The Language of History

Historians no longer have a corner on the history market. The average person does not necessarily pick up a scholarly text to learn about the Revolutionary War. Instead of reading a book written by a professional historian on the subject, they are more likely to pick whatever is popular on Goodreads. The average history buff’s bookshelf likely houses popular histories and historical fictions, rather than books written by those in academia. It is not that the public is disinterested in the history itself, but the way in which that history is delivered. The popularity of the Hamilton musical shows that average people can get excited about history. Historians need to start reconsidering how it is that they are sharing history. Instead of writing only for their colleagues in academia, historians need to begin writing with a broader audience in mind. Not only must they consider the language they are using, but the mediums through which they are sharing their work.

Historians are facing ever growing competition when it comes to telling the story of history. They are competing with not only popular historians, but fiction authors, film and television creators, podcasters and YouTubers. The argument from many is that this made for consumption history lacks credibility. Many argue that since the work is not scholarly, the work should automatically be dismissed. In Public History, Thomas Cauvin argues that it is not that historians should be trying to discredit these mediums, but rather that they should “work at highlighting what literary authors and academic historians can learn from each other.” (119) Historians should not be shutting out those in the creative business, but learning from their success. Historians should be taking what it is that makes these creator’s works accessible, and apply it to their own writing. Not only can historians make their work accessible through the tone and language of their writing, but by engaging their audiences. A great way to do this is through technology.

In The Presence of the Past, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen tell about using a phone survey to talk with people about history. This method may seem dated, as they were conducting these surveys in the 1990’s, but this same idea can be updated to today’s technologies. Cauvin advocates for Platforms like Twitter. He says that the “micro” platform is great for sharing everything from websites to conference announcements. It’s character limits don’t allow for much information, but it brings a lot of eyes to what you are sharing. The brevity of the Tweet does not allow for people to become bored and click away from your content. Cuvin also advocates for many historians most cringe inducing four letter word: Wiki(pedia).

Cauvin talks about historians collaborating in “edit-a-thons”, where they collectively edit Wikipedia pages. Eastern Washington University recently held it’s own edit-a-thon to create several Wikipedia pages about the fires in Cheney Washington. Here is one they created about the 1891 fire at the State Normal School.

Historians should not expect the average person to learn about history from academic sources. They should also not be dismissing alternative sources like novels or film, but should be taking cues from them instead. Historians should strive to make their writing accessible, not only through the language they use, but through the platforms that they are sharing their work on. Technology is not only accessible, but bolsters community engagement. In the end, history must not only be accurate, but for everyone.


The Telling of Cheney

Cheney Washington has had a difficult lot in life. Starting with the fight for the county seat, the damage of multiple fires in its early years and the underwhelming boom of the railroad. Cheney and its residents had for many years struggled to keep the city afloat. Though with almost as many identity changes as name changes, the city has flourished as a college town.


A map of Cheney, WA from January of 1890

Trouble started early for Cheney. In 1880 the town had a boom in population due to speculations about the railroads. Because of the increase in population Cheney vied with Spokane Falls for the county seat. Upon first counts, it seemed that Cheney had beat out Spokane Falls, however, there was a voting dispute and Spokane Falls kept the seat. Several citizens of Cheney snuck at night into Spokane Falls and stole their county records. Guarding the records at gunpoint, the seat was Cheney’s until Spokane took it in a landslide vote six years later. Cheney’s power and population would never again surpass that of Spokane’s. Because though the railroad did pass through Cheney, it never provided the economic boost that town had anticipated.

The legacy of the town, Eastern Washington University, is here today thanks in part to the town’s name sake, Benjamin P. Cheney. Cheney was a director of the Northern Pacific railroad and gave the town 10,000 dollars and eight acres to build an academy. The academy did not prosper in the way the town had hoped. However, the building and the land it stood on attracted the attention of the State. The State of Washington was building three normal schools (school to train teachers) and they picked Cheney to be the sight for the Eastern Washington school. The normal school opened in 1890, and in its first year had just 16 students. The school has gone through many transformations over the years, but today is Eastern Washington University with a student population of just over 13,000.

