Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dead White Protestant Males and Digital Media

Up until a few days ago, I had never written a personal blog, or a journal, or a diary. My writing has always been on an external subject, usually someone who’s been dead for at least 100 years.

One of the reasons that we know as much as we do about the Founding Fathers is that most of them left volumes of correspondence and journal entries. As pointed out by Joseph Ellis in his book American Creation (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2007), the Founders were keenly aware that their future reputations would depend on the quality of the paper trail that they left behind. This leaves modern historians with a huge number of documents to examine, knowing of course that it all needs to be edited for language and the bias of the author.

This makes me wonder what historians 100 years from now will examine to learn about us. Nowadays personal journals are kept online, personal photos are digitized. Shoppers keep their shopping lists on their smart phones, instead of writing them down. Books, magazines and letters printed on paper last a long time; so do printed photographs. CDs, memory sticks and computer hard-drives become corrupted and unusable with the passage of just a few decades, making internet servers and electronic databases the best sources for preserving materials.

But even these resources have problems. Outdated or irrelevant data is removed from internet servers during regular maintenance, and databases are often maintained by private foundations and university archives, which have high standards for what gets preserved and what does not. This is good, until you consider that most correspondence and journal entries nowadays probably won’t make the cut. The memoirs of our political leaders and great thinkers will probably be kept (like the Founders!) but little else.

The “Great Man” theory of history has come under severe criticism in recent years for its failure to talk about much more than the already familiar giants of the world stage. Modern technology allows ordinary people to communicate across vast distances instantly, and to store huge amounts of information in tiny containers. Modern technology has democratized information sharing. But unless individuals themselves take steps to ensure the survival of their information, it’s possible that most of the history written about the 21st century will be “Great Man History.”

Many of the sources preserved for future use will be government documents, electronic databases, newspapers, etc. It’s unlikely that much content uploaded to the web via Facebook, Twitter, and email will remain intact for these future historians. Will the 22nd century know how the diverse people of the 21st century thought? How they dressed? Or, considering the dilemma of the shopping lists, what they ate?

There is hope, however. There are many organizations working to promote the practice and understanding of history using these new technologies. Some do it by maintaining and backing up existing sources digitally. Some develop new tools for assessing old papers. A good example of a organization that does both is the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. You can find the link here.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Financial Crises, Past and Present

The Linear concept of time has traditionally been a straight line, in which time goes relentlessly forward and nothing repeats. The Cyclical concept of time has imagined a circle, in which everything that happens has happened before and will happen again. A professor of mine once made the suggestion that it might be more appropriate to view time as a spiral, in which you can sense in current events patterns which go back decades, or even centuries. These events are different from—but sometimes eerily similar to— things that occurred during the last loop of the spiral.

After the American Civil War, the United States government took steps to ensure that the Pacific coast was connected to the East by railroad. The Union and Central Pacific Railroads, working from the East and West, respectively, were granted large federal subsidies to encourage the completion of the massive project as quickly as possible. Speculators hoping to take advantage of the railroad craze constructed 35,000 miles of new track between 1866 and 1873, and the huge investments caused an unnatural rise in the price of railroad stock. A coalition of speculators, including Civil War financier Jay Cooke and Company, financed the construction of a second Continental Railroad, the Northern Pacific railway.

As often happens in such matters, the success or failure of the project depended on factors outside of any coalition’s control. As financial officer for the Northern Pacific, Jay Cooke stood to make a substantial profit by the purchase and later sale of the railway’s stock. He was also obligated to advance the railroad company $500,000 in order to assure that construction went forward. In 1873, the American stock market was becoming dangerously unstable, stemming largely from the influx of new railroad bonds. As the market was flooded with these bonds, the price of each individual bond went down, so that the bulk of the Northern Pacific stock being hawked by Jay Cooke and Company remained unsold. Unable to raise enough capital to pay back debts, on September 18, 1873, Jay Cooke was forced to close his own firm and declare bankruptcy.

Cooke’s ill fortune caused a chain reaction of bank failures and forced the New York Stock Exchange to close down for ten days. The Panic of 1873, as the fiasco would come to be called, would ultimately result in a depression that lasted until 1879, falling wages, and an unemployment rate of 14%. Labor demonstrations and class tensions became commonplace, as did calls for greater government regulation of railroads and restrictions on monopolies.

A more detailed analysis of the similarities and differences between the Panic of 1873 and the 2008 Financial Crisis is outside the scope of this blog, but the narrative of 1873 will strike a chord with anyone who keeps up on current events. Here’s hoping that we will have learned something from both of these crises the next time the spiral comes around.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Aaron, What Exactly is a Historical Interpreter, Anyway?

