In between producing television shows about ice road truckers, swamp people, or whatever else the History Channel airs these days, the famously un-historic channel gained attention for recently claiming that pilots Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan survived their plane crash in the Marshall Islands and were subsequently captured by the Japanese military. For whatever reason, the History Channel’s social media feeds are playing up a dubious claim that somehow the federal government is actively suppressing the “truth” of Earhart’s story, even though the documents they found to support their theory of Earhart and Noonan’s disappearance came from…a government archive.
According to the official website of the National Archives and Records Administration, the agency possesses “approximately 10 billion pages of textual records; 12 million maps, charts, and architectural and engineering drawings; 25 million still photographs and graphics; 24 million aerial photographs; 300,000 reels of motion picture film; 400,000 video and sound recordings; and 133 terabytes of electronic data.” It should not be surprising that some of these documents get placed in storage and are sometimes forgotten about by researchers (or they simply don’t know the documents exist). That is not the same as saying the National Archives is deliberately withholding an unclassified document from researchers in the interest of hiding the government’s “secrets.”
By now I should realize that it’s all about the ratings when it comes to the History Channel. Support your local archivist and thank them for preserving history!
UPDATE: There’s a good chance the History Channel’s claims about Earhart are untrue. The power of history blogging!
The popular biographer Walter Issacson recently penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he muses on “what could be lost as Einstein’s papers go online.” The essay was sparked by the recent digital publication of the first thirteen volumes of Einstein’s papers by a consortium of institutions that includes Princeton, Caltech, and Hebrew University. Issacson uses this development to explore the nature of online archives more broadly, weighing the potential benefits and consequences of opening primary source documents to what he describes as “the wisdom of the crowd.” There is a tension underlying these thoughts, and as the essay title suggests, Issacson seems fairly preoccupied with what could be lost as the archives go online:
My initial joy about the project was tempered, however, by a pinch of sadness. I realized that most future Einstein researchers would no longer have to make the journey to the cozy house on the edge of the Caltech campus where the scholars of the Einstein Papers Project were eager to embrace their rare visitors and ply them with guidance, insights and tea. They wouldn’t likely spend delightful days there—as I did for my biography of Einstein—with the science historian Diana Kormos-Buchwald and her colleagues as they debated such issues as how to explain what Einstein meant when he referred to quanta as “spatial” or his fellow Jews as Stammesgenossen (tribal comrades).
The next generation of scholars will also lose the tingling inspiration of seeing original documents. I remember how much closer I felt to Benjamin Franklin —suddenly, he seemed like a real person—when, at his archives in Yale’s Sterling Library, I first touched a letter that he had written, marveling that this piece of paper had actually once been in his hands. I even made a pilgrimage to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which Einstein helped to found and where most of his original documents reside, so that I could draw inspiration. What sublime experiences will researchers miss if they simply view the documents online? What will be lost if the archives, with their passionate staffs, morph into unvisited repositories?
Issacson, however, does express some excitement about the power of computing to help us ask new questions about these documents:
My brooding soon gave way to marveling about the benefits that will come when millions of curious people, with new technologies in hand, get to dive into the papers of historical figures. While I was doing research years ago for my biography of Franklin, the Packard Humanities Institute in Los Altos, Calif., was at work on a digital collection of his papers. After a lot of begging, I wheedled a beta version of the CD-ROMs. They let me search all of Franklin’s papers for specific concepts . . . with the new digital version of Einstein, I have been looking at the 237 times he talked about Palestine—and imagining what a smart researcher could do by tracing the evolution of the 6,720 times he used the phrase “light quanta.”
With online archives, research can be crowdsourced. Students from Bangalore to Baton Rouge can drill down into Einstein’s papers and ferret out gems and connections that professional researchers may have missed. That will reinforce a basic truth about the digital age: By empowering everyone to get information unfiltered, it diminishes the role of gatekeepers and intermediaries. Scholars and experts will still play an important role in historical analysis, but their interpretations will be challenged and supplemented by the wisdom of crowds.
