Tag Archives: public history

Historical Literacy and Good Faith in Public History

The two pieces from “Writing History in the Digital Age” were really interesting to me.  In “I Nevertheless Am a Historian”: Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers,” Leslie Madsen-Brooks considers “the intersection of ‘the public’ with historical practice” and when and how professional historians might intervene.  In “The Historian’s Craft, Popular Memory, and Wikipedia,” Robert S Wolff looks specifically at the moral economy of Wikipedia as it manifested in the edits of the page “Origins of the American Civil War.” As a (very desultory) Wikipedian, I expected that I’d be really interested in writing about the Wolff piece, but as much as I liked it, I was more drawn to the Madsen-Brooks article.

All the readings this week were interested in how the public interacts with history on the internet, but these in particular were about members of the public as the makers of historical claims.  It’s a little bit challenging, because the inclusiveness of digital humanities is really important to me. Cohen and Rosenzweig discuss speed of access and the acquisition of new audiences while critiquing the potential passivity of computers. Blevins, too, writes about democratizing access to the past and engaging the public. Of course, you really know the public is engaged when they write about something, not just read about it, and in the case of history in particular, I think it’s really important for the public to critically engage with it. Public discussion of history is definitely a good thing! But I’ve also come more and more to realize that when we think about public engagement with information, we also have to ask what happens when irresponsible conspiracy theorists with an axe to grind decide that they want to engage, too.

Madsen-Brooks addresses this question when she writes about the myth of “black Confederates,” who supposedly served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War (this, as Madsen-Brooks hastens to clarify, is not at all the case).  She argues that the myth comes from shallow, decontextualized readings of primary sources made available online; readers of these documents jump to unjustified conclusions in their haste to support their position. This myth has gone so far as to be printed in a Virginia textbook in 2010, so it is doing real harm.  (In contrast, Wolff notes that Wikipedia can successfully exclude claims that are not supported by sources, so in this case, Wikipedia has done a better job than at least one textbook!).

Additionally, the expertise of professional historians might not be valued.  In the case that Madsen-Brooks describes, the status of professional historians might even cost someone credibility. The communities in which the notion of the “black Confederate” circulates hold conspiracy theories about the suppression of this narrative and dismiss credentials as “showing some papers” and institutes of higher education as “centers of indoctrination.” Madsen-Brooks notes that engaging with these communities is likely a waste of time and instead suggests that historians address themselves to more mainstream audiences.

However, what I really like about this piece is that despite her focus on a group that is misusing historical information, Madsen-Brooks still supports the efforts of the public in grappling with sources, looking at history, and even calling themselves historians. Instead of a strike against public history, she sees this as an indicator of the need for historical literacy.

I was excited about this, because I’m seeing some parallels between historical literacy and information literacy. The Association for College and Research Libraries puts out a document they call the Framework for Information Literacy, and I’m tempted to call it the new Framework because it’s a significant shift from their previous rhetoric about information literacy, but it’s not really new anymore. In any case, this document argues that information literacy is about understanding how authors gain authority, how information is produced, circulated, and becomes part of a larger conversation, and how the process of inquiry proceeds. Madsen-Brooks is interested in historiography, which (and actual historians, please correct me on this!) studies the documents from which our understanding of history proceeds. Although she doesn’t define historical literacy in any detail in the piece, I am sure that it involves, at least partly, understanding “information creation as a process,” not to mention how “authority is constructed and contextual” (to quote the Framework).

Now the question is: is she (and am I) being naïve about this? And I’m not sure. Clearly, in the example she cites, there are some people who are not learning about history in good faith. They are looking for evidence to support their enthusiasm for the American Confederacy, and are sure to find it whether it’s there or not.

But I think any plan for educating people about the use of information can break down with bad faith.  Like Madsen-Brooks, I think it’s still important to do this work for the people who can engage with it in good faith.