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 Outdated or irrelevant data is removed from internet servers during regular maintenance, and databases are often maintained by private foundations and university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.


  1. At the very least for new media being saved, all public Tweets are archived in the Library of Congress.

  2. Thanks for the tip, Elise. I looked at the LOC website and, in addition to their Twitter archive, they're also sponsoring the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program,which aims to maintain "at-risk digital content." I'm not sure what the criteria for preservation will be, but it's a step in the right direction. Stay tuned to the LOC for further developments on digital media initiatives.