I share Issacson’s enthusiasm for the experience of traveling to and conducting research at archival institutions. I’ve conducted research at many different institutions, but I will always fondly remember my own experiences at the Indiana State Library when I lived in Indianapolis. Although I didn’t know it when I first moved to Indy, it turned out that my house was within walking distance to ISL. There were many Saturdays filled with early morning research, lovely lunchtime walks around downtown, and more research in the afternoon. The detective work of research is fun in and of itself, but the adventure of traveling to a new place and soaking in the character of the surrounding area makes the archival experience sublime.
All of this said, however, I don’t find myself as pessimistic as Issacson about this experiential loss with the move to online archives. Doing research online is, of course, also an experience. Digging into archival resources like Google Books, HathiTrust, The Internet Archive, and Chronicling America requires the same sort of detective work and interpretive skills that one uses at a brick-and-mortar institution. And it’s hard to describe the jubilation you feel upon discovering a crucial primary source that you would have never found or had access to at your local archival institution. Likewise, while the tactile experience of holding a real document in your hands is very, very special, the best web designers and archivists can make digital primary sources equally (if not more) accessible to researchers by providing clear scans, zoom in/out functionality, and text transcriptions that make these documents more approachable and understandable (especially for students in a k-12 setting who may be unable to visit an archive in person).
It’s also important to keep Issacson’s thoughts on digitization in context. All of the digital primary source collections he mentions are from noteworthy great white men in U.S. history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, and Einstein. Historians and archivists pick and choose what history gets digitized, and it remains an open question as to what should be digitized for online publication and whether or not this effort to publish documents related to White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Males over ones connected to women and minorities merely duplicates the same dominant practices in the history book publishing industry since the nineteenth century. There are literally billions of primary source documents that could be digitized, but the lack of time, cost, and labor to digitize will prevent a sizable number of documents from going online in the foreseeable future. For every Smithsonian undertaking a “digitization strategic plan” there are probably hundreds of archival institutions that lack the ability to digitize anything in their collections. In sum, researchers understand that producing good scholarship means still going to the archives and digging through the actual sources – it can’t all be done online.
The real loss with online archives, as I see it, is the loss of interaction with all of the talented and helpful archivists who help researchers accomplish their goals. I suspect that most researchers don’t have tea with their archivists or bump into world-renowned historians of science at the archives like Issacson does, but almost all can recall an instance in which an archivist pointed them towards collection material they were unaware of, helped transcribe a document that seemed unreadable, or took the time to go into the back corner of a dark room to find requested documents. I can recall many such moments, and my own research over the years wouldn’t have been completed without the help of archivists. They are important people, and I think it’s safe to say that we’ll still need their services and expertise well into the future, whether online or offline.
Several days ago I read a fine piece in The Atlantic from anthropologist Alexis C. Madrigal on real-time internet content/information delivery, what Madrigal refers to as “The Stream.” Whether it be Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader (R.I.P.), or the New York Times, many websites have turned to the stream as a means for instantly delivering information that is ostensibly meaningful to readers. The screenshot above is from the “Times Wire”–which is run by the New York Times–and it exemplifies the machinations of the stream: instant updates, individualized content, and and a sense of inclusion, by which I mean a feeling that you are keeping up with and understanding (at least somewhat) what’s going on in the world.
Madrigal explains the stream as such:
The Stream represents the triumph of reverse-chronology, where importance—above-the-foldness—is based exclusively on nowness. There are great reasons for why The Stream triumphed. In a world of infinite variety, it’s difficult to categorize or even find, especially before a thing has been linked. So time, newness, began to stand in for many other things. And now the Internet’s media landscape is like a never-ending store, where everything is free. No matter how hard you sprint for the horizon, it keeps receding. There is always something more. Nowness also transmits this sense of presence, of other people, that you get in a city when you go to a highway overpass and look down at all the cars at any time of the day or night.
