Monday, September 04, 2006

History soon, but first some site reviews

Italian historian Benedetto Croce argued that without narrative, there can be no history. The facts surrounding events are essential, but the narrative gives them contex, viewpoint, and helps the reader understand the author's version of historical events. Conversely, narrative without facts can not be history, either. We saw examples of both these truisms last Tuesday evening in the "Clio Wired" seminar at GMU. The website dedicated to the two counties involved in the Civil War (am I allowed to say that in Virginia?) is a terrific storehouse of information. The layout, formatted like the structure of a three story museum, gave the viewer a clear and readily understandable way to move between types of information and the relevant time periods. We had a roomful of historians, myself included, just itching to work with all that impressive raw data. But that was just the problem-it was raw data, like the cellophane-wrapped trays of meat in the butcher's display case. It will not be "history" until a specialist takes it home, spices it just right, and slaps it on the barbecue. I found the site exemplary for what it was, but one could not expect a novice, without guidance to come away from the site understanding there experiences of the participants. The other site, the National Geographics' web site on Pearl Harbor, I found had some very major problems. First, the film footage and graphics were so close a copy of the US war films of the time, I thought that was what we were watching. I didn't have a problem with the duplication of art style, but with the duplication of WWII era style of writing commentary. I considered the verbiage too inflammatory, and frankly too banal for the work to bear the NatGeo's logo. Tell us the phraseology was from the period, or use the space to give more useful information. On to my main criticism--the area for the general public to record their views and remembrances.
Within the vulgarities and base comments were some rather moving stories. However, these stories were discredited and abused because the space was neither policed nor cleaned up. Shame on the National Geographic for letting someone's cherished memories be defaced and dishonored in such a way. In addition, these eyewitness accounts, just put out to air, suffer the general difficulties shared by oral histories- one person's memories without the ability to truely check the facts. Historians and journalists have methods to deal with these problems, but the authors of the site seemed simply interested in giving their audience a purile experience.

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