“Would a complete chronicle of everything that ever happened eliminate the need to write history?” — St Andrews final exam question in mediaeval history, 1981

“To give an accurate and exhaustive account of that period would need a far less brilliant pen than mine” — Max Beerbohm

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About a year ago, I took a short creative non-fiction course on the topic of writing historical narratives for a general audience. The instructor, Dr. Richard Mackie, emailed the class the above quotes, to stimulate thoughtful reflection about the nature of history and historical writing. (The first quote was actually a question that Dr. Mackie himself encountered as a History student at St. Andrews in the 80s.) These quotes have come to mind lately as I’ve been ruminating about the implications of doing history in a digital age.

The era of the Internet has, I think, made the idea of a “complete chronicle” of our current times more conceivable than ever before. The Web has certainly made it possible for virtually anyone, irrespective of gender, class, ethnicity, etc., to share their thoughts, ideas, photos, videos, even “statuses” (i.e. what one is doing at a precise moment in time) continuously. Provided that all of this electronic data is adequately preserved, there is going to be a vast abundance of information available for anyone a generation or two (or more) down the road who is curious about the interests, opinions, tastes, preoccupations, etc. of ordinary people in our time.

Yet, such information, no matter how detailed, is not the same as history. The chronicling of people’s lives, even on as minute a level as that expressed in an article about “lifelogging” by New Yorker writer, Alec Wilkinson, [1] results only in the production of information. It is the interpretation of that information, the piecing together of disparate parts into a coherent and (hopefully) elegant narrative which pulls out (or, more accurately, constructs) themes and patterns, that transforms it into history, into a meaningful story about the past.

What’s interesting, of course, is that although no historian (I think) would ever claim to write the history on any subject, discussions about the potential of history in the digital age has sometimes suggested the ability for history to be more complete than ever before. The idea of hypertextual history, for instance, where readers of a historical account can click on links leading them to pertinent primary source documents on the topic, say, or to other similar or divergent viewpoints about the particular subject they’re examining, has almost a decentring impact at the same time that it provides more information. It can be easy for readers, I think, to be overwhelmed by the profusion of hyperlinks within a text, and perhaps to never finish reading the actual article to learn the historian’s particular approach to the past.

The beauty of history, I think, is not that it claims to be a complete, exhaustive chronicle that leaves no stone unturned in its examination, but that it presents one angle on the past, a new way of understanding something that is extraordinarily complex and, for that reason, is open to — and I’d even say requires — multiple interpretations. History is, after all, a story as opposed to a record book, a narrative as opposed to mere facts.
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[1] Wilkinson’s interesting article recounts how computer guru Gordon Bell has been involved in a “lifelogging” experiment, in which he wears a Microsoft-developed device called a SenseCam around his neck that takes continual pictures of his day-to-day experience and allows him to record his thoughts at any given point in time if he so wishes. According to Wilkinson, Bell “collects the daily minutiae of his life so emphatically that he owns the most extensive and unwieldy personal archive of its kind in the world.” Alec Wilkinson, “Remember This? A Project to Record Everything We Do in Life,” The New Yorker.com, May 28, 2007, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/05/28/070528fa_fact_wilkinson.

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