Cheney, being a college town, has a great number of research sources within the town itself. The town is home to the Washington State Digital Archives, the Eastern Regional Branch of the State Archives (which are housed in the same building) and the Eastern Washington University Archives. You can also conduct research in Spokane at the Joel E. Ferris Archives or the Northwest Room at the Spokane Public Library’s downtown branch. There are also great stories about Cheney on Spokane Historical. One of my favorite stories from Spokane Historical is about the Cheney Lynchings. The story details the dark mentalities and prejudices that were common of many at the time, including Cheney’s early citizens.

For my own Spokane Historical article, I would like to write on either Dicks Hamburgers, or I-90 through the East Central district of Spokane. As a child growing up in Spokane, the colorful signage featuring a neon rooster pecking at a panda’s hamburger sparked my love of Googie architecture. There is also a great video here about the way that building highways changes neighborhoods. East Central Spokane was once a flourishing district, but now with I-90 running through it, it is unfortunately rundown and lacking in funding. There is a 50 million dollar revitalization project happening that is planned to be finished in 2018. The investment will focus on roads and local infrastructure.


The Dicks Hamburgers Sign. Picture by: Paul S.


Cheney has a lot more history than people expect it to have. There are a multitude of research facilities to research the town’s history; and a platform like Spokane Historical provides a great place to make the town’s stories heard.

A Look at the Spokane Jail Register of 1900

From looking over a Spokane jail register from 1900, I would say that Spokane was a haven for diverse criminal activity. There were a wide variety of crimes committed by a wide variety of individuals. The criminals ranged from 23 year old housekeeper, Mrs. Chaney Reed, who was arrested for receiving stolen property; to 15 year old clerk, Jay W. Clarke, who was arrested for incorrigibility. There was even a 76 year old laborer named Jas (James) Bird, who was arrested for cruelty to animals. The consequences of these crimes also varied. Many were dismissed, while some paid fines. The Soldiers that were arrested for desertion were sent to Fort Wright. From reading this register I would say that the police did not know what to do with people that were arrested for insanity. There were three men arrested for the crime in January, one was released, one was “delivered to sheriff Cole at the county jail” and the last was sent to the poor house. I find it odd that none of them were sent to Eastern State Hospital, but perhaps they were found not to be insane after all.

Archiving in the Digital Age

Archives and manuscript collections are facing new challenges in the digital age. There is a movement to digitize physical collections, and figure out how to preserve the new emerging born-digital collections. Archivists not only worry about physical degradation of their collections, but now digital degradation, or “data rot”. Archivists are racing to preserve our quickly evolving digital world.


Compacting shelves in an archive

Metadata has existed since before the practice of digital archiving, but is gaining new life with the move to the digital storage of items. In his book, Public History, Thomas Cauvin describes the three different types of metadata. There is “descriptive, structural, and administrative [metadata].” (34) While all three forms are important, structural metadata is the most important for those on the front end of archiving. Structural metadata in traditional archival settings may include an index or table of contents, and in digital archiving take the form of tags. Tagged content is seen widely over the internet these days, and works in the same manner in a digitally archived collection.

Tagging digitally archived collections is still not a widely uniformed process. What is most important is uniformity within a collection. If a collection contains two different images of a person riding a horse, they should be tagged with the same word or multiple words. They should both be tagged with either horsemanship or equestrianism, or both horsemanship and equestrianism, but not one with horsemanship and the other with equestrianism. This may seem redundant, but is crucial when digitizing a collection. A collection is only as searchable as its tags allow.


