Historians and the Internet

I don’t consider myself to be a historian.  It seems really presumptuous.  I’ve seen folks on the internet claiming they’re historians.  “Yeah, I just wrote a post on an internet group about history, so that makes me a historian.”  Maybe in the loosest sense of the word, but I think a historian does something useful with their writing.  Historians exist to study history and to share their understanding with the rest of us.  It does no one any good if they keep all that knowledge to themselves.  They have to share it, and they have to share it in such a way that the past is useful to us here in the present.  The internet is a very powerful medium for this purpose.  Sure, books are wonderful, but the internet reaches far more people than a single book ever will reach.  So it pains me a bit to see historians who are not just luddite but proudly luddite regarding the internet and its wonderful potential.  I think they’re missing the point, shortchanging their profession, and shortchanging the rest of us.  They could also be shortchanging themselves.  I salute historians who have boldly attacked this new frontier with great vigor and have blogs where they can share their work, their methods, and their insights with us.  Some have even participated in internet discussion groups.  I can’t tell you how wonderful that is for those of us who have not been trained to be historians and have been fumbling in the dark trying to come to grips with what to do with this thing we call history.  Historians have work to do.  I get that.  They have bills to pay and food to put on the table, which the internet doesn’t do for them.  I get that, too.  But even lawyers do pro bono work, and it seems to me a professional has some dedication to the profession, and along with that comes a responsibility to teach the rest of us a little bit of what it means to actually be a historian and to provide some guideposts for the rest of us in our journey to understanding of our history.  I recently heard an eminent historian I very much like and respect make the provocative statement that uninformed people on the internet should not be given a voice by professional historians who blog.  I think that’s completely wrong.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and if uninformed views are not taken on and if no corrections are made, then the uninformed view by default will become believed by a larger number of people.  If history is to be of use to us today, make no mistake there are those out there who will make use of this uninformed viewpoint to gain political advantage, and with political advantage comes power of some sort.  We’ve seen some of the damage this can do already.  Stuff like this happens because too many historians have abdicated their professional responsibility to confront mythology and uninformed claims.  If an academic historian had someone in their class profess the view that 65,000 black confederate soldiers fought in the Civil War, would that historian allow that statement to stand unopposed?  Wouldn’t that historian use that claim as a teaching moment to talk about how to evaluate the evidence?  There are historians on the internet doing just that, but recently Gary Gallagher, another eminent historian I highly respect and like, wrote a column taking bloggers to task for blogging about black confederates (a little late since they haven’t talked about it this year prior to his column, I should add).  In my opinion, Professor Gallagher should be supporting these efforts, not criticizing them.  Wouldn’t he contest that in his own classroom?  With the internet, the world is your classroom, and we, your students, are waiting for your next online seminar.

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11 comments

  1. jfepperson · · Reply

    At some point, anyone who studies and writes about history with a degree of seriousness and professionalism becomes an historian, regardless of education and career. It wouldn’t be the same kind of historian that Brooks is or GG is, but the label would fit. In that sense, I’m willing to call you an historian (along w/ numerous other things, but let’s not go there ;-). And, yes, I think the label fits me as well.

    1. Thanks, Jim. My first comment! 🙂
      I’d consider you a historian as well, Jim, because you’ve done some very useful work in the field. I’m happy considering myself a student right now, even an enthusiast, but until I’ve learned how to frame good historical questions and answer them in such a way that I can contribute something people can use, then I really don’t feel I can consider myself a historian.

  2. jfepperson · · Reply

    Technical issue: The “comments” box doesn’t re-size when doing a long comment. It does on all the other blogs I follow. Probably some setting somewhere…

    1. I’m still figuring out this blogging thing. Right now I have mostly default settings, but I’ll tinker with it and see what I can do. Thanks for the feedback. I need all I can get. No, I don’t mean about my looks. 🙂

      1. jfepperson · · Reply

        I’d check w/ Brooks and Kevin about the technical aspects of all this. They may be able to say “Just do X.” And I am the last person who should comment on anyone’s looks 😦

  3. Al, you hit the nail on the head. Historians, both academic and non-academic, have to think outside the box. I’ve tried this on the Federal side and many times have been slapped down because I have gone against the standards (developing Communities of Practices, working on developing PODcasts, etc). If you stick to your narrow areas you miss the masses. As I continue to hammer what us newer AF Historians call HO 1.0, we need to touch the newer generation. This newer generation are mor apt to go to the internet for their information that pick up a book. You are starting to see this in the museums where they are going away from the story boards and developing the iPhone aps, etc. The National Museum of the USAF is just now starting to go to that were you can download an audio tour to your smartphone. In the works is those barcode things where you can walk up to the storyboard and scan it with your smartphone and it will then direct you to a website with much more information on the exhibit.

    1. Thanks for the information, Ray. Of course with military historians you also have the added factor of making sure classified information is protected, as well as accounting for government funds and dealing with budget cuts, having to justify expenditures. I once tried to arrange a staff ride to Vicksburg for the 8th Air Force staff at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana, to be led by none other than Brooks D. Simpson, who is probably one of the top five people to lead that type of tour. There were so many brick walls in the way it was unbelieveable. The most common comment I heard was, “Well, we have historians in the Air Force, why don’t we just use our own?” No disrespect to AF HOs, but the majority of them are best on WWII, not the Civil War.

      1. Oh please don’t get me going on staff rides, the Air Force, and AF historians. In my last job as a staff historian at Air Education & Training Command General Lorenz decided that he wanted to do his spring commanders conference at Columbus and do a staff ride up to Shiloh. The office, which comprised three individuals that came into the program in the early 70s, argued up and down that the AF does not do staff rides. I asked why? Plus, if General Lorenz wanted to do a staff ride then General Lorenz will get a staff ride. Of course he wanted a short lead up to the battle and I wrote a brief 15-pager on Grants move to Shiloh and left it at that. The head of Protocol would often refer to me in the meetings as the “Civil War buff” and I would repeatedly during the meetings tell this retired colonel that I was NOT a buff but it never settled in. Plus, the office wanted to white wash everything and I wasn’t about to do that as General Lorenz had walked Shiloh at least five times already and there was no pulling the wool over his eyes. I was also responsible for picking the Reading List prior to them going and got the response “Do you really expect colonels and generals to read this?” So, to by-pass the Protocol guy and my boss, I went to my friend who was General Lorenz’s Chief of Staff – there are more ways to skin a cat. Needless to say, I put them in contact with the Ranger at Shiloh who led the Staff Ride and my boss took credit for everything.

        But as far as AF Historians and Staff Rides, many out there of what we like to label HO 1.0 are against them because they do not feel like they give any added value to leadership. I beg to differ but what am I supposed to know, I haven’t been in since we became a separate service (yes, I worked with someone that came into the Air Force shortly after 47.

  4. jfepperson · · Reply

    Is that a cell-phone holster on your belt? I need to get one.

    1. One of the best purchases I’ve made, Jim. No more cell phone falling off my belt when I sit down or get up.

  5. Amen to your post.

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