The proliferation of websites, blogs and tweets is re-shaping the practice of history at large. This is a good place to reflect on the significance of these not-so-new electronic media for the ways in which people relate to the past.
We need a forum where we can pool our experience of the creative potential of new media to realise History Workshop’s original ambitions – for the sharing of historical knowledge – in a new time; and where we might temper the excitement of the new with some critical (and appreciative) reflection.
Blogging is now a routine feature of both academic life and political activism in many parts of the world: while many bloggers argue that it has an innately radical potential, highlighting values of sharing and transparency, it is clear that blogs come in a wide variety of forms.
In the University world, for example, there is increasing support for the use of blogging as an adjunct to conventional funded research projects, especially postgraduate research: hence the new History Blogging Project. Looking elsewhere, in the heritage sector for example, blogging has become a routine part of public engagement. The Science Museum’s Stories from the Stores provides a good example.
One of the features of many research blogs is that, over time, they can become useful sources of information as well as opinion and debate: guides to some of the pressing issues in a field, as well as places where key resources may be highlighted. One of my personal favourites is Michael Robinson’s Time to Eat the Dogs, a consistently interesting blog on science, history and exploration.
Here are a couple of other examples of blogs, both concerned with urban history and memory:
Paul Dobraszczyk’s RagPicking History site (a blog on ‘unearthing hidden places and pasts’) is devoted to reflections on the ghostly presence of the past in the hidden spaces of the modern city
Bradley Garrett’s exuberant Place Hacking blog celebrates the contemporary phenomenon of ‘urban exploration’, linking adventurous expeditions undertaken by enthusiasts to ideas about the activation of urban memory.
In their concerns with memory, place and the built environment, and with ‘unofficial’ knowledge, these last two blogs have some affinities to the writings of historians like Raphael Samuel: in their form, they exploit the visual potential of the medium, and also extend the possibilities for a more participatory kind of history-making. They have also been consciously designed as partners – alter egos? – to more conventional academic projects. Clearly blogging is not the same as writing an academic paper. But these blogs work as notes and drafts – as open scrap-books – the crucial point being that they are shared and (hopefully) discussed much more widely.
More iconoclastic souls may prefer blogs which are not tied explicitly to scholarly research. For example, How to be a Retronaut? (strapline: ever feeling you’re living in the wrong time?), a kind of visual time-machine designed to entertain: history as playground. It contains some striking archival film and photographs – usually without much context, or rather the context is created (or not) by the extensive comments these images and clips provoke. Not to everyone’s taste perhaps, but this is history in conversation – not a free space, or even an electronic coffee house, but a busy space of encounter and exchange.
I am sure readers will have their own favourites – it would be good to hear about them.