Given my recent embrace of Twitter and my belief in its enormous potential to deliver information to me that I find important, I am now more than ever a product of the stream. Rather than reading a newspaper, I now check my Twitter stream in the morning to see what’s happening, to find information that “newsworthy” to me. When I find content personally interesting, I contribute my own small part to the stream through tweets, Facebook posts, and essays on Exploring the Past. Since I started this regiment of blogging and tweeting one year ago, I’ve been blown away by the connections I’ve made with people all over the world and the number of visits I’ve had to this blog (more than 10,000 so far).
Yet there are times when I feel as if the stream overwhelms me. Sometimes I feel like I can’t get away. I try to work on projects, school assignments, etc., but the pull of nowness sucks me in, challenging me to stop work to check and see if I’m missing something important in the stream. Equally frustrating, these streams make little distinction between what Robin Sloan refers to as “flow” and “stock.” “Flow” refers to information designed for the here and now: updates and tweets about weather, daily activities, your pumpkin spice latte, etc. “Stock” refers to content that I’d argue is more than information in that it actually contributes to knowledge construction; material that you’d still refer to long after its incorporation into the stream.
Madrigal’s article raised larger questions within me about how we view the internet from a holistic viewpoint. If we rely on the stream for obtaining information, how do we promote and preserve meaningful flow and stock content for the long term? Can we break away from the pull of the now to make room for reflection on what has already occurred in recent memory?
Part of the solution, I think, is understanding that while the internet provides us meaningful information for the here and now, the internet should also be viewed as a historical, archived space. Sure, there are sites like the Internet Archive, Google Books, HathiTrust, and Chroncling America that provide public access to historical events, documents, and artifacts from the twentieth century and earlier, but how do we go about archiving the history we make every day through our interactions on the stream? Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other related sites are not just sources for nowness: they’re also tools and resources for future historians looking to interpret the history of the early twenty-first century.
Viewing the internet as a historical archive will require more discussion and questioning, as far too many website proprietors view the content and interactions on their websites as disposable rather than historical. Ian Milligan points out that major websites such as Yahoo! and MySpace have recently destroyed millions upon millions of historical digital records, embracing the notion of “who needs old stuff when the future is here?” In the case of MySpace, bloggers who used the world’s largest social media website from 2005-2008 to share their thoughts had their information wiped out instantly in June of this year. As Milligan argues, MySpace “meant something to multiple millions of people,” and future historians are now more impoverished thanks to this focus on the now.
How do you go about preserving your digital records? What would you do if Facebook, Twitter, or WordPress suddenly deleted all of your content, all of your flow and stock?
Things have been pretty chaotic between my new job, planning for the Digital Sandbox, and making revisions to my thesis. I am also organizing some thoughts for a future post on the American Historical Association’s recent statement on embargoing doctoral dissertations for up to six years. In the meantime, here are some interesting articles I’ve come across lately.
- The National Endowment for the Humanities paid a $250,000+ grant to the University of Virginia library in 2010 to digitize a collection of news clips from WSLS-TV in Roanoke, Virginia. These clips have recently gone live and span twenty years worth of news (1951-1971). Apparently they are the only records from a TV station in the area that still exist today, and I have no doubt that these will be utilized by historians and other interested parties who want to learn more about the history of the Civil Rights Era and/or Virginia history.
- Northeastern University has created a digital archive for the Boston Marathon bombings. This archive includes photos, oral histories, and an archived cache of tweets and Facebook status updates, demonstrating the fact that social media usage today is tomorrow’s documentary record for historians. The website runs on an Omeka platform and is a bit clunky at this point. I’d recommend that readers start by viewing the collections page, which has various records broken up into easily understandable categories. I was particularly moved by a story from Sydney Corcoran, an 18 year old whose mother lost both of her legs in the bombings.
- My friend Bob Pollock at Yesterday… and Today has an essay from Joan Stack, Curator of Art Collections at the Missouri State Historical Society in Columbia. She recently went with her family to see “Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede,” in Branson, Missouri. She concluded that the show did a lot of “whitewashing” of history, avoiding tough subjects like slavery and American Indian displacement while presenting a narrative of reconciliation that portrays (white) United States and Confederate soldiers as brothers who were all “patriotic and noble.” The essay brought back memories of my own trips to Branson as a child, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Nevertheless, I was struck by Stack’s comment about the show being “interesting because it makes a sanitized, symbolic Civil War the focus of an exhibition about white Americans understanding of themselves.”
