Doing History

The article “I nevertheless am a historian’: Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers” by Leslie Madsen-Brooks centers about the idea that more and more non-academic employed historians are ‘doing’ history and that this is not a bad thing. It is stimulating and it gives hope that so many people want to engage with history. Besides that, Madsen-Brooks sees the pros of digital technologies in being able to do easier research and to reach a larger public. She under scribes the positive side of the engagement of ‘lay public, amateur historians, and other professionals’ with history on the Internet. When academic employed historians and the public are working together on the web, the public could learn and benefit from their historical practice. She underlines her arguments with the examples of research of different bloggers who write about the controversy around Black Confederate Soldiers.

What I like about her article is that next to under scribing the fact that historians should be glad that people participate more in history, there is also an important task for historians. They should be the ones to teach the public what interpretation of sources mean. They should be guides on the Internet to teach people about the right way of ‘doing’ research. A problem with this is of course to know who the ‘real’ historians are and who has the authority over whom.

This article was last revised in 2012 so you could say that it is already outdated for the digital era we are living in. However the trend of writing about historians and their use of the Internet was nothing new. Stephen Mihm argues already in 2008 that when more ‘normal’ people would do research there would be less information being left out. He also writes about the numerous projects that museums are doing with the power of crowds in an organized way.

An interesting site where ‘non-academic employed historians’ and those who are, can collaborate together is Reddit. This is a site which definitely needs more attention. On this site there is a subreddit called /askhistorians where history lovers gather to ask questions, give interesting facts and to tell stories about history. One blogger calls it ‘the world outside academia’ because it is more about what the public wants to know then just about articles being published. The site is moderated and this is done by specialists who are given this status after they proved that they have significant knowledge about the concerned subject. Reddit is a great tool for historians who want to engage with the public. In a short time you could get hundreds of readers for your academic article and also get valuable feedback, which you wouldn’t get that easy when publishing for academics. You will reach a much larger public and probably also a more diverse one. I also wrote about Reddit on my Dutch blog for the course Public History for when people want to know more about it. And on this blog there is a more detailed explanation about how Reddit works and how academically the answers on the questions can be.

Who knows what a non-academic historian can become with the right support and access to sources. Maybe someday the Internet will be the only place where people come to search for history, as we already see in the way people use sites as Google and Wikipedia. As Carl Becker already warned us in ‘everyman his own historian’, the everyman should be taken serious. ‘Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities’. We as academic not-yet-employed historians should grow with our online generation in the ‘digital age’ and make history as accessible as we can. Although this may mean that we have to filter a lot to get to the good historians, at least we will have nurtured the interest in history. And this may be the most important job we as public historians have. We then reach the conclusion that indeed all people should ‘just do it’ and write about their interest in history.

Written by Roos Harms

Note: This is an edited version of the original file English: The First Consul crossed the Alps at the Col du Grand St. Bernard Date: 1801 Medium: oil on canvas Dimensions: 259 x 221 cm (8' 6" x 7' 3") Location: Musée national du château de Malmaison - R.M.N., Malmaison