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.

2445114424_17c1d9d0b0_zBut 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

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Great article. Because of our (historically quite sudden) reliance on digital media to document our lives and important events, I fear that historians of the future will know far less about the early 21st century than they do most other historical eras. This is already happening. No one can read 5 1/2″ floppy disks from the 1980s anymore (or even their smaller versions from the 1990s). How much archival-worthy material was lost when we decided retaining the capability to read particular obsolete formats wasn’t worth it? Facebook and Twitter are going to be the equivalent of 5 1/2″ floppy disks someday, fairly soon. About 0.0000000001% of what’s on the Internet, in any fashion, is going to be preserved in any way that’s communicable to historians of the future.

Carolyn Herbst Lewis

Thanks! And funnily enough, in an unrelated conversation just this morning, I pulled out my 1990s-era floppy disks and commented on how there was no way to access those materials anymore (thankfully, I saved them elsewhere long ago).

Jacqueline Antonovich

I will add that my son, who is a 16-year-old computer science buff, regularly accesses old-school floppy disks as part of one of his community college courses. His ability to convert old media into new gives me hope for humanity!


You might be interested in a blog: as she wrote a book called, Bound: Blogging on Gender, Race, and Culture. as well as posted an article on April 23, (short link) http://wp.mep28.GT-YR regarding the topic of twitter and hashtags. Tressie has a unique voice and perspective from the black community which does not “own” it’s history (just as women also are under represented) due to institutionalized racism. And so the question becomes how do we see the macrocosm if white privilege and entitlement tells the “story”. Ta Nehisi Coates has a blog, and was recently interviewed by Bill Moyers on PBS, about the history of America and in particular relation to slavery. How we were built on it. Tressie refers to his article in one of her posts as well. The Coates article suggests reparations be paid the black community (which he explains somewhat differently than it sounds). I think the article is a must read. The historical facts his article are very well laid out. The article is long, but entirely worth the read. And a face-book printing would be in order I imagine.
The recent Snowden surveillance/privacy interview on NBC was enlightening as well. He is now viewed more as a patriot and not so much a traitor for being willing to sacrifice his life for his country, due to finally being allowed to tell his side. His story. And anyone can fact check his story and plainly see the truth(s).

Carrie P.

This is exactly why I print photos. People who care about their images – yet insist that digital back ups are enough – are making a huge mistake. They won’t exist for their children and grandchildren.


A couple thoughts:
1. Letters from before the 20th c were often assumed to be read aloud, and the earlier back you go, the more public they were assumed to be. Makes it hard for us to tell how their authors thought of their audiences — some similar challenges to today.
2. Old floppies aren’t permanently unreadable, only as long as no one thinks it’s worth it to reconstruct the hardware to do so. It’s more of an issue with formats that degrade — paper, VHS film, for example. How hard it is to read older digital formats depends on how much we (or future historians) value the sources. And how sophisticated historians’ tech support is.
3. The exercise you do with your students is great! I always began a class I taught about sources for the history of sex and childbirth by asking students to make a list of what sources would be available about their private lives, for future historians, and what this would and wouldn’t reveal about their intimate lives. Very eye opening. Definitely helped them read historical primary and secondary sources about sex/pregnancy/birth with a more critical eye.

David Harley

Private diaries, even if written in a personal shorthand ( and code and foreign languages, like that of Samuel Pepys), have an audience in mind. As with Facebook and other social media, self-fashioning was going on. In the past, many diaries and letters were by no means intended for a single person. They were often read aloud to a family or a professional audience.

That they survive at all indicates that they were not completely private, even though they were sometimes delberately destroyed, censored or winnowed.

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