- Giovanni Palatucci has been lauded in history as the “Italian Schindler” who saved the lives of 5,000 Jews from a Nazi death camp in Italy called Risiera di San Sabba. Well, it turns out that this story may be complete bunk, and the police officer may have actually done the opposite and ruthlessly enforced Benito Mussolini’s fascist policies. A fascinating and ongoing story that I will try to follow as new developments take place.
- A state-run reform school in Florida was closed two years ago. Now Governor Rick Scott has called for archaeologists, anthropologists, and other researchers to exhume 90 unmarked graves of boys who died at the school throughout its 100 year history. Perhaps Governor Scott–who just a few months ago asked “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”–now sees the importance of having anthropologists around.
Persuasive Video Games
I’ve been mulling over this talk given by University of Georgia professor Ian Bogost on video games as tools for increasing awareness in society about pressing political and social issues:
How might historians utilize video games to increase awareness about the importance of history? Some games like Assassin’s Creed III have utilized elements of history in their games, but I think it’s a field that has room for growth. Learning can be both entertaining and serious at the same time.
I have been brainstorming some ideas about Civil War history in preparation for the Gettysburg conference. I’ll be arriving tomorrow via flight to Baltimore/rental car to Gettysburg. I’ve had some extremely interesting and fruitful conversations via email with my fellow panelists and the general nature of our discussion has definitely shaped the following essay. Any feedback is greatly appreciated:
When I first began writing out my ideas regarding the future of Civil War history, I focused the bulk of my thoughts and ideas on how teachers could find ways to make the American Civil War a more integral part of the American history curriculum for k-12 education. Further discussion with my co-panelists, however, has demonstrated to me that for many history teachers throughout the country–especially ones working in public schools–the real problem goes much further. It seems that history teachers must now cope with an unfortunate reality. The lifeblood and future of the study of history is imperiled, and my thoughts have now focused on how teachers can find ways to make history a more integral part of the entire educational curriculum of many schools. Teachers have observed that No Child Left Behind places an added emphasis on English and Math in the curriculum, while in the state of Tennessee all Social Studies assessments will be suspended for the 2013-2014 academic year because their standards were so poorly written. Stiff budget crunches have also prevented teachers from investing in digital technology and primary source material that could enhance classroom instruction.
Before engaging in a collective pity-party, however, history teachers would do well to consider the plight of our fellow historians working in the various museums, libraries, archives, historical societies, and National Park Service sites. The federal government–along with many state governments–has drastically cut funding to the humanities. Many sites like the Benjamin Harrison home in Indianapolis, Indiana, are dealing with decreased attendance numbers and are struggling to stay afloat. The situation has become so tenuous that Cary Carson, Former Vice President of the Research Division of the Colonial Williamsburg, has suggested that we begin to start thinking about the end of history museums and the beginning of “Plan B.”
It seems to me that the future of history–whether in an academic or public setting–is dependent upon historians collaborating together in creating projects that blend, modify, and manipulate the mission statements of local historical institutions to better meet the needs of classroom educators and the common core standards many states have adopted. If everyone is struggling, shouldn’t everyone work harder to facilitate a spirit of collaboration and idea-sharing? Indeed, institutions such as the Indiana Historical Society have now embraced outreach projects that actively seek the input of teachers and schools throughout the state. At times the IHS has even driven to schools to present “hands-on activities, first-person interpreter[s], and community art space[s]” for schools that are unable to visit IHS in person.
When thinking about collaborative projects that have the potential to create an interest in history for students, what better place to start than with the American Civil War? The legacy of this terrible war remains in our society today, and the abundance of primary sources from the period offers us a chance to better understand the challenges of the past and perhaps make us more humane citizens today. Letters, diaries, newspapers, personal memoirs, uniforms, weapons, and other artifacts from the war hold the power to portray history as a method of critical thinking and asking questions of the past, something our history textbooks don’t always succeed in conveying.
