(Cambridge, MA – February 18, 2010) Professor John R. Stilgoe talks during The Harvard Extension School presentation “Writing History Now”, a panel discussion talking about the challenges of writing history in an electronic age at Lowell Lecture Hall. Staff Photo Kristyn Ulanday/Harvard University

Kristyn Ulanday/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

Archives and electrons

6 min read

Historians outline shifting methods of recording, interpreting past

In the age of the bit and the byte and the Web, what happens to the hallowed art of writing history?

A Harvard gathering of five historians took up that question in a discussion called “Writing History Now,” sponsored by the Harvard University Extension School. The session was part of a series celebrating the School’s 100th anniversary, the exact date of which is today (Feb. 23).

For those who write history, the Internet has a bright side, some historians said. It has widened interest in the past, created new audiences, given images fresh historical import, and — through digitizing — improved access to hidden-away archives.

“It’s a new public for history,” said panelist David Hackett Fischer of the Internet’s enhanced content and broad reach into literate audiences.

The Brandeis University historian’s book on the American Revolution, “Washington’s Crossing,” not only won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, but has been translated widely and soon will be available in Serbo-Croatian. (There’s already a bootleg copy in Chinese.)

Still, the Harvard panel suggested during the Feb. 19 discussion, the Internet age has a dark side for those whose profession traditionally has included painstaking investigations of letters, diaries, public papers, maps, and other documents. For one thing, that paper trail is disappearing under a hail of electrons that may prove elusive to find and save.

Several panelists sang the praises of traditional archival discovery, which, unlike surfing the Net, requires interacting with artifacts that can bloom with surprise.

Megan Marshall ’77, a biographer and former Radcliffe Fellow who specializes in the hidden lives of 19th century American women, extolled “the pleasure of making discoveries in archives, and the crying need to keep these archives going.”

Marshall, an assistant professor in the Department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College, read a passage from the Custom House chapter in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” when the narrator discovers a bit of old cloth embroidered with a scarlet “A,” an artifact so resonant with meaning that it was as if history itself could “raise up from these dry bones.”

Marshall, whose 2005 volume “The Peabody Sisters” was a Pulitzer finalist, said that writing history sometimes requires a physical immersion that can’t be duplicated using a screen. She said, “It’s up to you, the researcher, to actually find what is actually there.”

Panelist John R. McNeill, an environmental and world historian from Georgetown University, said archival discovery created serendipity, “prized moments for everybody in our business.”

John R. Stilgoe, Harvard’s Robert and Lois Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape, complained that digitized images are often poor — no match for the ones, for instance, in his collection of 150,000 slides. “I see a lot of flickering lately,” he said, describing himself as “the last man on Earth with a film camera.”

Archives have their place in historiography, but so has the material world around us, said Stilgoe, which sometimes escapes even professional historians. He talked about loading up his old Chevrolet Suburban with “paper goods” during summer road trips, drawing inspiration for a new book by restoring a lifeboat, and finding old slave collars under a neighbor’s woodshed.  Stilgoe suggested to the 400 listeners: “Open yourself to what’s around you.”

Shifting technology does make it easier for historians to utilize visual material — maps, charts, and images — in books and presentations, said Nancy Kollmann, a Russian and legal historian at Stanford University. But the Internet and digitized archives help little in some historical pursuits, she said, such as her current investigation of criminal law practices in 17th century Muscovy.

At that time, the Moscow-centered Russian realm was a nonsecular sphere in which representational art, when there was any, centered on the church. In the absence of images of flogging, executions, and other practices, Kollmann turned to what historians once used almost exclusively: the power of narrative. “You have to make word pictures,” she said.

Kollmann related one story, culled from court records, that allowed her to draw a picture of a hard-to-see Muscovite past. It was the tale of a village woman who (with her son’s help) killed her second husband after he raped her 8-year-old daughter. The story revealed the gender strictures of village life. (Widows often remarried to survive.) But it also opened a window onto a legal system that allowed discretion. The penal code of the time stipulated a death sentence for her crime, but the judge, who interviewed character witnesses, allowed the mother and son to get off with a flogging.

“The past is full of people like us,” said Kollmann, though they lived in times very different from our own. That is where historians are called upon to make sense for the rest of us.

The digital age does offer charms and opportunities to historians, said Marshall. She mentioned one example, www.diarna.org, a Web site that uses Google Earth, maps, video, text, family archives, and oral history to capture the stories of ancient Jewish communities in the Middle East that are fast fading from memory. The Web site shows “what technology can do that traditional history can’t,” she said.

“The Web has widened curiosity,” said Stilgoe, and also has made it possible to connect facts and incidents in the past that — if left unconnected — would remain buried in time.

He told the story of the HMT Rohna, a British ship sunk in 1943 by a German guided missile, the first “smart bomb” used in combat. The attack and its significance, pieced together in part through Internet sources, was a secret until 1997. “The Web is doing something,” said Stilgoe. “Publishers have to wake up.”

Fischer is now writing a book that uses data from 34,000 slave ships, interconnected in “only the way the Web could do.”

Despite the Internet’s potential for improving historical scholarship and presentation, a much older technology got the biggest applause from the audience. One of the best ways to make history come alive, said Fischer, “is to publish beautiful books.”

The panel, at Lowell Lecture Hall, was the second of four this academic year celebrating the Extension School’s centennial. One hundred years ago today, the Harvard Board of Overseers approved a plan to establish the School, which granted its first two degrees in 1913. There are now about 14,000 students registered, 20 percent of whom study online exclusively.

The panel celebrated the Extension’s master of liberal arts program. The A.L.M. degree, offered in 19 fields, is in its 31st year. Two more panels are scheduled, both at 4 p.m. at Lowell Hall. On March 24 comes “Doing Business in the Post-Meltdown Economy: What, if Anything, Will Be Different?” On April 14, look for the panel on “Sustaining our Ecosystems.”