“Doing” History

“Casting my eyes round I first saw her flying down out of the window. Distracted, I rushed down stairs; how, I know not;…When I discovered blood gushing out of her head or face, suffice it to say, I was completely senseless for a few moments. When she held out her hand to me I embraced it for the last time.” 1

No, this is not a post about horror films or melodramas, although the opening quote might lead you to think it is.

This also is not a post about human reactions to difficult situations or the  crude exaggerations of yellow journalism.

Instead, this is a post about history or more precisely, it is a post about “doing” history.  (We’ll leave the quote above dangling in our recent history and come back to it again shortly.)

The “doing” of history is actually a complex conundrum involving many aspects of the word “doing.” Tosh argues that “doing history” largely consists of first gathering many sources, primary and secondary. A researcher might develop an interest in a particular topic or she might have a particular historical question she would like to answer, so she enters the fray and begins her quest. Primary sources she may find range from newspapers of the time to a young woman’s diary filled with musings on love discovered in places as varied as a musty archive to the world wide web. Of course, she also searches for work done by other scholars in her field to see where her research will fit in and how she can join the historiographical conversation.

After the researcher compiles her sources she writes a monograph, a book of original research which then is critiqued by other practicing historians.  The book no doubt also will find a place somewhere, amazon.com most likely, on the internet. It then becomes part of the ever widening network of information that runs edgeless and foundation-less through cyberspace. Someone may “google” the monograph’s topic, and if the author is fortunate, the search engine may “filter it forward” (13) allowing it to land on the first page of the search. The interested reader may then print the findings of the google search which becomes, in and of itself, a piece of history describing the types of articles, books and webpages that are popular on the given topic in our time period. Phew…

But we’re not done.

So now “doing” history must also include the internet and not just for book searches or cultural studies. Documentaries, oral histories, historical images, etc. abound on the web, free and unfettered, and not always done with scholarly research, in fact, very often not.

Which brings us back to our quote dangling uncared for in our recent history. The above quote is taken from the internet. It is not someone’s writing, but we couldn’t tell from just reading it. It is also not a description from a newspaper. It is in fact from one of the largest online data bases of primary source history. It is a quote from the Proceedings of Old Bailey a collection of over 200,000 criminal trials in England from 1674 – 1913. The internet does indeed “do” some mighty fine history.

Tosh, though, would have trouble with my usage of the quote, and for good reason. It is not in context. There is a gap in the record. It reflects my bias for something dramatic (the word I used to search the records was “blood.”) It truly is just dangling out there. But, I think, Cronan might find something in it that might be useful, a story.

William Cronan, the 2012 American Historical Association president, devoted his final presidential address to the Association to the topic of storytelling. In the context of positing the question, “what is the future of history?”, Cronan exhorts his fellow colleagues to venture out of the world of only analyzing monographs among themselves and venture into the world of storytelling for the general public.

Tosh states, “Second, the grand survey is the principal means by which historians fulfill their obligations to the wider public.” (162) Cronan, though, believes that is changing. In a world where there is public doubt as to whether or not to continue supporting the study of history, historians will need to show the public it’s relevancy. Cronan states, “We need to remember the roots of our discipline and be sure to keep telling stories that matter as much to our students and to the public as they do to us.” (5)

As Cronan spoke, I felt myself wanting to say “Yeah, I agree!”

And I do mean spoke.

Before I began reading the handout, I decided to do something I learned in another class and look up the author before reading his work. So, I sidled up to my computer, opened my search engine, googled ‘William Cronan,’ found a link to his speech, clicked on it and listened.

Thus did I “do” history.


1 Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 05 September 2014), September 1812, trial of FRANCIS EVANS (t18120916-52).



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4 Responses to “Doing” History

  1. Laura


    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. In fact, I think you took a page from William Cronon’s book and told a story and it drew me in and held my interest. Great job! I think what stuck out to me most this week was this idea of an uncertain future for history. It is frightening to think that “doing” history has become so simplistic and requires a simple search using Google or another similar search engine. What then, should we do as historians to combat this? Is there anything we really can do? Or do we simply embrace the digital age and keep telling the stories that make history so dynamic and interesting? Obviously, these are not easy questions and truthfully, there are most likely no real answers to them. As historians, I suppose we must just keep chugging along and hope for the best in a future now dominated by too much information and too easy access to it.

    • faithskiles

      Thank you Laura for the encouraging words!

      It is unsettling to believe that history is struggling to find it’s place in the new fast-paced internet world. But you know, I have confidence, that people like you, like others in our program, will step up to the plate and figure out this “brave new world.”

  2. saraevenson

    I agree with Laura–what fun to read! Your comment about yellow journalism, though, particularly struck me. As we know, yellow journalism is characterized by sensationalism or outright incorrect information. To what extent can history fall into the same traps and pitfalls as yellow journalism? By not properly analyzing our sources, we can so easily showcase misinformation. Or, perhaps even worse, we can tell a story like Cronon encourages, yet in doing so sensationalize our data to the point that we render our sources meaningless. I suppose there is a balance to be struck, and an ever-evolving conversation to be had!

  3. picasso13

    I, too, really enjoyed reading this post–not only for its engaging and interesting thoughts–but because it addressed some of my concerns regarding Weinberger’s book (particularly his use of the term expertise). Perhaps, rather than any need for traditional expertise, my concern is with a certain level of coherence that seems to fall short in much internet work/scholarship. Faith’s example of her own use of technology as a tool that may change her scholarship, but not obliterate its cohesiveness, helps me to consider better possibilities for what I consider the overwhelming dump of information, the internet.

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