I envision the future of Civil War history as one of collaboration and transparency between teachers, students, archivists, museum educators, librarians, and other public historians. I see museums and archival repositories going to schools to share primary sources and exhibits that are cultivated and co-created by teachers and public historians. I see students accessing archival records and museum exhibits online and creating WordPress websites about local Civil War history, whether about battlefields, emancipation, the home front, or Civil War memories. Finally, I envision a lively community of historians who work together rather than separately. Archivists, librarians, and museums educators will all become classroom teachers. Teachers will become archivists and preservationists. Most importantly, students will become lifelong learners with an insatiable curiosity for history. An integration of classroom instruction and institutional resources will help us motivate students to become stakeholders in preserving the past and shaping the future. This represents not only the future of Civil War history, but the future of the entire field of history.
I spent the majority of today conducting research at the Indiana State Archives for my thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic. It did not go as well as planned. I was particularly interested in studying the letter books of the Department of Indiana’s Assistant Adjutant General, of which there are 25 volumes from 1895-1918 at the archives. The Assistant Adjutant General was the right hand man of the Department Commander, the person in charge of the entire state GAR. He was sort of like a press secretary for a top executive today. I went through the collection from 1895-1900, and let me tell you, these puppies are thick. Each volume was between 900-1000 pages and covered the AAG’s correspondence over a 6-9 month period, roughly. The AAG at this time, R.M. Smock, was most definitely a man of letters and very passionate about his job.
I was hoping to use this collection to gain a better insight into the views and ideas of the GAR as a whole. I wanted it to be passionate and personal. However, most of the letters are purely bureaucratic in nature: writing local posts reminding them of bills due to department headquarters, helping to organize new posts into the order, making preparations for the state and national encampments, answering questions about the proper rituals of the GAR, etc. Several people wrote to the AAG looking for friends and loved ones who may have been in the organization. A lady named Ida C. Patterson from Honolulu, Hawaii, mailed the AAG asking him to look for one William Eaton, who was supposedly living in Indianapolis in 1898. The AAG responded on March 18 by stating, “I do not know where such a party lives. I have examined the roster of the Indiana soldiers at the Buffalo [National] Encampment and do not find his name in the list.” If I were writing a thesis on the GAR’s organizational structure or the migration of GAR veterans (and their loved ones) to the West, such a letter might elicit a stronger interest from me, but I’m pretty sure 95 percent of the AAG’s letters will be of little use to me, which means that I will unfortunately need to continue going through the letters up until 1918 for that 5 percent that could benefit the project.
Another disappointing realization made today was that some of the AAG’s letters–regardless of their content–have been permanently destroyed. The typeset ink used for these letter books has faded so badly that they are now unreadable to us today, leaving us in a sense of bewilderment as to what these letters may have contained. None of this material has been digitized, just like most of the archival material in repositories around the world. Even a prominent institution like the Smithsonian is fighting just get 10 percent of their collections online. Clearly, historians are in a race against time to preserve the documents in their archival institutions.
See if you can read this AAG letter from 1895 (click to expand):
Thankfully, most of the AAG letters I’ve seen so far look more like this one (a letter not from the AAG but from Dept. Cmdr. James S. Dodge to A.S. McCormick, Commander for John A. Logan Post 3 in Lafayette, Indiana) and reads as follows:
Replying to your esteemed favor of the 25th inst. in reference to the propriety of allowing the pictures of Generals Lee and Longstreet in the Grand Army Post hall, permit me to congratulate you on the stand you have taken in this matter, and you should not, no difference what pressure may be brought to bear on you, waver in the least in carrying out your good resolutions. I can readily understand why a camp of confederate veterans might order the pictures of Lincoln, Grant, Thomas, Sherman, Logan and other heroes of the Union war hang in their meeting place, but it is beyond my comprehension how any person who loves his country and the Union for which he fought can want to hang the picture of a rebel General in such a place.
