I’m busy this week researching names on the wonderful site British Newspapers Online – very rewarding, but also very time-consuming. So today I’m sharing with you a thoughtful article by my good friend Jane who, like me, views the job of the historian to make sense of the past by telling a story, based on the clues that have been left to us. We are, in effect, collecting pieces of the jigsaw without knowing from the outset quite what the final picture will be. Sometimes the pieces are missing: sometimes a piece tells a story in its own right. And once we have assembled as much of the jigsaw as we can, what do we do with it?
Someone once described history to me as like collecting things for their own sake. No, that is not what history is, what makes history is telling the story of the past and to do that we need to have enough pieces of the past to tell the story accurately. That is why we need to be collectors before we can be storytellers.
When we work with history we put pieces together to make a narrative. A photograph on its own doesn’t tell us much of historical value but it does tell us something. I do know it was taken at the Wesleyan School in Barnstaple, Devon and I do know that it is of Standard 111. Mabel Hulland is the teacher on the right. I would love to know more about the children, the school and the area.
History is like seeing through a glass, darkly. The questions we have are many and some may never be answered. Most history is hidden from our gaze. Even in archives much of the material held is not easily accessed and even more data is in private hands. Photos, letters, research, invoices, obituaries, written material, memories, artefacts of all sorts; the list is endless.
We may have many reasons for keeping this history to ourselves but is it ours to keep? Does a metal detectorist own a coin which he has found and does he have the right to keep that to himself? In the UK the law has clarified these responsibilities. Anything found which is over 300 years of age must be declared and recorded for posterity, photographed, described and usually returned to the owner. The ownership is clear, the artefact belongs to the owner but the history belongs to everyone.
What if we had the same system for the history which is in our own homes, factories, churches etc.? If all this history could be sucked out and put somewhere where it could be shared. We would be amazed at our harvest. Perhaps then we would understand the value of that tatty little photo we have or that letter sent from a whaling ship in 1887 which we just thought was of family interest.
It is down to personal choice what we do with our history but today the internet offers us the opportunity to have our cake and eat it. We can now keep our history and share it, just as in the same way a metal detected coin is recorded and then returned to its owner. Except in this case the material never needs to leave your home.
So what is stopping us from sharing our history? We can give reasons such as ‘I don’t have the technical skills’ or ‘I haven’t got time’, etc but in essence it comes down to the fact that we haven’t recognised the benefit of so doing. It is that old cost-benefit equation. If there was a clear benefit, then the time and effort of scanning in and describing documents and photographs would seem trivial. It is not enough for me to say how important your history is or mine for that matter but I know that one day someone will be very grateful that we made the effort to share it.