How historical evidence is considered, constructed, represented, and transmitted in historical practice (by historians/researchers) and experienced (by end-users) is a common theme in this week’s class readings and by extension, in the two websites.

In Deconstructing History, Alun Munslow discusses the constructed-ness of the historical narrative. He is a supporter of historian Hayden White’s idea that the historical narrative is not something that “preexists” and is discovered by the historian, but rather, it is the historian who invents and constructs the historical narrative. Furthermore, the historian’s interpretation of historical evidence also relies upon and is determined by the structure and narrative of  the archive where the historian got his/her information – who assembled the archive, why, and what has been included or excluded? All of this points to the multi-layered construction of the historical narrative, the multiple and diverse “pasts” of history and the complexity of interpreting past events.

Stefan Tanaka also writes about the use of narrativity (specifically linear chronological narrativity) in historical practice in Pasts in a Digital Age. He describes how in the late 18th century a “specific form of historical thinking emerged” (promoted by Leopold von Ranke) where the past started to be written about using a linear narrative structure where “chronological time, not place, community or environment” was how the past was understood. There were those that opposed this shift in historical writing, such as Thomas Carlyle, who stated: “Things are done in a group, not in a series.”

Tanaka is not necessarily opposed to the chronological narrative, and believes it has its place and purpose (it helped synchronize time and events and at the time gave order to all of the new data which was emerging and that needed to be “defined, collected, and organized.”) One of Tanaka’s interests is to interrogate the effect of digital media on our relation to and understanding of the past and of the future, an interrogation coupled with his belief that history could benefit from an “understanding that other forms of socio-temporal modes of organization did, and do exist” and that “understanding is not the accumulation of data, but of locus, relations, and connections.”

Both of the websites assigned for this week, The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, and Digital Harlem, do focus on “locus, relations and connections” and broadened my understanding of the historical pasts represented in the two sites. Both sites provide interesting ways to relate, connect, and spatially place historical knowledge. For example, The Digital Harlem site allows one to layer diverse events, places, and people on points on a map, offering interesting ways to see and consider time, space, events, and people.

The Valley of the Shadow, although quite chronologically based, provides novel ways to examine related historical events (the eve of the American Civil War, the war years, the aftermath) through historical records from that era (newspapers, records, census and tax records, diaries, maps, church records, etc.) not just by themselves, but through a relational-spatial interface that allows simultaneous and comparative views of the records from the North and from the South, which when looked at together, provide interesting views on what life was like (on both sides) during the Civil War era.

These two databases afford the end-user the chance to explore multiple historical narratives, help us reformulate history so that we might recover some of the complexity of human activity and demonstrate the importance of looking at historical phenomena in groups – of objects, time, people and places – as opposed to just looking at these things in a series or strings of events in order to gain multifarious insights and generate new knowledge about the past.

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