One of my best friends and I have a tendency to reminisce about our shared experiences. During these (sometimes admittedly nostalgic) moments of looking back, I am always amazed at the different things that have stood out for each of us – a telling word, gesture, expression that I or she would not have ever recalled without the presence of the other.

In a way, then, my friend and I help make each other’s history more complete by remembering details that the other has forgotten. In a way too, it means that the past – or that particular version being remembered in bits and pieces – becomes quite spontaneous for us, entirely dependent on the course of the conversation, on the ebb and flow of memory on that particular day. Reminiscing about the same experience with my friend years later, I find that other aspects surface; the past is, one might say, renewed and re-created in each instance of remembrance, a mental landscape that is both familiar and yet full of surprising colour too.

I think one of the interesting aspects of conducting oral history interviews – which I had the privilege of doing recently with one of the former staff members at a local health care institution – is observing that very organic and spontaneous process of memory in play. While I, of course, did not share in any experiences of my interviewee, bringing only my knowledge of certain aspects of the history of the institution to the table, it was interesting to see how certain memories surfaced for her based on the flow of the conversation.

My understanding of this institution’s history informed the questions that I prepared. Yet the interview was by no means confined to these questions. They became starting points, triggering memories of other aspects of my interviewee’s experience – ones that I had not thought in advance to ask about and perhaps ones that she had not revisited until that moment in time. Another day, another interviewer, would undoubtedly bring other memories to the surface, revealing new pieces of a multifaceted history that can be tapped and reconfigured in so many ways.

And speaking about fragments of the past, I left the interview with an unexpected piece of history – literally. My interviewee was excited and eager to give me a brick that she had kept from the first building of her former work place, constructed in the late 19th century. Embedded with the shape of an animal, it now sits at the foot of my desk, a tangible piece of the past that stands in contrast to the transience and spontaneity of memory.

dream

Steveston, British Columbia

Photography is one of those activities that I can lose myself completely in. The hours I spend on it is time freely given (and hardly felt). Although I’ve been lucky enough to capture a few photographs that I’m pleased with (including the one above, which was modestly granted an honorable mention in the Geography Department’s fundraising contest for United Way), I’ve always considered myself just a tinkerer of sorts. A dabbler, if you will, whose yearning to be “artistic” has been mostly helped by technology. (I credit my Nikon camera completely for any good shots.)

* * * * *

As it turns out, the digital age is apparently very amenable to those with tinkering and dabbling tendencies.

That, at least, was the (hopeful) sense that I got from reading Jeff Howe’s article on “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.” In it, Howe traces the ways in which companies are tapping into “the latent talent of the crowd.” He brings up the example of iStockphoto, a company that sells images shot by amateur photographers – those who do not mind (who, in fact, I’m guessing, would be thrilled about) making a little bit of money doing what they already do in their spare time: take pictures.

According to Howe, the increasing affordability of professional-grade cameras and the assistance of powerful editing software like Photoshop means that the line between professional and amateur work is no longer so clear-cut. Add to that the sharing mechanisms of the Internet, and the fact that photographs taken by amateurs sell for a much lower price than those of professionals, and it seems inevitable that some ingenious person would have thought up a way to apply crowdsourcing to stock photography sooner or later.

Howe provides an even more striking example of how the expertise of the crowd is being plumbed these days. Corporations like Procter and Gamble are turning to science-minded hobbyists and tinkerers to help them solve problems that are stumping their R&D departments. Howe mentions the website InnoCentive as one example of the ways in which companies with a problem and potential problem-solvers are finding each other on the web: the former post their most perplexing scientific hurdles on the site and anyone who is part of the network can then take a stab at solving the problem. If they do, they are finely compensated. And a good number, in fact, do. According to InnoCentive’s chief scientific officer, Jill Panetta, 30% of all problems posted on their website have been solved. That is, to quote Panetta’s words, “30 percent more than would have been solved using a traditional, in-house approach.”

What’s intriguing about all of this is the fact that the solvers, as Howe says, “are not who you might expect.” They may not necessarily have formal training in the particular field in which the problem arises; their specialty may lie in another area altogether. Yet, it is this very diversity of expertise within the crowd of hobbyists that contributes to the success of such networks as InnoCentive. As Howe puts it, “the most efficient networks are those that link to the broadest range of information, knowledge, and experience.” The more disparate the crowd, in other words, the stronger the network. [1] I love the ironies of the digital age.

