Sunday, September 30, 2007

Historical Truth vs. Historical Gossip

Since I began taking university level history courses (and note it was not until that point) it has been ingrained in me that there is no one historical truth, but many historical interpretations. Still, I cannot help but search to find guidelines that will help me to create the most accurate historical interpretations that I can. Elena Cherney addressed some of these issues that have been occupying my thoughts in her article “The Tell-All that Doesn’t” which was featured in last Saturday’s Globe and Mail. [i]

Cherney illustrates that over the years biographers of the famous pianist, Glenn Gould, have collectively kept his lover’s identity secret; it was literally not until a few weeks ago that an article in the Toronto Star identified Cornelia Foss, the wife of the famous American composer Lukas Foss, as Gould’s lover. This article was only written because Foss chose to finally come forward and let the world know that she was the woman who had participated in this great affair. This is the crucial part of the story, because it was Ms. Foss, not the biographers, who finally decided to present the whole story on this public figure.

Cherney makes her opinion on the matter clear as she states, “The unexpected account highlights the striking decision by most Gould scholars to keep his lover’s identity quiet all these years. Ms. Foss’s willingness to be identified opens new avenues of research for Gould scholars that could have been probed years ago – when more sources were alive.” When probing biographers about why they would make this decision, most responded that they refrained from including information that would hurt a living person. This idea was reinforced when the authoritative biographer of Gould, Kevin Bazzana, who shared a wealth of unflattering material on Gould, but left out Ms. Foss and other lovers’ names, explained that he “...did it out of niceness.”

I understand where these biographers are coming from; while one of their subjects is alive it would be hard to be the one to expose their secrets to the rest of the world. At the same time, however, Cherney makes a very good point when she states that the biographers concern about hurt feelings is, “at odds with the biographer’s duty to history: If a name is excluded out of kindness, a piece of the puzzle could be lost forever.”

As much as I understand the biographers' anguish, I agree with Cherney. For one thing, even if the subjects are dead, by revealing a person’s sexual secrets, the writer is always at risk of upsetting family members or descendants who are still living. I think the better way for biographers to decide where to draw the line, is by analyzing whether they are revealing lovers for the sake of a true historical account, or to sensationalize their story. This article made it clear that in today’s society biographers are encouraged to tell all, because it makes their story more marketable and interesting. If the objective, however, is to create an honest historical account, the truth needs to be told, without turning the story into a malicious gossip column.

[i] Elena Cherney, “The Tell-All that Doesn’t,” in The Globe and Mail, Print Edition 22/09/07 Page F9

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Buffy and the Digital Era

When exploring ideas that surround Digital History, I can’t help but think back to one of the original episodes of the popular television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The episode “I Robot...You Jane” aired in mid 1997, and is about an ancient demon who is let loose onto the internet through the digitizing of old books. He then proceeds to gain access to the infinite amounts of information and resources that the World Wide Web has to offer him.

I know that by using the words “vampire slayer” and “demon” I may have lost readers already, but this show highlights very real fears that a lot of people still share today. No one can deny the existence of demons on the internet, such as the hundreds of viruses that are created and unleashed on our computers each day. Furthermore, this episode summarizes two extreme opinions held with regard to technology. The high school Librarian, Rupert Giles, argues against people becoming slaves to technology and proclaims his preference for books. The stereotypical computer nerd Fritz ominously responds, “The printed page is obsolete, information isn’t bound up anymore, it’s an entity, the only reality is virtual, if you are not jacked in you're not alive.” [i]

Watching this episode ten years after it was originally aired, I still find myself conflicted between both of these responses to the digital era. I am concerned about the idea of replacing bound books with digitized copies. Reading for me is more than a mere mental exercise; it is a physical, tactile experience that involves turning, highlighting, and writing notes in the margins of each page. Giles would very much agree with me, as in this same episode he notes the power of the sense of smell that is evoked through the “smelly” experience of reading old books.

That being said, there are many aspects of technology that I have completely embraced. It is because of the invention of DVDs that I am able to watch long past episodes of Buffy whenever I please. I also feel as if my iPod, cell phone, and laptop have become extensions of my body. More importantly, however, is that fact that as an Historian I cannot imagine attempting to study history without the aid of search engines and online databases. There are many journal articles and resources that I never would have read or had easy access to had they not been digitized.

In conclusion, I have decided that similarly to Giles, I am not ready to give up the tactile experience of reading bound books; I truly hope that Libraries never cease to fill their shelves with these wonderfully smelly things, if for nothing else but to leave something tangible for future generations to hold in their hands. I am, however, prepared to continue to open my mind to all that technology has to offer me. After all, my books and computer have been living and working together in perfect harmony on my desk for years.

[i] “I Robot...You Jane,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season One, dir. Stephen Posey, 6 hours, Mutant Enemy Inc., 1997, DVD.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The “Public” Part of Being an Historian

As I begin my graduate school experience I have found myself rather conflicted as I attempt to define the kind of Historian I want to be/become. As a Public Historian, this type of self reflection seems especially important as it will be my job to try to appeal to a large and diverse audience. This itself seems to be a bit of a daunting task, which has been demonstrated quite clearly by the current War Museum Controversy.

The conflict that has erupted in Ottawa at the War Museum in the World War Two section over 67 words written about the British and Commonwealth countries’ “Bomber Command”, demonstrates the challenges the Public Historian will inevitably face; it will always be virtually impossible to please all members of the community, especially when dealing with emotional historical events. The issue is over a panel that explains how the morality and effectiveness of Bomber Command is still being debated today. Canada's National Council of Veterans Associations found the thought that people actually debate this fact to be offensive, and after two years of protests have finally succeeded in convincing the War Museum to re-write the panel. Margret MacMillan, who was asked by the War Museum to read and give her opinion on the Bomber Command panel, stated that the wording was correct, and any adjustments would make Canada appear cowardly.[i]

I share MacMillian’s sentiments and was quite disappointed about the War Museum’s decision. I first became acquainted with the debates that exist among Historians on this topic in my fourth year history class, when after being exposed to extensive literature on World War Two and Bomber Command, it was clear that neither the Historians writing on this topic nor the twenty five students in my class could agree on whether this aspect of the allied strategy was integral to winning the war. In addition, as Brian Gifford explained in his article in The Globe and Mail, not even Veterans agree about the outcomes of Bomber Command; Gifford’s father, who was a fighter pilot in Bomber Command, has become convinced that some of his missions were a mistake.[ii]

Regardless of whether I agree with the outcome at the War Museum, I have realized that it is through my analysis of this single issue that I have begun to better understand my role as a Public Historian. Writing History is not about attempting to paint the most pleasurable picture of the past, but instead it is the Historian’s responsibility to try to present the past to the public in an honest way. Therefore, the type of Historian I aim to be, is one who pleases the public through the presentation of an interesting but balanced view of the past.

[i] “War Museum to Rework Controversial Bomber Panel” in Arts
[ii] Biran Gifford, “The Bombing of Germany”, in The Globe and Mail, Print Edition 31/08/07 Page A14