Adventures in the Archives…Of Our Lives
This semester, I taught an introductory-level course on historical methods. One of our tasks was to consider an array of historical materials. We read novels and memoirs; watched documentaries and Hollywood films; read speeches and government policies; looked at architectural plans and advertisements for suburban homes. We even watched an episode of Star Trek. Throughout this exploration, we kept coming back to the question of how people of the past documented their daily lives. This prompted us to consider how historians of the future will examine our everyday lives. What sources will they use? What sources are we leaving behind? This was a frightening discussion because somehow we always came back to social media. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. The students and I shuddered in horror when we considered not just what historians of the future will think of us and our society, but also what we ourselves might see should we be the historians doing that research. I asked my students what I might think about their lives if I could see their Snapchat accounts. Some of them looked like they were going to cry. I felt the same when I imagined them looking at my Facebook timeline.
About the same time that this issue first came up in class, I started receiving an ad in my Facebook newsfeed for My Social Book. It is essentially a print version of your Facebook activities. You can choose what you want included – your status updates, comments, likes, links, photos, etc. – and have it printed and bound. As a former scrapbooker, I could not resist this siren call.* I ordered one. It’s pretty cool, I have to admit. And I do like knowing that it won’t just be up to the NSA to comply with the FOIA so that future historians can use the details of my life to get a deeper understanding of early twenty-first century American history.
But as I flipped through the pages of my narcissism, I was struck by two things. First, how charmed my life appears in these pithy status updates. Second, how much is not documented. Sure, my friends and family know all about the delightful things my son says, our move to Grinnell, the purchase of our first home, and the agony of thirty days without running water. But, so what? Everything I wrote, even though it was going to be read by some of my closest confidants, was filtered through an awareness of my audience, which also includes more casual acquaintances. As a historian, I recognize the bias inherent in this. I’m only sharing what I want shared. Unlike letters written between intimate friends in centuries past, documents that might have been literally S.W.A.K., my more than 600 status updates of 2013 left out some of the most significant moments of my life. For example, a very dear family member spent the previous five years fighting a life-threatening infection of Hepatitis C. We were told in 2008 that without successful treatment, this person would live, at best, five years more. In 2013, we learned that the treatments had been successful, and we celebrated a cure and the hope of a long life ahead. This is nowhere documented on my Facebook timeline, and yet I would argue that it was perhaps the most significant event of that year. As I realized this, I suddenly felt like an irresponsible historian.
The more I thought about how we document our own lives, I remembered the keynote address that historian Barbara Young Welke delivered at the 2011 meeting of the Western Association of Women Historians. In “Telling Stories, A Meditation on Love, Loss, History and Who We Are,” Welke wove her historical research on the tragic injuries and deaths children suffered due to flammable fabrics in the early to mid-twentieth century with her own narrative of enduring the unexpected loss of her 18-year-old daughter, Frances, in 2010. She explained in the WAWH conference program: “Her death has also led me to reflect on how heart-breaking losses are revealed or concealed in that most public expression of our professional identities: our c.v.s.” I suppose, in a similar way, social media has become the most public expression of our private identities. What does it mean, then, if we knowingly, deliberately, leave glaring silences in these archives of our lives?
To bring this back to my classroom, I’d like to know how others are discussing social media as both a contemporary and future resource into understanding American history. And how do you think that we should think about the intentional silences? Will these just be the mysteries that dissertators and others explore in the conference papers of the future? Or is there something to be said about the quest for privacy in an increasingly public world?
*When I worked at Archivers in the strange year between finishing my PhD and starting a tenure-track position, I used to tell customers who were worried about what their husband would say about how much they were spending, “Just tell him you are contributing to American cultural history. When you die, donate it to an archive. Trust me, I’m an historian.” They always made the purchase.
Featured Image: Photo by Petar Milošević
“Notebook Collection,” by Dvortygirl
Carolyn Herbst Lewis is a co-founder of Nursing Clio. She is the author of Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era (UNC Press, 2010). Her current project is a history of the Chicago Maternity Center.