Too Much or Too Little?: Capturing Today for the Future

Historical museums and societies benefit from the documents, records, diaries, objects, and materials those from the past have left for us to find.  Through studying these materials, we learn more about how everyday life was lived.

But how are we documenting the present for the future?  Are we providing enough intentional documentation?  Or are we providing too much unorganized information?  Will historians of the future want to study documents and records, tweets and Facebook posts, or more personal items?  And will all these choices be more overwhelming than useful?

Three blogs have recently focused on the topic of documenting for the future, but with opposing views on how the topic should be approached.

Linda Norris, author of “The Uncataloged Museum,” argues that we must actively focus on documenting our local communities.  Norris uses the example of photography projects that focus on “those places that we see almost every day, but we really almost never look at.”  In her post “Where’s Your 21st Century Community,” Norris highlights one particular project that focuses on the “retail landscapes at the edge of your town–at the edge of really almost every town and city, large and small.”  We must focus on recording the present for future historians, Norris argues, through documenting the forgotten moments of the everyday.  This active documentation of the present is supported by Garry Adelman in his guest post for the blog “Civil War Memory,” ran by Kevin Levin.

In the article “You Are Not a Real Historian,” Adelman argues that it is a historian’s “duty” to prepare records for future study.  It is not enough to rely on the mass amount of online information being archived today, but rather we need to return to “that thing that historians crave-real, firsthand accounts.”  Adelman argues that “any medium meant for public consumption” (like social media) is not satisfactory because it is “inherently not as forthright, not as personal, and not as honest” as private writing.  To truly preserve the present, we must begin keeping diaries, the “frankest of all media.”

Mocking Adelman’s argument, Larry Cebula, creator of the blog “Northwest History,” believes historians will have more resources than ever that accurately capture our communities.  In the post “Open Letter to the Historians of the 22nd Century: Sorry for All the Stuff,” Cebula apologizes to future historians for the mass amount of information on life in the early 21st century, due to the details of archived information from social media sites.  As Cebula puts it, “every fry cook at McDonald’s has a Facebook page.”

While both Norris and Adelman believe we must begin focusing on documenting the present, Cebula doesn’t concern himself with preparing records for future study.  He believes that although there may be less private writing, “the real revolution in personal writing and documentation for our era, however, is the way that it will illuminate the lives of we peasants.”

Are we doing enough to preserve the present?  Is it part of our duty to save for the future?

What do you think future historians will want to see?