History is written by the readers

Pardon me for plagiarizing Churchill, but the victors aren’t the only ones writing history these days. At the Institute, we’re re-imagining the American History Project’s “Who Built America?”, hoping to re-imagine the sort of information in this CD-ROM from 1991, converting now into a more malleable form. Dan Piepenbring blogged about this as well. The CD-ROM, as a point of reference, is impossible for us to go in and edit or update. What was there in 1991 is there today; it’s stagnant.
A networked history book changes everything. We are moving past the pretense of a single objective history, and moving into a discourse constructed by historians, teachers, and students. It has been said that to study history is to participate in it. We can add another layer of truth to this: those who study history will simultaneously write history. As they read, they may add links, annotations, comments, etc. Wikipedia has done this, but not in such a way that it is trusted as an academic resource. We need to blend the prestige of historians and the wealth of available original sources into a multimedia form that is easy to navigate and change.
This is beneficial because history books are so quickly outdated; history is happening, well, every minute, and of the millions of news stories published daily, each one has archiving potential. And our hunger for analyses of everything that’s happening has never been more important. No one can navigate through all of the information of The Information Age on her own; editors and shared links are essential. Newspapers are supposedly dying, whereas the demand for subjective accounts of news (blogs, etc.) is thriving.
What “Who Built America?” does best is linking sections of the book to original sources. Where a textbook may say, “Frederick Douglass was a great orator,” the networked book can present audio clips from Douglass’s original speeches. The reader will ostensibly conclude that Douglass was an orator, but the reader comes to this conclusion herself rather than trusting the author’s adjective choice. While one could always formulate a case for some sort of bias based on the limits of the audio clips available and those the editors of the network book first choose to present, dissenters would have their own say in the comment bar. If a book is linked to internet sources supplied by readers, there would be limits to what is presented but not many. Like Wikipedia, one could never sit down and read all available information in a single day.
And rather than sitting down to read the material in a linear way, the reader could zip from one medium to the next, perusing many areas of interest simultaneously.
The power of synthesizing these media is that one can study history through Hemingway’s letters and Zora Neale Hurston’s first short story, through Charlie Chaplin films and “The Birth of a Nation,” through Woodie Guthrie songs and FDR’s fireside chats. With scholars’ input, we could view these simultaneously through a kaleidoscope of critical lenses. It’s like opening many tabs within the browser of your brain. And far from “making us stupid,” the diversity of perspectives and formats ought to enrich our comprehension of the material.
We read history because the range of experiences we have in one life is never enough to teach us what we could learn in a thousand lives. Reading in a networked format requires a similar humility.
As Bob asked recently, what does an editor do in this brave new world? Let’s assume for now that there is a single person monitoring comments and links. The role of the editor, then, is to aggregate scholarly references and call the reader’s attention to the most germane comments. I think there is a market for this: a trustworthy source is worth an investment. (Perhaps this is not true of everyone, but I find myself inclined to buy wine from the shop-owner who can tell me what will compliment exactly what I’m having for dinner that evening; I like to tell my haircutter that I have an interview and a vacation coming up, and let her decide what style is both easy to maintain and professional-looking; I talk to people in bookstores who share favorite fiction writers so that I can get their recommendations before I purchase something. Kevin Kelly is right. Technology like this may be viable if it’s done in a personalized and findable way. There are many types of readers, and with more media available to them, we can cater to the needs of casual readers as well as serious academics. Schools are laden with both. This raises an issue of how we best suit the needs of each reader, but that will have to be borne of a dialogue with the readers in question.) It may be that the editor’s task is simple: to listen to the readers, and mediate conversations they want to have with one another inside the text.
Because we the readers are limited in time and space (such a pesky bug in the network of the universe), we will presumably edit and annotate differently as time moves forward. We will have to account for these contradictions; truth is a slippery thing. Right now a book exists within a liminal space, and history books are able to ascribe a narrative to the information they present. But that backbone of literature will have to stretch and curve when symbols and events are constantly changing, and when we are constantly changing our minds.