* * * * *

I’ve been wondering lately about whether history could benefit at all from the diverse knowledge and background of the crowd, whether crowdsourcing – posting a problem or request out in the virtual world in the hopes that someone might have the expertise to be able to fulfill it – could apply to a non-scientific discipline.

In other words, would a History version of InnoCentive work? A network where historical researchers could poll the crowd for information or materials or insight to help fill research gaps…where they could tap into the memories, artifacts, anecdotes, records, ephemera, (and even the ways people understand the past) of a diverse group and thereby possibly access information that might have never made it into the archives for formal preservation? How would the writing and construction of history change if, instead of primarily drawing upon the 5 to 10% of all records that ever make their way into an archives, researchers could tap into the personal archives of a disparate crowd made up of the “broadest range of information, knowledge, and experience”? (Let us put aside, for the moment, the issues of the integrity of the record and its provenance when we talk about “personal archives.” I realize that the shoebox in the attic is not nearly as reassuring a sight as the Hollinger box of the archives.) It seems probable to me that some of the 90 to 95% of records that never make their way into an archival institution are still extant, and that there could be valuable research material in them that could very well change one’s argument about the past. Would crowdsourcing be one way to get at that material?

* * * * *

P.S. Of course, I just realized that I’m raising the above questions without considering a crucial aspect in all the examples of crowdsourcing that Howe mentioned: money. Those who answered the call – whether the amateur photographer or the scientific tinkerer – were paid for their services (ranging from a dollar all the way to an impressive $25,000). To pay someone for a piece of history raises a whole other set of questions…

__________________________

[1] Jeff Howe, “The Rise of Crowdsourcing,” Wired, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/crowds.html.

(Or: One Disgruntled User’s Frustrations with Printers)

From the moment that I laid eyes on it, I should have known that I was in for trouble. After all, as the old saying goes, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

* * * * *

Here is how the story goes.

Back in September, I decided to purchase a printer. I’m the kind of person who finds reading on the computer for extended periods of time difficult. Despite numerous attempts to read on-screen, I still prefer the physicality of text. My eyes find pleasure and relief in the printed word. (You’ll not, in other words, find me curling up with a Kindle any time soon.)

Anyways, back in September, after a great deal of difficulty that involved no less than lugging a large demo Epson printer on the bus and accidentally denting it a few times during my trip home (it was box-less, carried in two plastic bags, and ridiculously heavy), I managed to transport and set up this beast of a printer in my apartment. It was an all-in-one contraption, able to scan, fax, print, and copy in colour. And it was, amazingly, only $34.99 at Best Buy. A veritable deal.

Within a few weeks, I had used up the complementary black ink and had to purchase a new cartridge, which ran out in a ridiculously short amount of time (even though I bought the “heavy usage,” i.e. more costly, one). In mid-November, the black ink had run out again. After dishing out yet another $25 and installing the new cartridge, I discovered that the complementary colour ink – which I had used to print, perhaps, five documents all term – had somehow run out as well. That’s when I realized that the Age of the New Printers means that everything shuts down when the colour ink is deemed to be empty. The machine’s printing capabilities simply cease to function. All the amount of black ink in the world will not get it to print a single page.

As it was near the end of the term, I simply decided to print all documents at school rather than deal with the fuss – and cost – of getting new ink. In hindsight, a perspective which all historians will always have at their disposal, that was a mistake.

* * * * *

About a week ago, I finally had a chance to pick up some colour ink cartridges (the kind for “moderate usage” only), installed them eagerly into my dusted-off printer, and looked forward to the convenience that modern technology would again afford. (I would not have to go to the computer lab at all hours now just to print readings.)

That’s when I realized that modern technology does not always work in one’s favour. The document I printed, which was simply set in black, came out starkly, aggravatingly, white. The black ink cartridge must have dried out over Christmas break. So, it appeared that I had just shelled out $35 for colour ink in order to be able to access black ink that was no longer operative.

This evening, however, I tried to print a document again, in black, just to see if something miraculous might ensue. And it did. The machine managed to cough out a document in black ink. The printout was extremely irregular in quality – numerous lines were missing – but at least the page was no longer blank. Eager (and slightly foolish), I printed the document several more times, thinking perhaps that persistence would pay off. Although the quality did improve, the document was still quite spotty in areas. That’s when (again, eager and foolish), I decided to clean the print heads, despite the warning that this function would consume ink. I then printed a sample document. The result was much better, but still not perfect. However, I discovered with shock that running the cleaning function used up half of the new colour ink cartridges, according to the meter.

