Collecting History Online

Why Collect History Online?

hink for a moment of the outpouring of thoughts and emotions in thousands of blogs on September 11, 2001, or the breaking news on the home pages of myriad newspaper websites. A large percentage of this initial set of historical sources, unlike paper diaries or print versions, will likely be gone if we look for them in ten years. Blogs disappear regularly as their owners lose interest or move their contents to other systems or sites. Similarly, unlike the pages of their physical editions, newspaper websites change very rapidly (almost minute by minute on September 11) and have no real fixity. Had “Dewey Defeats Truman” been splashed across rather than the paper Chicago Daily Tribune, it would have taken just a few keystrokes by the newspaper’s editors to erase the famous blunder instantly and forever. As we describe here, we felt an obligation to save the rich personal record of blogs in our September 11 Digital Archive so future historians could understand the perspectives of thousands of ordinary people from around the world. Through even swifter action, the Library of Congress, the Internet Archive,, and the Pew Internet and American Life Project were able to save thousands of online media portrayals of that day’s events. Had they decided months later to save these web pages, instead of within mere hours, many already would have vanished into the digital ether. Collecting history online may not always be this urgent, but these examples show the critical need for historians to find the most effective ways of using this new technology to supplement the historical record on paper, as we did in the twentieth century with tape recorders and video cameras.

Figure 34: An important, but highly ephemeral, piece of digital history: the home page of the New York Times website at 4:43 PM on September 11, 2001. Stripped down to its bare essentials so it would load faster in a web browser (note the basic, rather than the gothic, font), and constantly changing as the day went on—with no paper trail of these many “editions”—had the Library of Congress and the Internet Archive not acted immediately to capture it, the page would be gone forever.

This is particularly true because we can use the Internet for more than just gathering the history that was made online, or “born digital.” The Internet also allows us to reach diverse audiences and to ask those audiences to send us historical materials that originated offline, or at least off the web. They can “upload” to us their digital or scanned photos, their sound recordings, or their lab notes. They can use a computer keyboard or microphone to transmit to us their recollections of earlier events and experiences, especially ones for which there are no or few records.

Unfortunately, using the web to gather historical materials is harder than using the web as a one-way distribution system. It can involve more technical hurdles than a simple history website; legal and ethical concerns, such as invasion of privacy and the ownership of contributed materials; and skills, like the marketing techniques we discussed in Chapter 5, that are unfamiliar to most historians. In addition, collecting online elicits concerns about the quality of submissions: given the slippery character of digital materials, how can we ensure that what we get is authentic, or that historical narratives we receive really are from the people they say they are? How can we ensure that a mischievous teenager isn’t posing as an important historical subject? Moreover, some historians argue–not without merit–that online collecting excludes those older, less educated, or less well-to-do subjects who may not have access to the necessary technology. They also worry that the nature of such collections will inevitably be shallow, less useful for research, and harder to preserve.

Some of these worries are relatively easy to address. In our experience, for instance, teenagers are generally too busy downloading music to play games with historians and archivists online. But other concerns are not as easily answered. Collections created on the web through the submissions of scattered (and occasionally anonymous) contributors do have a very different character from traditional archives, for which provenance and selection criteria assume a greater role. Online collections tend to be less organized and more capricious in what they cover.

They also can be far larger, more diverse, and more inclusive than traditional archives. Indeed, perhaps the most profound benefit of online collecting is an unparalleled opportunity to allow more varied perspectives to be included in the historical record than ever before. Networked information technology can allow ordinary people and marginalized constituencies not only a larger presence in an online archive, but also a more important role in the dialogue of history. “There are about ten to fifteen million people’s voices evident on the Web,” Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive, has said. “The Net is a people’s medium: the good, the bad and the ugly. The interesting, the picayune, and the profane. It’s all there.”2