Excellent question. Most people hear the word interpretation and they picture somebody like a foreign language translator; an employee standing by at a living history museum to explain the meaning behind all of those archaic words that the costumed actors keep using. In reality, there is no employee on standby; the actors themselves are the interpreters. It’s the same basic idea as translating a foreign language for someone who doesn’t speak it; you take strange words and change them into words that the person can understand.  A museum interpreter will take the concepts, religious beliefs, and worldviews of a group of people from the past and interpret them so that people in the present can understand them.

Just as an example, have you ever watched as a member of the “Greatest Generation” tries to explain to a pre-teen how they managed to entertain themselves in the 1940s without television or video games? Or as that same pre-teen tries to explain the appeal of Facebook, or texting? More often than not, both participants in the discussion come out of it more puzzled than before, wondering how the other person managed to get through the 20th century or how kids today manage to get anything done. You have here a disconnect of about 70 years, 3 or 4 generations in which technology, attitudes and social mores have changed dramatically. Imagine if someone from the 17th century could somehow encounter someone from the present day (400 odd years and 20 plus generations) and you have the basic experience that museums like Plimoth Plantation are trying to convey.

The problem here is that, as under-stated by several authors on the subject of history, “the Past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Not only do Americans today have the benefit of 400 years of hindsight that their English predecessors lacked, we live in an entirely different society. The culture is different, the social structure is different, and the world is radically different. An American visiting Hong Kong or Cape Town today would probably find more that was familiar to him than an American visiting 17th century London, or even Boston.

In steps the historical interpreter. Immersed in the documents and letters of the period that they talk about, interpreters attempt to translate the underlying ideas behind often bewildering historical beliefs and attitudes into an easily digestible form for modern people. Interpreters serve as translators for the very foreign languages of the past. And, much like with foreign languages today, you don’t need to speak the language yourself as long as you use all available resources to try to understand it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

My Name is Aaron

The first thing that you should know about me (because everything that comes after on this page is going to stem from this) is that I am a twenty-something college grad with a Master’s Degree in History and a Bachelor’s in Writing, a year or so past the stage in my professional career where I could be considered “Entry Level.”

Hello. Welcome to my blog. Let me introduce myself. My name is Aaron, and over the last two years I’ve been employed by several museums and companies specializing in historical interpretation in the greater Boston area. The best aspects of this field are the people I work with; they’re here because they have a genuine passion for the subject, and that in and of itself makes this sort of work worth it. The problem with this field (as many of my colleagues will agree) is that, as much as we love it, after the initial excitement of finding that first museum job wears off, many of us start to wonder how long we can afford to keep it.

Over the last few years, this wondering has led me to seek out opportunities that I would have never considered fresh out of university. Myself and (I assume) many of my classmates just sort of assumed that there was work waiting for us, as University Professors probably, and that all it would take was a resume or two to find it. Nowadays my search engines seek out positions which require experience in research and academic writing, but also social media, grant writing, oral interpretation, program development and many more. The job openings flood in, and when they flood back out they take with them an endless stream of cover letters, letters of recommendation, curriculum vitas, first and second inquiries, and all the other tools in the 21st century job-seekers toolbox. By and large, this is my life for the last few years. That’s where this blog comes in.

This will be a blog about history, the interpretation of history, and the pursuit of a job that will allow me to interpret history (and also pay back the student loans that makes this interpretation possible!). In an ideal world, some non-profit would stumble upon this blog and contact me with an offer to research the history of New York’s Five Points, or build a replica colonial village on the coast of Maine. In reality, this blog will be an excuse to stop writing cover letters for an hour or so and do what I actually went to college to do: discuss history.

When I played a Pilgrim at Plimoth Plantation, the Wardrobe Department gave me a little replica knife (kuh-nife, if you spelled the 17th century English dialect phonetically), used for small tasks as well as eating. I learned almost immediately that if you don’t sharpen your little knife constantly, it becomes useless. Like that little knife, even a skilled writer will quickly lose their edge if they do not hone their writing ability. Since I wrote my last paper for graduate school over two years ago, I’ve done a lot of note-taking, a bit of blogging, and just a few projects that employ research and academic writing. This blog will be updated on a more or less regular basis in the hope that constant practice will result in both personal fulfillment and professional and artistic refinement.

This blog is primarily for myself, and for any friends or family who may want to keep current on what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. If you found your way to this blog by accident, then welcome. Pull up a chair. If you are yourself a student, job searcher, museum professional, historical researcher, genealogist, or other related field, or even if you aren’t, feel free to read on.

I don’t know. I would love to say that I will be able to update every day or two, but this is dependent on what’s happening in my professional and personal life. I will update when I have the opportunity.

If you made it through high-school social studies, you’ve heard the true but tired old adage that he who does not study history is doomed to repeat it. I will not use this adage. Instead, I will use one by Aristotle.

“If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.”