I now had two choices:

1) Run another print head cleaning (which would probably use up the rest of the colour ink – of which I had not, in any real sense, used), or

2) Give up on the black ink cartridge completely (which was also unused, except for the test printouts), and shell out more money for black ink.

(Why I didn’t decide to unplug the printer then and there, affix a sign on it that said “Free – completely, utterly free”, and put it out in the hallway of my apartment, is still something I have not answered satisfactorily yet.)

Instead, I had a flash of inspiration. History came to my rescue: I remembered that I had owned an Epson printer before. It had run out of colour ink before. And I had “fooled” it before – by going through all the on-screen steps of installing a new colour cartridge and “charging” the ink, without actually doing so. With the colour ink meter subsequently indicating that it was “full”, I could then finish troubleshooting the problem that I was dealing with at the time, which required, finicky machine that it was, colour ink.

Cheered by this memory of the not-quite-so-smart-nor-sharp-machine, I decided to run another print head cleaning tonight. Sure enough, this nearly “used” up all the remaining colour ink. I printed a few more test documents in black; their quality was improved somewhat, but it was still blanking out at certain lines. I then tried to run one more cleaning function, but the printer told me that I couldn’t – there was not enough colour ink to support it. In fact, the warning of low ink was now replaced with the message that there was no more colour ink. (Apparently, just even attempting to run a print head cleaning uses up the ink, by the printer’s standards.)

Confident, however, that I could fool the machine, I then proceeded to go through the cartridge-replacement steps, clicking the “Finish” button at the end with a flourish. The printer responded by humming and telling me that “ink charging” was occurring. I smiled – and then, I frowned. A box had popped up indicating that the replaced cartridges were, in techno-lingo, “expended.”

In other words – the machine knew. It was telling me that I could not fool it. It could detect that I had not actually fed it anything new, despite my subsequent actions of physically removing and re-inserting the colour ink cartridges, which, I have to add again, were not really used, but were indelibly (and one might even say ingeniously) branded so by the machine. Such crafty labelling had made the colour ink inoperative.

Welcome, friends, to the Age of the (Aggravatingly) Smart Machine.

* * * * *

P.S. Sixty dollars invested into printer cartridges since mid-November and I have still not been able to print one actual document since then for any useful purpose.

If it were still in vogue to be a Marxist historian, I would seriously point to the ridiculously profitable economics underlying printer design as the source of all our (or at least my) present-day ills!

I like words. I like their abundance. Their variety. The different nuances that they contain. I like how a word like “melancholy,” for example, has a slightly different flavour than “forlorn,” or how the word “myth” conveys something deeper – more emotional, more enduring, more fluid – than its neutral variant, “story.”

Now, most of my Public History peers would probably say that I don’t just like words – I like polysyllabic words. I’ll be the first to admit that long-ish and rather atypical words have a tendency to come to me, unbidden, and that I have an equal tendency to utter them aloud, without thinking. This penchant for the polysyllabic has sometimes even gotten me into trouble, won me unintended notoriety among my peers. 😉

As someone studying in the field of Public History, I realize that I have to think especially carefully about the words that I use, not only because using the “wrong” word can alienate a general audience but also because choosing the “right” word involves weighing various needs, such as those of the client and of the audience, as well as my own for precise language and “good” history. So, while I might immediately prefer the word “auspicious” over “lucky” or feel that “appropriated” explains a situation more clearly than “took,” I’m learning to pause and reconsider the effects of my instinctive word choices, and I’m learning to negotiate the sometimes conflicting needs and desires that exist at the micro-level of diction.

