Blog #2: What is History?

“… the past is not remote and dead but a comfortable companion… they (amateur historians) create passionate histories and revel in the past as a living, sustaining resource.” ~Benjamin Filene

The idea of history by “amateurs” is contentious to many classical historians- and it would make some turn in their graves, especially those literary giants who posed key questions regarding the very nature of history, Sir Geoffrey Elton and Edward H. Carr. Surely these two figureheads of the historiographical debate would have cringed at the very idea of “outsourcing” history to passionate, “narrow minded” (Filene), and untrained amateurs. Indeed, to them, history done proper was seen as an almost a dauntless task requiring meticulous study, attention to detail, and with the historian being, as Sir Geoffrey Elton stated, a “servant of his evidence”. The encyclopedia, and in extension, Wikipedia and other crowd-sourced forms of historical knowledge, would be called by Edward H. Carr as a, “a cult of facts” (comically stated verbatim in his book “What is History?”). Are these “giants of history” simply putting history on a pedestal? Maybe. Do I agree with these canonical authors? Yes and no.

Surely, crowdsourcing in the discipline of history has its merits and has proven to be an incredible force of collaboration which has overseen unprecedented amounts of “historical” participation as Owens claims. In his article, the participants of such crowdsourcing projects like BabelZilla, Wikipedia, and Galaxy Zoo were called everything from exploited sweatshop workers to citizen scientists. The line between “Sisyphean tasks” and meaningful contribution becomes blurred, but optimistically, Owen and Swartz both generally seem to believe that, the more participation, the better. Swartz goes as far as to say: “instead of trying to squeeze more work out of those who spend their life on Wikipedia, we need to broaden the base of those who contribute just a little bit.” I find this statement by Aaron Swartz to be a bit problematic. Is the creation of history indeed meant for everyone? I would disagree, but only because my definition of history agrees with those of the classical authors aforementioned (I could bore you with details of my definition of history but I’ll save you the trouble). I am not denying that history has many meanings, but for the classical historian like myself, Wikipedia and other crowdsourcing ways of doing “history”, might not constitute as “history”, more like collecting the primary raw resources by which we can then “do history”. But equally I find the argument from the cultural perspective compelling. History, in a cultural sense, is what the imagined community sees it to be. And it could be argued that today’s largest imagined community is the Internet… so in some ways Wikipedia is becoming legitimized as a source for history. The Internet is affording new opportunities, but it’s also challenging the ways we define history, and ultimately, who “owns” history.

One Response to “Blog #2: What is History?”

  1. Interesting question, what does constitute history? As history majors I find that history is the collective ensemble of different historiographical narratives set in juxtaposition amongst each other. But that is from an academic standpoint. The fundamental of historical learning is perhaps the absorption of these facts. Before following history at a post-secondary level I assumed history was a collection of facts that when combined created a narrative. My current conception of history is something rather new to me at least in my relative existence. In the broadest sense I think a collection of historical facts formed in a narrative is enough to call itself history. The main problem with Wikipedia as a valid historical source is its objectivity and its nature as an encyclopedia rather than perhaps its amateurism. As seen in the Rosenzweig article, not all contributors are total amateurs in history referencing a doctoral student as a frequent contributor on Wikipedia. Perhaps the work of amateur history contributors is very similar to the work we do as under graduates ourselves. Rosenzweig sort of makes this connection when he highlights that the Wikipedia guideline is similar to that of undergraduate work as we as undergraduates are in some degree, amateurs ourselves. I really enjoyed your response as it gave me a lot to think about in the ways I view history and the writing of history, and the implications of open source would have in the field.


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