Storytelling Challenges

Wow! I just finished listening to, and reading along with, William Cronon’s address to the American Historical Association and I am thrilled I took the time to listen to the speech. Watching the speech on YouTube made me want to take a class from Cronon and meet his mentor Richard Ringler. I am fairly certain I would not feel the same way if I had decided to simply read the article. Cronon said that knowing how to figure out the answer to a question is more important than knowing the actual fact that answers the question. This thought ties directly to the Tosh and Weinberger readings. How do we know what we know and what types of information, or sources, should we use to help answer questions we do not know. (I also liked Cronon’s advice about not being afraid to admit you do not know something!)
Tosh goes about meticulously explaining the different types of sources, how to use these items, and finally how to interpret them and write about history. He fails to note the rapidly changing forums in which historical sources are now found. Weinberger fills this gap with his chapters about changing knowledge sources and the growing presence of networking solutions. One thing that struck me from “To Big To Know” was how are we to understand an individual, event, or even history itself when none of the tangible sources Tosh mention are readily available. In other words, how do we interpret sources when there cease to be a paper trail to follow. And, if we electronic bits of information as sources do these have a finite lifespan or will they exist infinitely.
Another issue is trusting the source. Should we trust sources we find online and what criteria do we use to determine their authenticity and reliability? This is a major problem facing researchers as we move further into the Digital Age.
(Example: Search for “Martin Luther King Jr.” on Google, in the first page of the results list you will see This site says it contain valuable information for teachers and student alike. It is not a .edu or .gov site but seems like a legitimate source until you visit the site! Look for yourself if you are at all curious!)
One last thought is Cronon’s notion of storytelling and its function to reaching a mass audience. Scholarly history is for professional historians and its not likely that the general public would attempt to read an article or book written in such a fashion. One of the goals of a historian is to bring the past to the masses. To successfully accomplish this we need to tell good, and factual, stories. I liked that Cronon says that one of the most important parts of this process is the storyteller/narrator. Tosh states the limitations of a narrative and states that because of the “analytical complexity” of historical research narrative are not the best format, but then later notes that “history without narrative is a non-starter.” I like Cronon’s stories. Stories are the way to reach a wider audience than just professional historians. Some of my favorite history books are well-told, fact based histories told by great storytellers.