What I didn’t expect was to have to consider the machine as an audience as well. And yet that is what Dan Cohen’s blog post has drawn to my attention. In “When Machines are the Audience,” Cohen suggests that the age of machine-readable text means that we’ll need to write a little differently – or at least with the awareness that what we write can be more, or less, visible in a digital environment depending on the words that we use. The implication is that because text can be read by machines and mined using keyword searches, it is better to use precise and even unique terms or tags in related documents, so that the writing can be more easily searched, grouped, or retrieved. Cohen mentions, for example, how coming up with a unique string of words to identify related history websites can facilitate the process of narrowing searches to these sites only, so that relevant research information can be found. He also cites the example of a legitimate, history-related email being marked as spam, because of its unfortunate use of certain words that are high on the list of favorites for spammers. [1]

Looking over the words I used in a recent email to a friend, I’ll confess that terms ranging from “usurp” and “misnomer” to “vignette” and “quadratic” (yes, as in the quadratic equation) made their way in. (You are probably feeling some pity for my friend right now.) However, I’m consoled, and slightly amused, by the fact that what stands out as atypical word usage is precisely what spam filters ignore. At least, in this area, my penchant for the polysyllabic – for what’s seen as the atypical – has some redemptive purpose. 🙂
________________________________

[1] Daniel J. Cohen, “When Machines are the Audience,” Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog, http://www.dancohen.org/blog/posts/when_machines_are_the_audience.

Intricacy

In my archives class this past term, I had the opportunity to learn more about the possibility and potential of the Web for the promotion of history. Throughout the course, our professor, Dr. Don Spanner, introduced us to many interesting archival and historical resources freely available online, such as a database that provides access to late-19th century Canadian county atlases, so useful for genealogical research, as well as a terrific “meta” site that sums up the “Best of the Web” in terms of heritage-related web design.

As well, each student in the class was required to analyze an effective website created by, or exhibiting a collection from, an archival institution and prepare a 20-minute presentation on it, discussing such aspects as design, usability, content, and intended audience. I have to confess that although I have known, in an ideas-sense, that the Web offers new and exciting possibilities for the presentation of the past, I have not, in fact, plumbed its depths. I’ve only really skimmed its virtual surface, having been inclined to delve into history books more often than the History Web. Consequently, listening to the presentations of my peers, as well as learning about new sites from Don’s lectures, was a truly eye-opening experience.

* * * * *

I did not know, for example, that humour was something that archives preserve. Yet Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a unique collection entitled The Weird and Wacky in their wonderful online photography exhibit, Framing Canada, which Dave presented on. The collection certainly captures, as LAC’s introduction points out, some of the more quirky and humorous moments in history. (I particularly liked the rather incongruent photo of a very young boy posing with his rooster while smoking a cigarette!)

Not only the whimsical quality, but the richness and abundance of historical images, photographs, and artwork available on the Web are also astonishing. Sophie introduced us to a fascinating and colourful website created by La Bibliothèque nationale de France that delves into the allegorical world of medieval bestiaries. At this site, explanatory text is kept to a minimum. What takes centre stage are the colourful, interpretive images of animals as conceived of, and understood by, those living in the medieval age. In a pre-literate society, images must have played an important didactic role and I think such medieval artwork lend themselves perfectly to the environment of the Web, where the visual requires more emphasis than the textual. (We’ve all groaned, I’m sure, at text-heavy sites which show little regard for the audience’s needs and expectations.) Also, as Sophie discussed, this digital exhibit presents a completely different side to medieval history – it is history realized through pictures, one that is much more palatable and compelling to a general audience.

Melissa too selected an interesting website focusing on images. She presented on the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery, an extensive and searchable online resource that contains an astonishing number of freely accessible images – more than 640,000, all of which have been digitized from the library’s vast and diverse collections. As Don had commented, such abundance and access could not even have been dreamed of a short time ago. As part of her presentation, Melissa showed us the photographs taken by Lewis Hine, a late-19th/early 20th-century American photographer, available on the NYPL’s Digital Gallery. Having just discovered Hine’s work myself in connection with the website I presented on, I was thrilled to see more of his captivating photographs, poignant picture-stories that revealed the starkness of child labour (such as this unforgettable image of a young girl in a factory).

In addition to the plethora of images available online, databases containing all sorts of interesting historical information abound on the Web. Suppose you would like to look at service records of those who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in World War One – LAC, as I’ve learned from one of my archives reference assignments, has already anticipated this interest and created a searchable database providing access to these records as well as scanned images of actual Attestation papers of CEF soldiers. Or suppose you are interested in the grittiness of social history, say, the history of crime – several universities in the UK have joined forces to develop a website that provides access to the court proceedings of men and women who were tried in London’s central criminal court, the Old Bailey. This website, presented by Angela, contains records for close to 200,000 criminal trials held between 1674 all the way to 1913. Such easy access to such interesting and extensive records of everyday history hardly seems possible without the age of digitized and networked data.