Computer Servers

Another challenge facing archivists is “born digital” data. This is any data whose original format is digital. This includes emails, digital photographs, podcasts, etc. These things are seen by many to be ephemeral. However, as we move further towards digital dependency, archivists need to keep up with preserving these forms of data. In an article co authored by F. Gerald Handfield and Dr. Larry Cebula, the two discuss the difficulties in establishing the first state government digital archive. The archive, which is on the campus of Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington, houses “electronic records of state and local government,” (26) and makes these documents accessible to the public. In a video here about the digital archive, Cebula offhandedly remarks that the accessibility of these documents “keep our leaders more honest.” This is true and brings up the issues of legality and ethics that are central to archives.

Archivists deal with a lot of legal and ethical issues. There are issues like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Cauvin discusses the fact that institutions must “access demands of repatriation of Native American objects.” (43) There are also cases of theft and destroying of archived materials, like in the case of Sandy Berger. Berger stole and destroyed classified documents from the National Archives. A full report can be found here. The author of the report argues that not only did Berger take advantage of the weaknesses in the control of the classified documents, “but weaknesses in the proper response to the discovery of the unauthorized removal of such documents.” (61)

While digital archiving may provide new challenges, is also creates new advantages. It is preserving physically fragile documents for future researchers and is creating new accessibility for the public. It is holding individuals accountable and spreading knowledge to a wider audience than ever before.  

Bringing History Into the Present

The world is rapidly evolving alongside advancements in technology. Just thirty years ago, people were scoffing at the idea of reading the newspaper on the computer, and now we can reach thousands of people in an instant by sending out a tweet over our smart watch. Historians are working with these technologies so as not to be left in the past. Digital historians are bringing history into the present by incorporating technology into the way that we study, teach and interact with history. Technology has stretched the limits of the physical world, providing us with more availability and more storage. Entire books are available at our fingertips and the Cloud has created near infinite storage space. We are no longer confined by the size of our library’s collection, or the amount of square footage in our archive. Technology has undeniably benefited historians, but has also raised questions that need to be answered.


With the rise of technology, the line between digital and public history has become more and more blurry. Though the two find quite a bit of overlap, digital and public history are not necessarily the same thing. In his book, Digital History, Thomas Cauvin defines digital history as “Anything (research method, journal article, monograph, blog, classroom exercise) that uses digital technologies in creating, enhancing, or distributing historical research and scholarship.” (175) Digital history, by way of the internet, is increasingly accessible to the public; but unlike public history, does not necessarily engage the public. The distinction between public access and engagement is one of the big problems that public historians are having to confront. In a blog post here, Dr. Larry Cebula confronts and discusses the problems of crowd sourcing in history projects. The Library of Congress hoped to engage the public by opening a Flickr account with taggable pictures. The results were of little historical value, and consisted of quite a bit of trolling. It is the job of public historians to engage the public, but they need to decide to what extent engagement is allowed. At the end of the day historians are the professionals, and it is their job to curate history; especially when facing the rise of the amateur historian.

While accessibility of historical research materials is great for professionals, it has also created a surge of amateur historians. Anyone with a computer can create a podcast and start spreading historical “truths”. Dr. Cebula addresses this here in another blog post. Though individuals may be well meaning, their lack of training can spread historical inaccuracies. This raises a question of whether or not it should be the professional historians who take it upon themselves to flood the market with their own media. Cauvin says yes, historians should be taking things into their own hands; that they should be studying technology so that the content consumed through media is true to history. Cauvin gives the example of film, which often employs historians as consultants.

Historians should also be studying technology to help tailor it to the needs of those in the humanities. In his blog post, Is Google Good for History? Dan Cohen discusses the fact that the engineers behind Google Books, while talented, have little insight into how people search historic content. He says that “Bibliometrics and text mining work poorly on these sources.”


Digitization of a book

Technology has opened up a new wealth of possibilities for public history. With the internet we can share and consume like never before. But with these advancements, public historians need to think about how they are engaging the public, and to what extent they are controlling the content that the public is consuming. Public historians should be working together with others in the technology and media fields to present and make sense of history. While the line between access and engagement may be blurring, public historians can not forget that they are the professionals.