realm. The example given by Barthel is the proposed selling of a Jewish yeshiva to a developer for the building of a apartment home. Although the owners were in favor of selling, the preservation community argued against the sale due to the historic significance of the house. Eventually the house was declared a landmark and saved from being sold, but at what price? Private owners ma eventually no longer have the rights with their property that America has long been known for.

Obviously, both sides present their own problems and Barthel delves into the issue with an even hand. She expresses concern both for over-preservation and the decay that can come from the lack of it. Although lacking the personal spark that Young possesses in his essays, her topic is also more academic therefore requires a more serious approach. She explores not just her own experience with preservation but rather the experiences of of the collective memory, especially Great Britain and the United States.