Some other websites that my peers presented on have also convinced me that there has likely been no better time to be a History or Social Studies teacher than the present. The kinds of resources that have been made available online for elementary and secondary teachers in the humanities are remarkable. Once again LAC’s efforts are to be commended: as Sarah has shown, LAC has created an online Learning Centre geared for teachers and students, complete with educational resources and tools, like lesson plans, activities, quizzes, games, and research skills development guides, as well as providing access to primary source documents reflecting Canadian history and culture.

Tom also explored the potential of the Web for educational purposes by examining the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History website, a creative site that connects history with detective work. Its creators have identified various mysteries in Canadian History that were never resolved, have pulled together primary source documents about these cases, and urge the user to come up with his or her own conclusions in a “who dunnit?” fashion. The motivation behind the site is the perceptive idea, as stated on their “About Us” page, that “students can be drawn into Canadian history and archival research through the enticement of solving historical cold crimes.”

What is particularly wonderful about such educational websites like the Learning Centre and the Unsolved Mysteries site is the ways in which they are teaching students not only certain aspects of Canadian History but also about how good history is done.

“Original documents,” states the “Introduction” page on the Learning Centre, “bring Canadian history and culture directly to students, allowing them to examine evidence from the past and decide for themselves what really happened.”

In a similar vein, the creators of the Unsolved Mysteries site, in upbeat language addressed directly to the student-user, introduce the idea of doing history, right from the outset. They state on the homepage:

Please check your preconceptions about “History” at the door. “Doing History” is not memorizing dates, politicians and wars. That is all just context. “Doing History” is the work of the detective, the gumshoe, the private eye — and we need you to take on this job. All we are left with are traces, artifacts, clues, hints and allegations. Putting those together, weighing the evidence, assessing the credibility of witness accounts, sorting out contradictions, and showing how your solution to the mysteries is the best of all the alternatives — that is “Doing History”.

As someone whose interest in the past arose only in university, after I learned that there was more to history than just the straightforward, textbook versions offered in highschool (which reduced the past to dry summaries of factual information, devoid of the colour, controversy, and contestation that are the stuff of history), I am amazed at the sophistication of current educational websites that seek to teach students early on how to think critically about the past. The potential of the Web for the promotion not only of history – i.e. the details about past events, people, ideas, etc. – but of historiography – i.e. the ways in which histories are constructed and contested; the process of how we come to understand and re-construct a past that is only ever available to us in fragments – is truly exciting.

In learning about the different sites available on the web, I’ve seen firsthand how effective design – one which attracts the user; presents information in a colourful, consistent, and accessible way; is easy to navigate; and includes interactive elements – is crucial in enticing the visitor to explore and to return to the site. In the virtual world, form is certainly just as crucial as content. Links to the many colourful and effective sites that Don introduced us to can be found on his course website (under “Calendar of Topics”, then “Lecture Outline” for whichever topic chosen). In particular, Don’s lecture on Digital Outreach contains links to exhibits that display the ingenuity and creativity flourishing on the web. The Digital Vaults website, created by National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), especially had all of the students exclaiming over its attractive and interactive Flash component.

Primary source documents, removed from their traditional archival setting and reconfigured in a slick digital environment, have never appeared more compelling.

* * * * *

For my own presentation, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a terrific digital exhibit, also created by NARA (in conjunction with the Foundation for the National Archives), entitled “Eyewitness: American Originals from the National Archives.” This online exhibit presents twenty-six first-hand accounts of dramatic moments in history, from 1775 to 1979, that were in some way connected to Americans, usually notable ones like Thomas Jefferson, Lady Bird Johnson, and President John F. Kennedy. The exhibit features diverse archival materials held by NARA and its Presidential Libraries, ranging from diaries, letters, memos, and transcripts to photographs and audio and visual recordings. Developed as an extension of a physical exhibit that was on display in the National Archives library in June 2006, the digital exhibit exists in both Flash and HTML formats.

The Flash version of the website, upon which I based my presentation, is very compelling. Before I even read the accompanying text, I was drawn to its visual design. The creators of the site have selected excellent photographs and artwork for the Introduction page and for each of the eyewitness accounts. They have also taken care to integrate explanatory text with the images in a way that does not detract from the picture on display (see, for example, the John Lewis account). From the modern colour scheme with its use of negative (in this case, black) space to the simple navigation and self-explanatory icons to the consistent and balanced layout of visual and textual items, the design makes the exploration of the website’s content irresistible. Add to that the ability to zoom in on primary source documents for enhanced clarity, to read transcriptions of audio and visual recordings as they play, and to access the site in HTML (for older browser formats), and we have a site that is accessible to a very wide audience.

