Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What is History and How Do We "Keep it Real?"

I'm an archivist. That's what I do. I'm also a history geek. I love it. I feel that I know my fair share of history. I was a little disappointed in myself when reading Mary Witzl's blog recently, as she related the story of taking her daughter to look at schools and they passed through the town of Dunblane. She touched on the historical significance of the town in Scotland, where in 1996, a gunman killed sixteen children and an adult before taking his own life. The Dunblane Massacre remains the deadliest attack on children in the history of the United Kingdom.

Somewhere back in the cobwebby sections of my brain, I have all these random historical facts and trivial notes filed away. They are occasionally brought out and discussed. I have raised the issue of historical significance on this blog several times. I talked about the notable events of the 1980s and 1990s in conjunction with the anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. My work place offers up a "this day in history" on our internal webpage, which elicited blog posts on February 20, March 7, and April 9, to name a few. Do a search of my blog with the key word "history" and you'll get most of the posts.

Mary's post got me thinking about history and what (and how) do we remember certain events. In my comment to her post, I said:
Thanks for another great post, Mary. As a former history teacher, I am ashamed to admit that I had to remind myself about what happened at Dunblane. While looking it up, it struck me that you were there one day after the anniversary (it happened on March 13, 1996).

Kim's comment about Lockerbie still resonates with me though. I believe that you certainly will identify with events that took place close to you or to which you have a personal connection.

Of course, as students of history, we are all victims of the old adage, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." When these current events happen we are always reminded of similar events from the past, but then they, too, just become history.

And I don't know how to reconcile that. How do you decide what's important? Well, I've said my piece, but I think this discussion may come up again over at my place.
We have had discussions around the lunch table about when "current events" becomes "history" and we will marvel at ADR's command of arcane sports trivia and we will debate whether something has more historical significance than some other event. Even sporting events aren't immune - we had a rather boisterous discussion about Tiger Woods the other day. I would maintain that his arrogance on the golf course diminishes the historical significance of the accomplishments of those who came before him. Now of course, you can say that records are meant to be broken, but you don't have to like it, if you don't like the person doing the breaking (see also Barry Bonds).

When I posted about the notable events, C in DC, added in her comment about a shooting that took place at the University of Iowa, which again only registered slightly in my psyche. But it was big for her, because she was there. Obviously, one will give more significance to an event that you have a personal involvement with. In the modern world, news flashes around the world instantaneously. Our own personal circumstances must filter onto the onrush of information, lest we all be overwhelmed. If you have school age children, you likely paid more attention to the Columbine shooting (or Dunblane). Parents of college age children reached out to their children at the Virginia Tech Massacre. Do we diminish the significance of the event if we don't have the proper reaction to what is clearly a tragedy to those directly involved?

We clearly will identify with events that took place on or around significant dates in our own lives. For example, I can tell you that the American flag was raised for the first time over New Orleans after the sale of the Louisiana Territory on December 20. My birthday is that day.

We make parallels to events when we hear of them. Today is March 27 and the internal work page informed me that "on this day in 1804, the Louisiana Purchase was divided into the Territory of Orleans and the District of Louisiana." So that little nugget will be filed away next to the factoid about December 20. But I might not recall it as easily.

There are three other events that were noted on the "This Day in History" section today:
  • On this day in 1874, Robert Frost, the American writer who received three Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry, was born in San Francisco.
  • On this day in 1979, the Camp David peace treaty was signed by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at the White House.
  • On this day in 1982, groundbreaking ceremonies took place in Washington, DC, for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Again, three very different events. But I can tell you that Robert Frost is one of my favorite poets, I've been to his grave site in Vermont. I wrote about Frost in January (when another news item passed across my radar screen) on the occasion of it being January 20, Inauguration Day in the United States, and I was reminded of his reading "The Gift Outright" at the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy.

In 1979, as a sixth grader in J. Irving Baylis Elementary School, I was ushered into the all-purpose room with most of the school to watch television coverage of the signing of the Camp David Accords. Then, it was believed that all was going to be better in the Middle East. Hey, how's that working out?

I remember the controversy surrounding the Vietnam memorial. Yet now, I will bring visitors there and it is an incredibly moving experience. I will often get a lump in my throat and I will be reminded that my brother was spared a trip to the jungles by the virtue of a high draft number.

I don't know what I'm getting at exactly and I've rambled on long enough. Here's your assignment - How do you define history? What historical events have impacted you most? If you made a list of your top 10, would your list look like the person sitting next to you, in another country? Why or why not? Discuss.


Lana Gramlich said...

