Are You an Historian?

magnifyglass In the Internet era, history is no longer what it used to be, is it?   The capabilities for research have grown enormously, with access to many resources not readily available before.  Indeed, whole seas of data are now flowing.  And the work to make every book available online is truly admirable, which will become a treasure trove of sources.

So what’s an historian to do?  What should be the output of historical research and publication today?  Books? Websites? What, exactly?

And what about authenticity and accuracy? For instance,Wikipedia is a notable attempt to collect all of the world’s knowledge, but even they have to admit that much of what they possess is mere opinion or inaccurate information.  Their policies, which forbid first-hand sources to tell history, even had a notable misfire when a noted author could not, per Wikipedia’s policy, even make a correction to the facts concerning his own work.

The truth of the matter is that history – at least as a form of human communications and understanding – is changing dramatically.  The coming of the Information Age is largely responsible for that.  And whether you, as an historian, want to or not, historians are now going to have to rethink their craft and how they analyze and interpret the world and its records of human deeds and events.

That last point is an important issue worth thinking about.  If books disappear in paper form, how are humans to ensure that historical records and interpretations will remain? 

NapoleonHere’s one real-world example:  Many years ago I was fortunate enough to come across a copy of Napoleon Bonaparte’s system of education for his son and the other French princes. 

It is a remarkable work, one that provides great insight into how to teach young people to be future leaders.

Let’s say that that work had been published in electronic form when it came out in 1820. 

Having fallen out of fashion, as it did with apparently only one printed edition of the work, would it still exist today?  One quick hit of a “delete” button and the out-of-fashion electronic work would be gone.  

Who would have cared?  Well, I would.  Because I had one of a handful of still existing copies, I was able to republish this work for use by parents and educators as a valuable resource.

And what kind of Dark Age might humans fall into if all electronic systems simply go dark one day, or all the technology in use changes and it is no longer possible to access earlier workand the wealth of knowledge being built for universal access were to simply disappear?

What’s sobering is that is something that has already caused the disappearance of a great amount of human work, as we’ve moved from one technology to another.

These things need to be thought about, if human history is to be preserved.

But there’s also an upside, with many new possibilities for information presentation and distribution that could yield dramatically improved and enhanced educational tools we’ve hardly yet imagined.

For instance, long ago when I was first teaching The Theory of the Information Age, one of my examples of an application was the “online book.”  This was NOT what you just conjured up as online books we currently know, which are often designed to look like a printed book and even with a capability to turn the pages like a traditional paper book, nor was my “online book” what you might think of as an “electronic book” with one of the many electronic readers now available.

The online book as I taught it was a new form of book made possible by the Information Age. 

Example:  Let’s say you were an historian who had prepared a book in this new form on the history of mysterious Easter Island, the most remote inhabited place on Earth. 

What would your “new kind of book” be?  In my estimation – and this was my crude conception that I used back in the late 1980s, early 1990s – it would still be a book with text, so you could give a great deal of substance to your historical interpretation of the events that happened on that remote isle. 

statueAnd because Easter Island, which today goes by its earlier name “Rapa Nui,” is so remote that few will ever probably be able to visit there in person, you could also use traditional book illustrations of art and photographs to depict the landscape and history – but you could also include video segments to take your readers on a walk through the “forest” of still buried, long-faced statues, or you could fly your readers around the island to illustrate its size and shape, or you could play sound pieces of earlier historians or oral histories of natives of Easter Island that might exist. 

You could also use animation to provide your idea of how the monumental statues were easterfogmoved across the island to their platforms miles from the volcano quarry where they were carved. 

Plus, a fellow researcher might have special access and be able to contact you, the author, in a video exchange to discuss questions regarding your research and conclusions. 

Additionally, today your “book” is moving towards the possibility of including three-dimensional images of the art of Easter Island, or the landscape, or the foaming sea surrounding it, either in stills or motion 3D video.

In other words, a "book" could become something new, expanded in possibilities because of the interconnections made possible by the Information Age, yet still controlled by you, the historian, to present history in a new, interactive, yet still scholarly way.  That, in turn, would be creating a new form of education.

Such possibilities are being made possible by the coming of the Information Age, and they demand fresh thinking for putting history into a totally new framework for interpretation. 

And consider: What kind of history will there be to tell going forward when human standonbooksociety is standing upon a new economic and social “platform” for human existence, one that is pulling the world tighter and tighter towards becoming one world through the new tools of high technology? 

How does one interpret this “new” history?  And what knowledge must an historian possess in order to do his or her job in the future? 

Do you and your fellow historians discuss such things?  Do you acknowledge and accept that the Information Age is real?  Do you ponder how history is now to be told?

If not, it may well be that it is time to start doing just that …

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