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At the Margins of Digital and Public History: Preserve, Share, and Engage

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

A few years ago I was searching the internet and came across an online public history project in its infancy, and I bookmarked it. Naturally, that means it was buried in my bookmark graveyard (does anyone else have one of those or just me?)—until today. At lunch I was scrolling through Twitter when a William Faulkner quote popped up: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Eureka!!! "Not Even Past" was the name of that seemingly elusive project commissioned by the History Department at UT Austin.

Since that first perusal years ago, has grown to include book and film reviews, blogs on public history projects, local history updates relating to Texas, and a sister podcast But what really impressed me at the time was their mission. For some reason, historians in the academy and Public Historians can act like dysfunctional siblings fighting over the same toy or communal space. In 2010, however, the History Department at UT Austin decided that the goal of educators and historians in general is to make the past accessible. Now that is not necessarily a novel idea... but it is an inspiring one. What good is knowledge if it is not shared? What do we learn from history if we keep it to ourselves?

According to Joan Neuberger, Not Even Past’s editor, the digital history project encourages a “public conversation about the importance of the past for our actions, values, and beliefs in the present” so that we can make more informed decisions about things that affect us in the present and the future. Now cue the Faulkner reference. History is living because we are its creators, thus the past is never dead but still growing. I can’t say I fully agree with Faulkner or UT Austin historians on their shared assessment that history is “not even past,” but it’s a pithy point that stuck with me for years deep in my subconscious (and deeply hidden in my bookmarks).

As I write this, we are experiencing a global pandemic that is ravaging populations and has forced many of us out of public life. This novel coronavirus or COVID-19 has shuttered economies, universities, cultural institutions, and much more, but it has also given many of us time to enjoy our families and reflect. A number of things have been on my mind lately, but as I was looking through photographs on social media I recalled flipping through photo albums with my grandparents. At meals with my immediate family, we have reminisced about people and events—things we’ve not thought about or talked about in years. These are things I know and hold deeply as a historian. The material culture of my family and various communities in which I’ve lived often come to me for safekeeping. These are tangible things to pack move after move, and we are living in a digital age that has made things like photographs, letters, diaries, and other ephemera largely obsolete. Furthermore, my generation at large just isn’t that interested in that particular antique that belonged to a great-grandparent or that shoebox of old photographs and 8mm film canisters. For those of us who are attached to the tangible, sometimes living circumstances prevent us from holding onto these items.

Storing and preserving the past is a constant challenge, but we must also realize that our history starts now. Our meter is already running. What will we leave that will be analogous to grandpa’s projector slides or mom’s scrapbooks? We must find ways in a digital age to leave records for historians in the future, whether it is through blogs like this one or by archiving our own social media impressions. We live in an age where still cameras and video recorders are combined in our smartphones and never far from our fingertips. We should not only use them to cover our own personal histories, but also those of others around us (whenever possible after this pandemic subsides). In rural areas, take note of what farms are disappearing and what old abandoned homesteads are in danger of collapse. The deeds to these may rest in a local courthouse vault, but photographs and interviews will allow future generations to learn about them in different ways. For a period of time you will miss that barn you see on the roadside when it has collapsed upon itself, but if photographed before its collapse then it lives on in a different form. Similar responsibilities exist for those who live in cities. How has the business district changed in the past year? Have new populations enriched the local culture or are new activities taking place? Your street or neighborhood is not static. It takes but a moment of your time to document these things on a walk or drive.

Once this pandemic is behind us, there are more things we can do to preserve the past in the present. Every now and then “feel-good” articles pop up about living libraries where people can go and “check out” an elderly person to chat with in order to hear their memories. Maybe these interactive libraries don’t exist where you live, but there is no shortage of people around who are willing to chat for a bit about their history and the history of things around you. Record their experiences for perpetuity if they graciously allow it. Historians certainly know the value of oral histories as well as memoirs and interview notes.

All of this brings me to my main point. History starts now because, at present, by the time you finish this sentence the moment has passed. Time is fleeting, but its traces do not have to be so ephemeral. In the future, I hope to follow in the footsteps of Not Even Past creators by working with other interested historians to establish build a digital history project that encourages people to interact with both academic history and public history. I also hope that we begin to use the tools at our fingertips and take a little time out of our day to preserve the past around us. Further, 2020 is frankly one eventful year so far and it's not even half over, so we need to engage critically with the present so those in the future can learn about our shared past. It's simple when you think about it.

History starts now. Engage the present. Preserve the past.

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