Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The joy of history in an internet world

I got up early this morning to write my weekly column for the Armidale Express. I really didn't feel like writing anything too serious, so decided to return to a history theme, this time introducing the German connection in New England's history. The trigger here was emails received from two people with New England German connections researching their family history.

I get enormous pleasure from my historical research and writing.

This is partly due to the simple joy of finding things out that I didn't know before. My insatiable curiosity constantly takes me in new directions, sometimes to my own detriment when I should really be doing other things. It's also due to the feedback I get on individual posts through comments and emails.

Even though I am an adjunct of the University of New England and a member of UNE's Heritage Futures Research Centre, I am not a professional historian nor do I work within a university environment. Rather, I am better thought of as a historical populariser, even an internet historian.

In the once traditional model, those interested in writing history broke into three main groups: there were the professional historians operating within a university environment; there were those interested in local or family history but who were not historians as such; and there was a very small group who worked as historians on a full or part time basis outside academe. Some were professional writers, some wrote history as a by-blow to other interests, some were simply enthusiastic amateurs.

All three groups used similar resources, primary sources such as original records and then secondary sources, the writings of others on topics of interest. Professional historians followed the canons of the discipline in documenting their work, something that is critical if others are to follow up. Many of the local or family historians did not, to the sometimes frustration of those wishing to use their work.

The last decades of the twentieth century saw fundamental changes in historical research and writing.

Within Australian academe, the research and writing of history fragmented into themes - social life, women's history, colonialism, class, black-white relations. There was also an increasing focus on theoretical models drawn especially from left thinkers. General or chronological history declined.

Outside academe, historical research at the local and especially family level exploded. I am only guessing, but I would estimate that by 2000 there were at least thirty amateur historians for every professional.

During this same period, there were fundamental changes in the nature of history books published. This was due partly to earlier changes in academic research that affected what was coming through the long historical research pipeline, partly to changes in popular interests, partly to the commercial models developed by publishers that led them to focus on those things that would maximise sales at points in time. Both the number of individual titles and the range of topics covered declined. Immediately this maximised sales in terms of dollars of shelf space, but it did reduce overall sales of history books and especially Australian history books.

If we take my own case as an example, my total spend on history books is down a little in real terms because of limited shelf space. However, what I buy has totally changed. I spend very little on new Australian history books because there is so little that I am interested in. I do buy some of the increasing quantity of good books on the history of other countries because that fills gaps in my knowledge, while some of them are remarkably well written. And for every dollar I spend on new books, I now spend three on second hand Australian history books that are out of print trying to fill gaps while the books are still available.

I now want to introduce the internet, starting with the negatives.

One difficulty as I see it lies in the way that the internet and all the new computing and communications technologies have created a degree of confusion between application and content. The new technologies may be good for presentation, for information gathering or for teaching, but they are a means to an end. In the final count, it's content that counts. Good applications plus bad or limited content still equals bad history.

A second, linked, difficulty lies in the way that the internet can actually limit or bias access to content. At the simplest level, people come to limit themselves to what they can access via the internet, and that's a relatively narrow slice. The selection of material on the internet tends to be biased towards the mass, the popular and can also be of very uncertain standard.

Accepting these limitations, why did I talk about the joy of history in an internet world in the heading to this post, why did I say that I am even an internet historian?

Well, to begin with, the internet gives the ordinary person access to information that was once only available to the professional or dedicated enthusiast. That's a big advance in itself.

Then, too, the internet short circuits the information gathering process.

My still to be completed Greek trip series of posts (I will complete it soon!) contained a lot of historical material. A challenge from Debbie about the sources of information led me to write Greece, history & the on-line world. If you look at this post, you will see that I combined various sources, that I used my general knowledge to check and interpret material, but that fast access to on-line information was also central.

Finally and most importantly, the internet gives people a degree of power over research and writing into their own history.

I have often written about problems of perception, selection and bias in history. Central to those problems is the role of gatekeepers in determining what will be studied, what published. For the first time, the internet allows people with specific individual historical interests outside the dominant main stream to connect and combine. It allows everybody to present their views. I think that's fun. I also think that it's important.

In researching and writing history I draw from enthusiasts of all types - cars, planes, trains, food, family, local and school. The list goes on and on. I am a synthesiser, always looking for patterns, to fill gaps that reflect my particular interests.

Since I started blogging, I must have written the best part of a thousand posts that were in some way historical posts. Many other posts have some historical content, for I like putting things in context. In total, I find that the content grows and grows.

In doing all this, I try to promote the writing of others. Then I get the feedback. My blogs are moderately high traffic blogs, but not huge by a-list standards. Still, I must have had over a thousand comments or emails linked in some way to my historical posts. This forms and reforms what I write. Sometimes it just fills a gap. At other times, it starts me in a new direction.

I get frustrated at times because of my inability to respond properly. I have an ever growing list of things that I should follow up. I am conscious that I sometimes disappoint. Yet always I am conscious that without my writing, the minority historical areas that I am interested in would be the poorer. And that's the joy.

The post I wrote on the Armidale Dem School year 5 class of 1955 ended with six people coming back to Armidale for the school's 150 year celebration.  My discussion of Kenneth Dempsey's Conflict and Decline: Ministers and laymen in an Australian country town (Methuen Australia, North Ryde, 1983) drew a somewhat surprised (surprised because of the passage of time since 1983) comment from the author that I had summarised his book very well. My passing reference to Wilhelm Kirchner in a post drew a comment from his granddaughter that, among other things, confirmed that Johan Sommerlad had been brought to Australia through Kirchner's migration scheme, '

Now I bet that you have never heard of Wilhelm Kirchner nor of Johan Sommerlad. Well, Wilhelm Kirchner played a major role in the initial larger scale migration of German people to Australia, while Johan (John) Sommerlad's son Ernest founded one of New England's family press dynasties.

This brings me back to the opening point about my next Express column introducing my readers to the German connection in New England's history. Needless to say, this includes references to both Kirchner and Sommerlad.

Through the wonders of the internet, those like me can interest, and indeed connect, people through elements of history that would otherwise be neglected. I think that's pretty wonderful!


Anonymous said...

Well, that's all very well, but I had not forgotten your Greece ruminations. I was just being wittingly polite - as always.


Jim Belshaw said...

I will return to my trip, KVD. I do have more history to inflict on you!