Furthermore, in contrast to traditional oral history, online collecting is a far more economical way to reach out to historical subjects. For example, because subjects write their own narratives, we avoid one of the most daunting costs of oral history, transcription. Consequently, although live individual interviews are often quite thorough and invaluable resources, online initiatives to collect personal histories can capture a far greater number of them at lower cost, while at the same time acquiring associated digital materials (such as photographs) just as cheaply. Of course, even if highly successful in the future, online collecting will not mean the end of traditional ways of gathering recent history, including what will surely remain the gold standard, oral history. As oral historian Linda Shopes observes, newer technological methods will have a hard time competing with many aspects of the oral historian’s craft: “the cultivation of rapport and . . . lengthy, in-depth narratives through intense face to face contact; the use of subtle paralinguistic cues as an aid to moving the conversation along; the talent of responding to a particular comment, in the moment, with the breakthrough question, the probe that gets underneath a narrator’s words.”3 Using the Internet will likely supplement or complement older, more time-consuming and costly methods such as this.

Despite the pitfalls and insecurities about online collecting, it has become a burgeoning practice. Recently, for example, the British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum of London, and several other British museums and archives have pooled their resources to display and collect stories of immigration to the U.K. in a project called Moving Here. Thus far, the project has posted almost 500 stories and artifacts–mainly digitized versions of existing archive records but also new materials acquired via the site–ranging from a documentary video on Caribbean life to the reflections of recent African immigrants. The British Broadcasting Corporation’s two-year online project to gather the stories of Britain’s World War II veterans and survivors of the London Blitz, entitled WW2 People’s War, has been even more successful, with over a thousand narratives gathered through the BBC’s website after only eight months, including dozens of harrowing accounts of D-Day.4

In the United States, the National Park Foundation, the National Park Service, and the Ford Motor Company are using the Internet to collect first-hand narratives of life during wartime for a planned Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. So far, more than six thousand former home front workers have contributed stories. National Geographic’s Remembering Pearl Harbor site has received over a thousand entries in their “Memory Book.” Over five hundred people have recorded their personal stories and artifacts of the civil rights movement on a site co-sponsored by the AARP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the Library of Congress. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has taken a pioneering role in encouraging more than two dozen online collecting projects (including our own) in the recent history of science and technology, arguing that this history is growing much faster than our ability to gather it through more conventional means. Though there remains a healthy skepticism in the oral history community about the usefulness and reliability of narratives collected online, several new projects by major oral history centers (such as at Texas Tech University) show that they, too, are noticing the benefits of online collecting. Even Columbia University–the home of the nation’s first oral history program–is encouraging alumni to join in writing “Columbia’s history” by contributing stories online.5

Figure 35: National Geographic’s Remembering Pearl Harbor has a “Memory Book” that allows visitors to record first-hand accounts and other recollections about World War Two.

Figure 36: Co-sponsored by the AARP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the Library of Congress, the Voices of Civil Rights website uses narratives submitted by hundreds of people online to provide visitors with a rich sense of the experience and legacy of the 1950s and 60s.

2 Quoted in Lee Dembart, “Go Wayback,” International Herald Tribune, 4 March 2002, ↪link 6.2.

3 Linda Shopes, “The Internet and Collecting the History of the Present” (paper presented at September 11 as History: Collecting Today for Tomorrow, Washington, D.C., 10 September 2003). For more on this “rapport” and the way rich historical accounts arise during the live interaction of interviewer and interviewee, see Alessandro Portelli, The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997) and Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991). It may also be worth comparing (or supplementing) the practical advice of this chapter with the offline advice of Donald A. Ritchie in Doing Oral History (Oxford University Press, 2003), and Judith Moyer, “Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History,” ↪link 6.3.

4 Moving Here: Two Hundred Years of Migration to England, ↪link 6.4a; BBC, WW2 People’s War, ↪link 6.4b.

5 National Park Foundation, “Rosie the Riveter Stories,” Ford Motor Company Sponsored Programs, ↪link 6.5a; National Geographic, Remembering Pearl Harbor, ↪link 6.5b; Voices of Civil Rights, ↪link 6.5c; Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, “History of Science and Technology,” ↪link 6.5d; C250 Perspectives: Write Columbia’s History, ↪link 6.5e; The Vietnam Project: The Oral History Project–How to Participate, ↪link 6.5f.