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From the Historians and the Public(s) special section in the May 2000 Perspectives

Connecting to the Public: History through the Internet

Patricia Seed, May 2000

Many who share your fascination with the past may never walk into your classroom, let alone hear you speak at a local meeting. They may have read historical fiction set in an area and time period that has intrigued them, or seen a historical film or show on the History Channel. Lacking the time, energy, or leisure to pursue their interest for more than a brief period, they may still want to learn more. And if you share their attraction to a particular period, person, or topic, and want to share your knowledge with them, you can do so easily through a web site.

For example, I like everything about oceans—not inland seas, only oceans—and nearly every event in the past that took place on or in an ocean intrigues me. Of all the events that have taken place in or on these waters, I know the most about those which occurred in a single century in the history of navigation—the 15th—so I created a web site on this moment in the history of sailing and mapping (http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~feegi).

Creating that site—and leaving a place for people to record comments and questions—has enabled me to share my knowledge, and in turn, learn from the people who write to me via the web site. I have heard from quartermasters (the navigators) on Navy and Coast Guard ships, and Portuguese merchant marine captains. Scores of middle school science teachers wrote in, as did an Alaskan fisherman's wife, wanting to use a compass rose for a tattoo. Some of the questions posed challenges in answering. For example, May and Sophie, two wonderful fifth-grade girls from a small elementary school in Western Australia, wrote to ask me, "Who named the oceans?" This is not a simple question. To many of the world's seafarers, there was only their ocean. To name oceans, one had to know of many such bodies of waters. Spaniards, of course, named the oceans, but the names they used for several hundred years—the "western ocean" and the "southern ocean"—are not the ones in use today. May and Sophie were asking how and why we came to use Atlantic and Pacific instead.

These are some of the considerable rewards of writing for the web—the chance to learn from challenging questions, but above all the opportunity share one's information and enthusiasm with people in many parts of the world—not just with fellow professionals or students, or even simply those sitting in your classroom or inhabiting your physical corner of the world. As a result, the Internet becomes a democratic medium for history. Writing history for the public sphere used to mean appearing in elite national media and speaking on particular subjects of privileged national political interests. Having a web site, on the other hand, allows you to do history with an audience of many races, ages, and abilities, joined together by curiosity about a time period, a subject, a people, or a process. It opens the study of the past to a broader and indeed a democratic audience.

—Patricia Seed teaches at Rice University; she responds to questions about sailing and mapping at latitude@rice.edu.