If the website is visually compelling, it is also textually so. The introduction to each of the eyewitness accounts is very well-written, at times including the kind of vivid, sensory details that one might find in a work of fiction. The quotes that are excerpted, often appearing on the left hand panel within each account, are also well-selected, often dramatic, exciting, or tense in tone. They compel the visitor to explore the archival materials further, to read the document containing the quoted words in full. The explanatory captions are also well-composed, informative without ever descending into the “dry-history-textbook” tone.

In revisiting the Eyewitness site, it strikes me how much the development of history-related websites requires a truly conceptual, non-linear approach. Unlike an article or a book, a documentary or a film, the content on history websites can be viewed in countless configurations. This means that every section of the site – perhaps even every page – needs to be self-explanatory and self-contained to a certain extent. It also means that editing online content cannot simply consist of moving orderly through the site to make sure the information makes sense in a linear fashion. Although creators of a site may have a certain order in mind, there is no guarantee that it will be adhered to by postmodern users (with our compulsive clicking/browsing habits and short attention span!). Also writing history for an online environment poses new challenges, especially if text is overlaid on images to create visual interest (as it is in the Eyewitness site) or if it is limited to the size of the screen (for instance, there is no need to scroll in the Eyewitness site, which is a great design feature but poses stricter limits to how much can be written in the introduction to each account).

The need to consider a multitude of factors in website development – such as the choice of colours, fonts, and layout, the selection of archival materials that must be not only historically but also visually compelling, the requirement to write in an engaging manner within the limits of the design, the recognition that users do not acquire content in a linear fashion – makes the presentation of history on the Web extremely challenging. Yet, its multifaceted character is also what makes it so very interesting – and reminds me about why I decided to pursue Public History in the first place.

Commemorating the Uncomfortable

The same week that I learned about the history of Green Gables in light of the bigger picture of national park development (discussed in my previous post), my friend Ellen sent me another email. It contained a link to an article on The Globe and Mail, one that I have only had a chance to read recently.

The article’s title is significant: it promises to reveal “The heartbreaking truth about Anne’s creator.” Its author, Kate Macdonald Butler, is the granddaughter of Lucy Maud Montgomery. In the article, Butler shares how her grandmother suffered from immense depression. Despite the success that Montgomery achieved, Butler writes that “she was isolated, sad and filled with worry and dread for much of her life,” an experience borne in part from having married a man who also suffered from mental illness as well as from the restrictions that she faced, as a clergyman’s wife and as a mother of three, during a generation which, in Butler’s words, “simply did not acknowledge personal dysfunction, let alone seek help.” [1]

While the details of Montgomery’s depression have been generally known, Butler reveals a solemn fact about its extent which her family has kept to themselves for over half a century: that Lucy Maud Montgomery, whose writings speak of enduring beauty, hope, and renewal, ended her own life in 1942, at the age of 67.

I was shocked to learn about this other history, yet another sad component to this PEI story – but I was also moved. I was even encouraged, not because of the sobering truth behind Montgomery’s death but because of the reasons that motivated Butler to share this truth.

Butler mentions that the Globe’s recent series on mental health caused her to consider depression and its effects on her own family’s history. Additionally, the 100th year anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables, which has inspired commemorative events around the world, convinced her and her family that it was the right time to share the truth about the famous author.

Here commemoration – so often just a tapestry woven from golden threads of celebration, of nostalgia, of selective memory; an act that usually conceals, rather than reveals, the unattractive aspects of the past – becomes the unlikely backdrop for Montgomery’s descendants to share a more complete, if uncomfortable, history about one of Canada’s most revered authors. In sharing this difficult story, Butler hopes to help dispel some of the stigma and myths surrounding mental illness – that it only “happens to other people, not us – and most certainly not to our heroes and icons” – as well as to offer her conviction that secrecy is not the way to go about dealing with this enduring condition of humanity. In breaking the silence, she also wishes to help those currently going through similar situations: “I hope,” she expresses, “that by writing about my grandmother now there might be less secrecy and more awareness that will ease the unnecessary suffering so many people experience as a result of such depressions.” [2]

I was encouraged (if a little melancholy) after reading this article because it suggests that commemoration need not only be acts of selective memory, warm and fuzzy half-pictures of a past that is too often re-constructed to suit the needs of the people doing the remembering. The appearance of this article, indeed of the Globe’s series itself, also suggests the changing perceptions of mental illness and the possibility for more openness in dealing with this difficult subject. The recent focus on this subject is also particularly relevant, as our Public History class is working on creating a digital exhibit to present the history of a particular asylum, and I am reminded that how we discuss mental illness – down to our very word choices – carries with it a certain social responsibility and a need for respect and understanding.

