The world wide web as Lieu de Mémoire?

In 2006 Jeff Howe used the word ‘crowdsourcing’ for the first time in his article for the technology magazine WIRED entitled ‘the Rise of Crowdsurfing’. Ten years after Howe published his article, crowdsourcing has not only shown to be very useful, but also more and more common in our ever growing digital world.

Through crowdsourcing projects such as velehanden.nl, fold3, Demogen or Itinera Nova were made possible. In these projects volunteers (mostly amateur-historians) worked under instructions of archivists or historians to digitize or unlock (primary) sources mostly found in archives. Like Robert S. Wolff states, most of the historians will embrace the fact that thanks to crowdsourcing, electronic access to published scholarship and primary sources has drastically increased.

The digital revolution nevertheless does not stop with the digitizing of sources. This revolution democratized historical practice in general. Suddenly, a lot of material that used to be seen and analysed mostly by schooled historians, was available for everyone with an internet connection; this very large public could read and interpret sources in their own way and spread their findings over the internet through various mediums. The schooled historian suddenly had to share his authority with a million other people that criticized him and did not always believe what he stated, because when these people read the sources, they saw a different truth. This is exactly what happened in the Black Confederate Soldier debate that Leslie Madsen-Brooks described in her article.

A black and white debate in a grey zone

I agree with Madsen-Brooks that history in the digital space can be ‘shallow, often uninformed and frequently decontextualized’. With her article, she indeed opens a very interesting discussion about the problems of authenticity and credibility crowdsourcing can bring. Nevertheless I think that at the end of the line, these questions are not the most relevant ones the historian should ask himself when reading historical information on the internet. Just like Madsen-Brooks states correctly whilst quoting Kevin M. Levin: ‘Persuading the sons of confederate veterans to adopt a different perspective is a lost cause.’ People who want to write about the Black Confederate Soldier will never stop doing it because it is their perception of the sources and they believe it is true.

Madsen-Brooks further states that other groups could still be responsive to the help of historians to see the bigger picture. They could still be ‘saved’ from the digital realm she basically finds full of lies. Thus, historians should ‘increase digital literacy’ and provide alternative, ultimately more convincing, interpretations of primary sources.

I cannot help but wonder if that is really what the historian should do. Should a historian participate in this ‘yes/no-game’ and ‘fight’ for who is right or wrong? Will this not cause more harm than good to the credibility of the historian if he mingles himself in a black or white debate, whilst knowing as no other – and always proclaiming – that everything in history is grey and full of nuances? Thereby I also feel that the world wide web has become so wide that the concept of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ has almost become irrelevant in that realm. There only seems to be the perception of many, many people who interact with each other.

So, what is next? 

Instead of trying to fight a battle that cannot be won, the historian could look at this situation from a different point of view. The fact that blogs about the Black Confederate Soldier exist, means that some groups really think this information is true and that it needs to be shared. Historians hereby need to accept that the popular understanding of the past differs greatly from that of academic historians and that it often reflects a particular worldview. As such it may tell the historian as much about memory – how events are remembered – as it does about history.

For years, and especially since the rise of cultural history that wants to investigate the history of mentalities, historians have been on a quest for documents that describe how ‘the people’ think and feel. Is this online Black Confederate Soldier debate not the perfect source for this kind of historical research? What if the historians use these blogs to do what Pierre Nora liked to call the ‘history of the second degree’; to investigate the evolution of memories of people and how events are remembered? In that case the world wide web is the perfect lieu de mémoire, because it does exactly what this term suggests: it is a place where people show and write how and why they (want to) remember certain events or things.

Diane Staelens

7 thoughts on “The world wide web as Lieu de Mémoire?

  1. Good read, seems you have opened up a good thesis subject for all of us. I agree it is always hard to do history when the debate hasn’t cooled down. Although I really like the field of research you suggest, I also prefer the role of a historian, as what Madsen-Brooks calls, ‘guide on the side’. It would be sad to let the discussion continue without the help and comments of historians (academic or non-academic).

  2. Very interesting, the World Wide Web as a lieu de mémoire! I agree that blogs are a good example of a research area where historians can investigate the changes within memoryculture of a certain community. And point well taken that the internet is a more suitable place to provide a large group people to interact with each other, instead of discussing about who is right of wrong.

  3. Hi Diane, nice article! Very interesting. However, I was wondering – by making these blogs objects for historians to study – what the role of the public historian would be in all this, and what the role of the public would be? Because isn’t studying the history of the -memory/mentality of – the public something different than public history?

  4. Thank you Wieke for your reaction. I understand your point, but I don’t think I said that the historian could not be ‘a guide on the side’ at all. I simply disagree with Madsen-Brooks that it is the only way for historians to interact with blogs etc. In my opinion this ‘guide on the side’ position is not always possible, and often goes too far into becoming a childish yes-no game. Some debates, such as that of the Black Confederate are simply never ending; right or wrong becomes irrelevant because both parties will always see a different truth in the sources. Especially in the digital realm, people will believe what they want to believe, because they will mostly research things that are in their ‘field of beliefs’. What I tried to show with my blog post is that (especially academic) historians should try to look past this truth-false debate, and I feel that seeing it as a lieu the mémoire could be first step. I am very aware of the fact that this might not be the best nor the only ‘solution’, but I think it is a very important topic to think about and how we, as public historians, are supposed to interact with these kinds of blogs.

  5. Thank you Lotte for your reply. Also, I’m glad you understand my point of view. I also think that this new ‘digital world’ simply opens a lot of possibilities. It is a whole new world for historians to discover and they would indeed benefit it more if they tried to see it as a lieu de mémoire instead of trying to fight a battle they can never win.

  6. Thank you Caitlin for your recation. Very good question that you raised, that really made me think a lot about what I wrote. I do know that studying the history of mentalities is something different than public history, but nevertheless I think it is necessary to raise the question that I raised because in my feelings, Madsen-Brooks did not really reflect from the position of the public historian but more from that of the academic historian. I just wanted to show that there are other ways to think about these blogs instead of classifying them as ‘truth’ or ‘false’, especially in the community of academic historians. Continuing on this line, I suppose public historians could have the role of being ‘the guide on the side’ for academic historians to show them the possibilities of these blogs.

  7. hi Diane, I definitely agree with your point about avoiding a discussion on whether something is ‘true’ or ‘false’. And, I also like your point that we should not only try to make history with a public, but also guiding academic historians. I haven’t thought about that a lot! In that case: do you think public historians could involve the public in teaching academic historians how to do public history?

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