Random Musing Posted by: Dale Franks
on Monday, January 16, 2006
Several years ago, I was listening to an interview with a historian on the radio. I'm not sure who it was. Maybe Stephen Ambrose or Michael Beschloss. They said an interesting thing that's stuck with me, which was that, while historians have access to voluminous collections of private papers, letters, and diaries of people who lived in the 18th, 19th, and first half of the 20th century, after that, the availability of materials falls off precipitously.
The problem isn't that so many people are still alive from the last half of the 20th century. The problem is that none of those living people are writing letters or keeping diaries. Everyone makes telephone calls. No one is committing their life to paper anymore, the way they did in the past. And that's a problem. Because so much of what we know of how life was really lived by the average person in the past comes from their private papers.
No one is committing their life to paper anymore, the way they did in the pastFor instance, I'm currently reading a relatively new book about the history of my native country, the Republic of Texas, called Lone Star Nation, by H.W Brands. Brands is able to reconstruct the life of Moses Austin, for example, from 1796 until his death, mainly through reference to Austin's own accounts of his life.
Now, Moses Austin had no idea that he would become an important historical figure, and that his life would set in motion a chain of events that led directly, inexorably, to the creation of Texas as an independent nation. All Moses Austin wanted to do was make a buck. He left Philadelphia for Richmond in order to mine lead. He left Richmond, moved to St. Louis, renounced his American citizenship, and became a Spanish subject in order to mine lots of lead on the Spanish side of the Mississippi River. Then, when the lead business went bust in the aftermath of the War of 1812, and he went to Texas to apply for permission to create a colony of 300 families there, he did so for no other reason than to capitalize on the insatiable hunger for new lands along the frontier, and he chose Texas because it was essentially uninhabited from the Sabine river all the way to San Antonio de Bexar.
He had no grand historical design. He had no desire to become a historically significant figure. He was, really, an obscure businessman of no particular note, whose only goal was to grab some sales commissions from 300 American families on one side, and a huge grant of land from the Spanish government on the other. He was lucky in that he had been a Spanish subject for 20 years—otherwise, his first trip to San Antonio would've resulted in being clapped into a Spanish prison indefinitely—and that the King of Spain wanted to encourage settlement in Texas. And yet, we can reconstruct his life in minute detail. For the most part, it wouldn't be possible to chart the life of the average person from about 1960 to today, because no one commits their life to writing any more.
So, if you've been keeping a diary for the last 40 years, you can gain immortality by donating it to the National Archives when you shuffle off this mortal coil. Future generations of historians will venerate you in perpetuum.
If you've been keeping a diary for the last 40 years, you can gain immortality by donating it to the National Archives when you shuffle off this mortal coilWhat makes this subject so interesting to me is that, since 2001, the world of blogs, email, and other Internet writing has exploded. People are, in fact, writing again, and they're really writing a lot. Indeed, probably the most important writing on the web these days is coming from twenty-somethings that run personal blogs. All the stuff that we talk about here on QandO for instance, or on Kos, or Ezra Klein, or Powerline, is for the most part, historically unimportant. Future historians will have access to mountains of newspapers, magazines, video, and the like to reconstruct historical events and what people thought about them. What they won't have as much access to is the way people actually lived their daily lives.
In fact, of the recognized bloggers, James Lileks, with his stories about Gnat, Jasper, home repairs, and personal reminiscences will probably be the one that is historically immortal. Just think about that. In the year 3186, James Lileks will probably be quoted in historical works in the same tone that we quote Thucydides, Xenophon, or Titus Livius.
So, I'm wondering if there is someone, somewhere, who has thought of collecting all of these blogs, personal web pages, and the like, grabbing them off web servers, and saving them in more permanent form. It seems like it would be a worthwhile project to me. For the first time in 50 years, we now have access to peoples' personal lives, experiences, and thoughts, in a way that basically was nearly extinct.
Google caches a whole lot of web pages. I wonder if any university or museum has thought of working out some sort of deal with Google to copy and store this cached material? I realize that with something like 20 million or so blogs, and billions of web pages, inspecting and cataloging the material would be a superhuman effort. But it strikes me that, for historical purposes, having that stored somewhere might be of inestimable value to historians two centuries from now when they try to reconstruct what the heck we were thinking.
Of the recognized bloggers, James Lileks will probably be the one blogger that is historically immortalAnd, you know, it's not only personal writing. Most businesses beyond a certain size store all of their corporate data as regular backups. That would be monumentally useful for future historians, too. Obviously, some period of time would have to pass before those types of records could become available, but for some historian in 2431 who's trying to reconstruct a history of, say the creation of the Information Technology industry, things lake that would be a gold mine. He would not only be able to look at the records of tech companies, but, perhaps even more usefully, would be able to see how non-technology companies implemented the new technological breakthroughs.
I think this is a fascinating subject, and I'm wondering if anyone has really begun thinking about how to collect and archive all this web content for historical purposes. It strikes me as a useful project. Perhaps not useful for us, really, but for our descendants two hundred years from now, it could be a real treasure.
I think this is a fascinating subject, and I’m wondering if anyone has really begun thinking about how to collect and archive all this web content for historical purposes
I don’t know if it still exists, but awhile ago there was a project to "archive the internet" which basically consisted of some organization snapping and saving screenshots of various representative websites on a periodic basis.
Here is another link that may be of interest:
If the archives take diaries, will they accept something like a flash drive or CD-ROM filled with the archives of QandO when the time comes?
Very interesting observation, and one which I had not thought of before. This is fascinating to me because I am currently a history student and involved in research. One thing about the internet: When I received my first degree way back in 1980, It took all semester to create a useful term paper. I remember having to travel to other universities to obtain research material not found in our Library. Then you had to type it out and hire a proofreader. Now I can create a great looking term paper in a matter of days. HOWEVER! when you compare research papers now on any given subject you will find that they all are pretty much alike. No, its not plagiarism. It is that the internet searches always show the same sources. this results in a homogenization of the academic material. And it points out the possible danger of bat information being copied and retransmitted.
One solution to this problem would recast the NSA’s mission as one of fostering the study of history by preserving the electronic conversations of all Americans. I’m sure the nation’s librarians and historians will be all for it. ;)
Google caches a whole lot of web pages. I wonder if any university or museum has thought of working out some sort of deal with Google to copy and store this cached material?
I’m pretty sure IBM has a project underway that is based on cached web pages over the last ten years. They are working on a search function for it, but soon you’ll have a researchable reference place for pretty much everything that has ever been posted.
Making a record of my life for posterity is, in fact, the main reason why I blog. I don’t have any pretentions that the general public might like to read what I write (there is, after all, a reason why I went into mathematics instead of writing). I know I don’t have much insight to add to the public discussion of issues, no great contribution to the world at large, and I’m not likely to be a historical figure like Austin, if only because I’ve decided to devote the prime years of my life to wiping widdle bums and noses instead of doing research or becoming influential in my community. Nobody who’s devoted her entire life to wiping bums and noses has yet become a great historical figure, although some have been privileged to wipe the bums and noses of great historical figures. And yet, I’ve been keeping a blog for nearly two years now. It gives me an excuse to write in my "journal" on a regular basis. Hopefully my descendants will be fascinated to try Great-Grandma Wacky’s old pizza recipe, or find comfort in the fact that Great-Grandma was as opinionated as they will be.
That’s an excellent reason, Hermit. As excellent as any other I’ve seen.
In the meantime, don’t confuse fame with greatness. Paris Hilton is famous, but she’s not great. My wife is great, but not famous. I suspect that all the people whose opinions you value would place you in the "great" category as well. I also suspect you’d value that category far more than the other.