This was my favorite letter of the day and I think it has real potential to be included somewhere in the thesis. I’ll comment on it further in another post, but for now I want to focus on the first, illegible letter. Such letters are being lost to historians on a daily basis. The ravages of time are wiping out these documents, but there are also institutional challenges to be considered. Many archival repositories are struggling financially yet receiving large collections from donors. As time, money, and space decrease in quantity, archivists are forced to destroy many objects no longer deemed important. In his article “The Archive(s) is a Foreign Country: Historians, Archivists, and the Changing Archival Landscape,” published in the The Canadian Historical Review in September 2009, Archivist Terry Cook has suggested that only “1 to 5 per cent of the total available documentation of major institutions is preserved.” When I first read that, it shocked me. That means 95-99% of archival documents are destroyed by major archival institutions. Wow. It is actually a surprise that these AAG letters still exist today.
My experience today reminded me of Daniel J. Boorstin’s 1987 essay, “The Historian is Both Discoverer and Creator.” Boorstin reminds us of a harsh truth in history-making. “Historians,” remarks Boorstin, “can rediscover the past only by the relics it has left for the present… My life as a historian has brought me vivid reminders of how partial is the remaining evidence of the whole human past, how casual and how accidental is the survival of its relics.”
Yet Boorstin ends on a high note: “The historian-creator refuses to be defeated by the biases of survival. For he chooses, defines and shapes his subject to provide a reasonably truthful account from miscellaneous remains.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. If I can use these documents to tell a reasonably truthful story about the GAR in Indiana, I will be satisfied. It won’t be definitive or beyond criticism, but it will hopefully start a conversation about an important organization in the history of Indiana and the entire United States.
To be continued…
About a month and a half ago I was extremely honored to be have been selected as a participant in a national conference arranged by Gettysburg College and Gettysburg National Military Park entitled “The Future of Civil War History: Looking Beyond the 150th.” The conference will run from March 14-16 and is going to be possibly one of the greatest conglomerations of Civil War historians and educators that we’ll see during the Civil War sesquicentennial, if not all time. I’m not joking. My jaw drops every time I look at this program and see the names that are going to be there. I will be participating in a working group entitled “Teaching the Civil War: Challenges, Opportunities, and New Strategies for the Classroom.” As the term “working group” suggests, our group has been tasked with discussing this extremely important topic of classroom education and offering suggestions for improving the ways in which we connect with our students, even as the ongoing challenges of standardization limit our creative abilities and force us to work with a model that many of us do not agree with.
Earlier this month the participants, including myself, were assigned to write a brief 2-3 page “position paper” in which we were to reflect on how our educational experiences have shaped our perceptions about Civil War education. To be sure, my experiences in the classroom have been limited, probably more so than any other participant in the working group. I taught for a year and a half at the Orchard Farm School District in St. Charles, Missouri, before moving on to graduate studies at IUPUI, and almost all that time was dedicated towards teaching twentieth century World and American history (when I was teaching History, mind you. As a teaching assistant for the 2011-2012 year I helped students in all subjects). However, this experience was valuable, and I think some of the problems I encountered are undoubtedly the same ones Civil War educators have had to deal with. Furthermore, my work with the National Park Service included educational interactions with thousands of people of all ages across the world that covered topics such as slavery, the U.S. Constitution, and the Civil War, so I think that counts for something as well.
I just received the position papers of the other participants in my working group and am in the process of reading over them and preparing comments. We are all going to be discussing our papers online for the next month and a half until the conference commences in March. In the meantime, I would like to share my position paper with my readers and see what they have to say about it. Here are four questions that I had to address when writing my paper:
1. What are some of the greatest challenges confronting educators charged with teaching the American Civil War? What strategies have proven effective in responding to these challenges?
2. How can we effectively integrate elements of interactivity, collaboration, and place-based learning into our efforts to help our students think historically?
3. Should educators work to cultivate a preservation ethic in their studies?
4. How can new media technologies and resources enhance our efforts to give our students access to primary sources, new interpretations, and interactive approaches to the material we cover?
