Thursday, April 2, 2009

Jill Lepore on what to do with "more history than we can handle"

So I'm not the only one who's been feeling that the proliferation of "historic" this and that over the past year or so ultimately devalues the whole idea of "the historic." Opening keynote speaker Jill Lepore, keying on a New York times article that talked about an "unprecedented pileup of historic news," bemoaned the lack of depth or analysis in most of the discussions of historic candidacies, elections, meltdowns, and what have you, and pointed out that the current feeling of "cuspiness"--being on the edge of momentous change--is, in fact, hardly new. Referencing the Studs Turkel model of oral history and clips from the New York Times "New Hard Times," which invites readers to videotape and upload their own families' stories about the last Great Depression, Lepore argued that such projects, driven by shorter and shorter news cycles, are deeply at odds with the historian's responsibility to make careful, in-depth analyses about the past. In an age where everyone is increasingly his or her own historian, Lepore made a case for the unique role of the historian in showing how the past relates to the present.

There is much to be said for this argument, and much to question about plug-and-play approaches to collecting and disseminating stories about the past. But Lepore, in taking academic historians to task for failing to connect their work to wider publics, seemed strangely unaware of the existence and efforts of large numbers of her colleagues--public and oral historians, among others, many of them based in or associated with the academy--who have been working for decades to do precisely that. Academic historians are public history's most reliable "other," but the dichotomy between them is a false one in many ways, and it would have been nice to hear this highly articulate and public-minded historian say more about the many high-quality projects that are connecting past with present in the public realm. Her lament about the "vacuum of historical authority" in public discourse also sidestepped debates about the various levels of authority about different kinds of knowledge about the past--something that thoughtful practitioners of public history have had to concede they don't, after all, have a monopoly on.

Lepore's talk did get me thinking about all the appeals I've gotten lately to "share my story" with activist groups who want to use it to help sway policy-makers their way. "Has the stimulus impacted you personally?" a recent MoveOn email asked me. "Or have you heard any stories about how it is impacting your town? ...Can you help today by sharing your stimulus success story?" I guess it's cheaper than sharing my hard-earned dollars, as I was doing during the campaign season--but it does raise questions about how much currency stories do have when they're gathered and "shared" so easily and widely. I guess I'm agreeing with Lepore's basic argument here--it was just odd to hear her making her case to a room full of the very people who are working hardest to do the things she's saying are not being done!


  1. I've been thinking we need a new term to describe this wonderful phenomenon of more and more people documenting their lives publicly (inspired by access to technology and projects like StoryCorps) that fall somewhere between journalism and oral history.

    Sady Sullivan
    Oral History Program Coordinator
    Brooklyn Historical Society

  2. While I haven't been able to find the apt phrase, I have used the term "Citizen Documentarian" to describe those non-bloggers who took the time to document their experience during or after Katrina and then shared their contribution via the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. Here are two examples:

    April 4, 2009 11:36 AM

  3. In his keynote address the day following Lepore's, Jim Stewart mentioned the strain of "antiquarianism" that has often characterized popular history-gathering--that is, collecting things (or, in this case, stories) without necessarily analyzing them in the context of specialized (historical/scientific/scholarly/professional) discourses on these subjects. It seems to me that the current documentarian trend is, in part, a kind of neo-antiquarianism, using new media but driven by the same collecting impulse that drove collectors of earlier generations. Of course, it's also a political tool, as those MoveOn campaigns demonstrate. And it's a kind of radical democratization of historical knowledge production. Very complicated. My question is the same as Lepore's: where do professional historians fit in relation to this (the same question, of course, that professional journalists are grappling with in relation to citizen journalism)? The two are by no means completely separate, and it's always interesting to see what happens when they meet or intersect!