I was also mostly encouraged by the public response to this article. Many of the comments posted by Globe readers thanked Butler for revealing the truth of Montgomery’s history. Many of them also included an honest and thoughtful reflection on how her writings touched them personally. Thus, far from being discomfited by the truth of the past, readers affirmed that their appreciation of Montgomery’s writings was not in any way diminished, that, in fact, their admiration for her novels, and for the author herself, only increased when they realized the duress under which Montgomery was writing.

I think this response supports well Wilton Corkern’s remark, in the particular context of heritage tourism, that “visitors” – and here we can substitute the more general term “people” – “seek authenticity” rather than the sort of safe, non-controversial, predictable, and even inaccurate histories, as Corken has shown, that are often presented in the public realm. [3] And I think people seek out such authentic history not because of a voyeuristic impulse or what sociologists have called a “fascination with the abject” (though, granted, this can be the case too at times, as in the appeal, I think, of “dark tourism,” outlined by John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, who show how death has become a commodity, readily packaged and sold at historic tourist sites [4]). I think people seek out and respond to authentic history because it shows us how those from another time and place still face some of the same, enduring problems of humanity. It reveals to us the ways in which we are not, after all, so very different from those who came before us. It is, I think, the same appeal that classical literature commands, what makes it stand the test of time to become those stories that, in the words of one writer, “never finish telling their tales.”

Søren Kierkegaard, an influential 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian, once pondered the question: what is a poet? He concluded that “a poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music.” I have only ever heard the beautiful music of Montgomery’s writings. To be more fully aware of her secret sufferings, and even of her untimely end, only makes the poetry of her work that much more moving.

________________________________

[1] Kate Macdonald Butler, “The heartbreaking truth about Anne’s creator,” The Globe and Mail.com, September 27, 2008, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080919.wmhmontgomery0920/BNStory/mentalhealth.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Wilton Corken, “Heritage Tourism: Where Public and History Don’t Always Meet,” American Studies International 42, 2&3 (2004): 7-16. The quote is from page 16.

[4] John J. Lennon and Malcolm Foley, Dark Tourism (London: Continuum, 2000), 1-12.

Constructing Green Gables

Several weeks ago, my friend Ellen emailed me to say that she was re-reading Anne of Green Gables in light of the 100th anniversary of its publication this year, and to suggest – because, I’ll confess, we are both ardent fAnnes of Montgomery’s creation – that we ought to watch the movie together again when I returned to Vancouver.

A little history is perhaps in order here. I discovered Montgomery’s Anne series at the age of 11 and fell in love with these stories from the outset, not only with the humorous adventures of the spirited redhead but also with the beauty, hope, and longing that Montgomery’s writings evoked. They were the formative books of my childhood and youth. I grew up wanting to taste raspberry cordial and plum pudding, uttering phrases whose meanings I only vaguely discerned, like “castle in the air” and “depths of despair,” and mourning change while keeping one eye yet open to its tragic romance.

These books also immersed me in late 19th/early 20th century Canada; they provided one of my earliest glimpses into Maritime history and, before I understood yet what it meant to be a Canadian, they connected me to other young (and not so young) Canadians across the country. We were, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s formulation, [1] an imagined community of Anne-appreciators; whatever our ethnic backgrounds, we shared a culture centred on a romantic version of rural life in PEI at the turn of the century.

Receiving Ellen’s email that day made me smile wryly. Its timing was rather ironic: I had just started reading Alan MacEachern’s chapter, “The Greening of Green Gables: Establishing Prince Edward Island National Park, ca. 1936” for my Public History course. The chapter itself begins by noting a humorous irony – that of how Green Gables didn’t actually have green-coloured gables – as a starting point to consider deeper and more troubling ironies that characterized the development of PEI’s National Park in the 1930s.