I find "history" such a relative term I dare not attempt to define it. It most often seems to be penned by whoever wins a conquest, etc., so I'm usually somewhat distrustful of it. If I haven't seen it for myself, I don't accept it as cold, hard fact. But I'm a skeptic that way...
As for the notable events, I have to say that I've been amazed at some of the things I've seen in my own lifetime;

The moon landing (okay, okay, so I was only 2...)
The fall of the Berlin Wall.
The end of Communist Russia (who would have thought???)
The Challenger & Columbia shuttle disasters.
9/11 & the Iraq wars.
The launch of Hubble & the construction of the Int'l Space Station (part of which I was fortunate enough to see being constructed at Kennedy Space Center.)
The 2004 tsunami.
The extinction of the bengal tiger in the wild.
Hurricane Katrina (of course, unfortunately!)
The release of Nelson Mandela.
Dolly, the cloned sheep.
Pathfinder's images of Mars.
Enron (etc.)
Iran Contra.
Tiananman Square (the image of that lone guy standing in front of those tanks may be my favorite of all time.)
Rodney King, Lech Walesa, Jeffrey Dahmer, OJ Simpson, John Lennon & Princess Di.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill (& too many others.)
The rise of computers & the internet.
Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album.
Sally Ride, 1st American woman in space.
Discovery of the hole in the ozone layer.
"New Coke."

And, of course, so many more. Who could keep a list down to just 10? I wish there were more happy items in there, but that's news reporting for you.
I'll have to "discuss" later...Have to hit the hay.

ADR said...

This is an exceptionally good post. I don’t know if we can define history in a way that satisfies everyone. It’s that old current events v. history argument. Some might reasonably argue that it isn’t history until secondary sources are published. In my mind, history is simply anything that has happened. What is subject to interpretation are the various causes and effects of any given event.

From my perspective, the most important historical event in my lifetime is the Iranian revolution of 1979 and subsequent hostage crisis. This had a profound influence on my culture and is still impacting America’s actions towards the rest of the world. Second would be the Supreme Court awarding the 2000 election to Shrub. We’ll be paying the price for that decision for decades to come. One event has had a direct influence on me personally and my 6th grade self. The other event, not so much, though I do think it will become the defining event of the era.

What’s important to you becomes part of your identity. The ability to recall random sports trivia. Reading many books about the Iranian Diaspora. I think you are right about the impact history has – it does come down to you. For instance, I was casually acquainted with someone from College who died on the SwissAir 111 crash in 1998. So I am willing to bet that I remember that event more than most. The challenge for historians is to get beyond our personal reactions to history and tell us why John Adams is important or to demonstrate that the seeds of the current problems in the Middle East were planted at the Paris peace talks in 1918. Good historians are able to do that. And archivists make it possible for them to do that.

Amy said...

On a somewhat related note ...
James Poniewozik on TIME's Tuned In blog suggests some programming for the History Channel:
Unwanted Programming Advice: Making Up History

He's drawing a lot of comments over there.

As for actually answering your questions ....

Can I haul out the Faulkner quote ("The past is never dead. It's not even past.") as part of a long-running workplace joke? No? Ok.

Then I'll just beg off for health reasons (although I am feeling somewhat better ... but I think that's just because I'm looking forward to Pub Quiz later tonight) and close with my compliments to BA for giving us such a thought-provoking post.

Anonymous said...

I don't want make a list of historical events I remember because it would be similar to everybody else's who is 50ish - the Kennedy and King assassinations, the moon walk, Viet Nam on the news every night, etc. etc.

Often the things that you remember are those that are near to you in place and time.

April 19 will be the 13th anniversary of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building here in OKC. Not that I will be doing much to commemorate the day, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.

My office is in a 1930's limestone block state office building that is about three miles from downtown, where the Federal Building was. When the bomb exploded, this solid old building shook. I rememeber wondering if we'd experienced an earthquake, because yes, we do have small ones here everyday that we don't notice, and I don't remember hearing the blast.

We could see smoke out the windows to the south and wondered if it had been a gas explosion.

Well, now we all know what really happened that day. The smoke was from burning cars in the area - the Murrah building didn't burn. It was a beautiful spring day, three days after Easter. You couldn't donate blood unless you were able to wait in line for hours. The firemen and the rescue dogs needed food, water, shoes, dry socks, hard candies, and their needs were met within minutes of the announcement on the news - every time. I'm sure the rescuers received exactly the same response both times the Trade Centers were bombed, and when the big CA earthquakes hit, and at the bridge collapse in Minn/St. Paul.

One of the worst memories I have of the whole experience is that it started raining the next day and rained almost every day for the next two weeks until the search was called off and the building razed. Not one person was found alive in the rubble after the first day but the volunteers were there searching in the cold, windy, rainy weather for days and nights and more days and nights until they were forced to stop.


Amy said...

I was reading The Dead Beat last night, and parts of it made me think of your post about "What is history?"

The author talks about obituaries in major papers (NY Times, WaPo, four papers in London, etc.) being "condensed biography, fascinating current history."

She also provides a few case studies of how papers in NY and London handled obituaries for people killed in terrorist attacks.

The book as a whole is pretty interesting, but — unlike the author — I don't think I'm going to be obsessively reading obits online and posting my favorites to some Google newsgroup.