Collecting History Online


In this chapter you will learn about:

  • Using the Internet to collect accounts and artifacts from the recent past
  • Which projects are most amenable to this new method of building a digital archive
  • How to add interactivity to your site so that visitors can contribute their memories and other historical materials
  • Ways to encourage subjects to participate in history-making in this new medium
  • Assessing and improving the validity and worth of what these subjects contribute
  • The experience of various individuals and institutions in recording the history of September 11, 2001, online

he previous five chapters generally cast the Internet as a one-way street, delivering materials from historical practitioners to their audience. Yet, its very name–the Internet–underscores how this advanced computer network exists to shuttle information between and among people. It does not, like print, merely deliver documents from point A (historians) to point B (audience). If we want to make full use of this two-way street, we must go beyond passive “texts” such as websites and web pages and also think about active processes such as communication and interaction.

To be sure, historians have already largely embraced such activity on the Internet. Almost all of us use email, and an increasing portion use instant messaging and other forms of online communication. Thousands of professional historians participate in the 150 discussion groups sponsored by H-Net.1 Enthusiasts and amateurs are involved in dozens of discussion boards and forums sponsored by the History Channel and Yahoo. In contrast to paper media, the Internet seems ideally suited for this kind of vibrant, daily exchange.

Another form of interactivity on the web remains less developed but has the potential to create novel forms of history in the future: using the Internet to collect historical documents, images, and personal narratives, many of which would be lost if historians did not actively seek them out. For historians working on topics in the postÐWorld War II era, the web can be a valuable yet inexpensive tool for reaching individuals across the globe who might have recollections or materials. Present investigations and future research could both benefit from this practice. Furthermore, a significant segment of the record of modern life exists in digital form. Historians will need to find ways to capture such documents, messages, images, audio, and video before they are deleted if our descendants are to understand the way we lived. This chapter explores using the new technology of the Internet in service of the ancient practice of collecting and preserving the past.

1 MATRIX, H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online, ↪link 6.1.