Here was my response. Readers will note that some of the ideas in it reflect earlier posts on this blog. Others I have yet to talk about. I hope to expand on all of them in the near future:
“As the commemoration of the Civil War sesquicentennial continues across the United States, history educators find themselves at a crossroads. On one end, lawmakers and education specialists have successfully advocated for an increased emphasis on standardized testing and common core standards as tools for measuring proficiency in history and social studies. For example, a 2006 law passed in Florida stated that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, [and] shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable.” Under this educational model, the results will lead to positive results for both teachers and students, ostensibly. History teachers will be able to collaborate with each other to create uniform measurements of assessment; students will use their textbooks to understand and demonstrate their knowledge of the “facts” of history. The Civil War started with the firing of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861; the Battle of Gettysburg was fought on July 1-3, 1863; the thirteenth amendment abolished slavery in the United States.
A glance at the other end, however, shows that the results of such changes in the education curriculum are mixed at best. An unintended consequence of the increased emphasis on standardized testing–along with the economic troubles of recent years–has been a decrease in opportunities for schools to take their students on field trips to learn about and experience history in person. Furthermore, standardization has led to a wider range of topics being introduced in the history classroom so that students can score higher on all aspects of their tests, which means that complex topics such as the Civil War receive limited attention in the classroom. In sum, history teachers are “teaching to the textbook” in order to succeed in a system that values an “outcome-based education.”
Stanford University Professor Sam Wineburg has pointed out the shortcomings of this approach. He argues that textbooks used from Kindergarten to 12th grade convey information in a way that is bland and devoid of primary sources (if primary sources exist, they are “set off in ‘sidebars,’ so as not to interfere with the main text”). The “corporate authors” of such textbooks speak in the passive voice and reinforce the false notion that “the way things are told is simply the way things were.” In response, many students–even ones who excel in school–no longer read their textbooks. For them, the endless array of “facts” promulgated in textbooks are meaningless, not worth reading until the night before the big test. Considering the rising costs of such textbooks for schools across the country, there must certainly be an educational method that can get students reading about and appreciating the past.
A solution that provides exciting opportunities for the future of Civil War education is the integration of digital history in classroom. Knowing that the present generation of students process and understand information differently than older generations, we must utilize methods that best suit their learning needs. By using digital technology in the classroom, history teachers can bring the power of primary sources into the classroom. By incorporating digital resources offered by museums and archival institutions around the country into the classroom, students are empowered to learn about history through the millions of online documents available at their fingertips. Furthermore, teachers will be able to use their history textbooks as a resource that compliments the primary sources offered by museums and archival institutions, rather than being the only source in which students learn about history.
Examples of excellent digital resources are prevalent. The Library of Congress’s “American Memory” page is a “digital record of American history and creativity” that allows students the ability to study photos, letters, maps, and many other sources, while their “Chronicling America” website gives students access to more than five million pages of historic newspapers. The IUPUI University Library of Digital Scholarship has digitized all of Indiana Governor Oliver Morton’s telegrams during the Civil War. Edward L. Ayers’s “Valley of the Shadow” website shows how two communities, one northern and one southern, were affected by the Civil War. These primary sources can be utilized by students of all ages and are waiting to be uncovered and studied in classrooms all over the United States.
History educators cannot cultivate a preservation ethic in their students if they don’t understand why the artifacts of history they study are worth preserving. The current model of teaching, although slowly moving towards the digital model, has continued to struggle in answering the question that so often accompanies the study of history: so what? Digital history is unique because it challenges students to understand history as a method of critical thinking and asking questions of the past, not just a passive recitation of content. Students can use digital technology to create their own active interpretations of the past through collaborative projects such as creating a Word Press website for a walking tour of a Civil War battle field, a blog that collects and discusses the importance of Civil War letters in maintaining communication during a time of war, or the use of primary source newspapers to help strengthen a student’s argument in their research paper.
Students want to know that what they are learning in school is relevant to their lives and their future. Civil War history has the power to demonstrate to these students how the past affects the present and how the problems of contemporary society dictate the questions we ask of the past. Digital history brings this past to life and provides new ways for understanding it. Let us push forward in creating exciting learning opportunities for our students in the history classroom.”
What do you think? Any sort of constructive criticism is welcomed.