In the course of the chapter, Dr. MacEachern traces the constructed and contested nature of the park, from the public debates over its physical coordinates and touristic appeal, to the subsequent disenfranchisement of long-time residents whose farms were unfortunate enough to fall in the strip of land unilaterally acquired by the federal Park Branch to constitute the National Park. No one who lived in the designated area had the right to remain; their homes were not spared. “The Parks Branch,” writes MacEachern, “tore down the houses and barns of families who had worked and lived there for generations.” The one building that was spared – and not only spared, but restored beyond the ordinary upkeep of PEI farms – was Green Gables. [2]

I was surprised, and a little dismayed, to learn about this other history connected to the house that had inspired Montgomery. It is, as MacEachern has shown, a revealing history of expropriation, of how tourism interests trumped individual rights. It is also a history that emphasizes the social construction of parks, highlighting its unnatural characteristics, its superimposed boundaries that cut across homes and lives with little regard. It’s a history, I imagine, that is not and has not been told by tour guides to the many visitors that travel, and have travelled, to Cavendish each year to see Green Gables. MacEachern’s chapter reveals well the irony of this story, how a house connected to a work of fiction – “never Lucy Maud Montgomery’s home, and never more than a real home to a fictional character” [3] – has endured in what became Prince Edward Island National Park when those of its very real inhabitants did not.

And, I would add, there is another sad irony that emerges in this history: the way in which Green Gables and its surrounding area have been preserved and developed is hardly in keeping with the spirit of Montgomery’s writings. The site’s tendency to become a tourist destination avec “the obnoxious amusements” [4] – from the golf course that the Parks Branch developed back in the 30s, which encircled the house and “overwhelmed all pre-existing landscape, including Green Gables itself,” [5] to the present day “circus” feel of the place, to use the description of one of my disapproving friends in the Maritimes – surely does not give visitors an authentic sense of the heart and soul of Montgomery’s books, even though these works have been the basis, to some extent, of much of this preservation and development.

It’s probably not too much of a conjecture to say that Lucy Maud Montgomery, before her death in 1942, was likely very dismayed to find out about the touristic transformation of Green Gables under the National Parks Branch. I imagine particular horror on her side over the discovery that the holes of the newly established golf course were named after her book, with titles, according to MacEachern, like “Haunted Wood” and “Ann Shirley” (Ann without an e!). [6]

The intrusion of commerce into what ought to have remained beautiful and sacred in Montgomery’s eyes would have, I’m certain, brought the author grief. After all, her most famous character goes through a similar situation. Anne is horror-stricken when one of her stories wins a contest sponsored by a baking powder company. This story, initially rejected by a national magazine, had been secretly entered in the contest by her well-meaning but misguided best friend, who had simply inserted the requisite line to advertise baking powder in the story. Despite winning substantial prize money, Anne feels that all that was beautiful and innocent has been desecrated, tainted by commercial interests:

I feel as if I were disgraced forever. What do you think a mother would feel like if she found her child tattooed over with a baking powder advertisement? I feel just the same. I loved my poor little story, and I wrote it out of the best that was in me. And it is sacrilege to have it degraded to the level of a baking powder advertisement. [7]

It is sad that the interests of tourism have outweighed the importance of authenticity in the presentation of key aspects of Cavendish’s past. The stories of those inhabitants affected by the development of Prince Edward Island National Park – both their lives and experiences before expropriation as well as their struggles against it – are an important part of the historical record. Yet, it is unlikely that visitors to Cavendish will ever hear about this other history. What they will learn about is characterized by a sad irony: in making a pilgrimage to see the actual place and town that inspired a very real author, what they’re mostly seeing is the influence of tourism on the physical landscape, rather than the authentic presentation of the spirit and beliefs of the author who was moved by it.

________________________________

[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London and New York: Verso, 2006), 6.

[2] Alan MacEachern, Natural Selections: National Parks in Atlantic Canada, 1935-1970, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990), 73-97. The quote is from page 73.

[3] Ibid., 87.

[4] F.H.H. Williamson, deputy commissioner of parks, quoted in ibid., 82. Williamson’s idea was to develop PEI’s National Park as “a typical seaside resort, sans the obnoxious amusements.”

[5] Ibid., 94.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of the Island (1915), Google Book Search, October 2004, http://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&id=CPVSKM6X5oYC&dq=anne+of+the+island&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=YZ_qEee__a&sig=xB0pm9_jtX27AVPKv1JabuKjN-M&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=4&ct=result#PPA153,M1