Reliving History Through Digital Media

hidenburg

The southernmost wall of my family’s cabin, in western Montana, is covered with historic newspapers dating back to the mid-1800s. They are fakes, I believe, reproductions of major news stories from American history, reprinted to commemorate the 1976 bicentennial.

I remember, as a child, getting lost in that wall from time to time, squinting to read the article about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 – or as much of it as I could read, before it disappeared under a 1937 photo of the Hindenburg.

I was never particularly fond of history classes, but there was something about the tactile, mixed-media nature of that newspaper wall that drew me in, made me want to read more.

As an adult, I’ve found myself repeatedly drawn, in a similar way, to novel online presentations of history. The most effective presentations are, I think, the ones that provide meaningful “touchpoints” for readers, something that allows them to dip in and out of history with minimal effort. Here are a few examples.

World History, In “Real” Time

In late 2011, the @RealTimeWWII twitter feed began describing the events of World War II, in real time, 72 years after the events took place. Two years later, it’s accumulated nearly 300,000 followers with simple tweets like this:

While this approach actually makes it quite difficult to step back and see the broad arc of the historical events, its impact comes from providing a glimpse of the WWII as it was experienced, day-to-day, while similarly woven into the reader’s day-to-day media consumption. It’s a surprisingly intimate look into history.

RealTimeWWII isn’t alone in its approach. The History Press, a UK publisher, has launched two similarly conceived Twitter accounts: @RealTimeTitanic, an annual real-time retelling of the Titanic disaster, and @WChapelRealTime, a recently launched retelling of Jack-the-Ripper’s 1888 “Autumn of Terror”, which will continue for two more months.

Local History, Block by Block

The blog Ghosts of DC, now about two years old, takes a radically different approach. Rather than a steady stream of real-time data, it presents in depth studies of the history of individual buildings in Washington, DC, gleaned from local newspapers. Rather than broad narratives of world events, Ghosts of DC offers glimpses into the daily lives of ordinary people, their triumphs and tragedies, sometimes spanning generations. A post about 150 Rhode Island Ave NW, for instance, captures a Valentines Day suicide in 1915, a collapsed marriage from 1940, a laundry list of traffic accidents and petty crimes, and an important gathering of 5 woman in 1960, during which “bridge was played.”

The author, Tom, is very generous about granting requests to research specific buildings or topics. This spring, in response to my email, he wrote this post about his methodology, which helped me learned that my current house was once occupied by Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL!

Future History

Projects like these thrive, in part, because they use new technology to dust off and illuminate old historical details, details otherwise buried in rarely read books. They bring history to life.

But what about history that’s unfolding alongside those new technologies? How is the real-time digitization of news changing how we archive our history? Or how we retell and re-experience stories?

I often browse archives of major news sites on the WayBack Machine, because I enjoy seeing, in hindsight, which unrelated but important historical events occurred simultaneously. This snapshot of CNN.com from February 1999, for instance, shows an article about Hugo Chavez’s inauguration right beside an article about peace talks in Kosovo, mere weeks before NATO intervened.

While the snapshot is informative, though, it doesn’t have the nostalgic and intimate appeal of @RealTimeWWII or Ghosts of DC. While the digitization of news media may lead to a more complete record of history, it won’t make that history come to life. For that, we must still rely on the creativity of researchers and storytellers.