How Scanners Democratize History

Carl Abbott, October 2012

Portland's PlaygroundUpstairs at the Rialto Poolroom Bar and Café in downtown Portland, Oregon hip young adults are eating, drinking, and occasionally shooting pool. Downstairs another fifty people are eating, drinking, and listening to me lecture about the Lewis and Clark Exposition, the world's fair staged in Portland in 1905. The audience includes a few students, some history buffs, and a meet-up group of 40ish and 50ish singles. I click away with my PowerPoint, they eat nachos and sip wine, and we all have a good time.

It's June 21, 2011, and the first in a monthly series of Stumptown Stories sponsored by the Oregon Encyclopedia, an online project to create a reliable peer-reviewed reference on Oregon history. The encyclopedia's editors are advocates of public history who see this sort of event as a way to generate ideas for entries, interest potential contributors, and inform the community. Speakers in the series have discussed topics like the Portland Longshore Strike of 1934 and lesbian communes in 1970s Oregon. The presenters have been academics, journalists, students, and history aficionados.

And that's not all. The Oregon Historical Society sponsors a monthly History Pub lecture at McMenamins-Kennedy School, a trendy bar-restaurant-hotel-theater located in a 1920s elementary school building. McMenamins is a chain of brewpubs that likes to recycle old buildings and has its own skilled historian on staff. The Oregon Encyclopedia has its own arrangements for lectures in two other McMenamins locations in Portland and another series in the central Oregon city of Bend. Portland Monthly, a slick lifestyle magazine, sponsors a monthly discussion in another downtown club on urban design and planning with periodic invitations for local historians to provide historical context for such issues as downtown redevelopment.

Give much of the credit to the folks who developed optical scanners and yes, I hate to say so, PowerPoint for this explosion of historical activity. There has always been an appetite for local history. We might even call it a gateway drug for an interest in wider historical topics (along with the Civil War, of course). What's new is the ease with which anyone with a computer and internet connection can access scanned documents and images—or perhaps scan their own—and join the public conversation as a blogger, lecturer, web site maven, or gadfly.

Scanners—the machines and the people who like to use them—are democratizing history, opening new opportunities for academic historians like me to reach new audiences and to interact with people producing and consuming history.

Scanners Democratize Access

Like many historians, I have somewhat fond memories of sitting in real archives on very hard wooden chairs paging through old books and opening folders stuffed with potentially fascinating letters and memos. The Newberry; the Huntington; the Library of Congress; local history rooms in public libraries in Washington, Norfolk, Denver, and other cities—they've all contributed to my historian persona.

Many Lives of South PortlandBut isn't it nice to call up documents on screen? From the National Archives to university special collections departments, from state historical societies to custodians of archeological sites, keepers of historical information are scanning vast quantities of documents and images for their web sites. What historian of the United States hasn't clicked into the American Memory site of the Library of Congress or other similar web sites to grab a map or picture for a lecture, identify documents for class assignments, or find an illustration for a book? And more to the point, what "amateur" history blogger hasn't done the same, with exactly the same access and ability to dig up gems as someone who used to be privileged with access to academic archives?

I've written two studies of the development of cities in western North America, each peppered (or spiced?) with visual images.1 For the book that I wrote in the early 1990s, I was lucky enough to receive a small university research grant that let me visit photo archives around the West—the University of Washington Special Collections, the Montana Historical Society, the Denver Public Library, the Los Alamos Historical Society. Fifteen years later, I sat at my computer and clicked through menus of scanned images helpfully posted by the same historical organizations and many others. It was a great road trip the first time around, but the new technology would now allow anyone to replicate my search without putting expensive miles on their car.

Private collections of images and letters as well as the contents of public archives can now be made readily available. I recently wrote an overview history of Portland for general readers.2 Half the pictures came from private collectors who have assembled thousands of images: One buys up the files of defunct photographic studios and newspapers. Another scours garage sales and used book stores. These collectors have digitized their photographs for quick sharing with students, bloggers, and other people with the history bug. One of them commented that he simply wouldn't be able to inventory and share his materials so generously if they weren't in electronic form.

One of my students, Tanya March (read her article), recently drew on these same private collectors in researching her doctoral dissertation about the construction and social life of a World War II housing project for shipyard workers in Portland. She also monitors eBay for relevant images and creatively tapped new sources by sponsoring reunions of residents—who of course were children in the early 1940s. Many of them brought out photo albums from their attics. Tanya borrowed and scanned photos, posted some on a web site that attracted more people for interviews, and thus uncovered more images to scan and post. Her scanner was an important tool of research that helped to make the former residents co-producers of the community history.

Scanners Improve Lectures

Does PowerPoint make for more engaging lectures than a carousel of 35-millimeter slides? A few years ago I was skeptical, particularly after reading Edward Tufte's denunciation of PowerPoint as a cognitive straitjacket.3 Now I'm converted for the simple reason of ease and richness of imagery. One of my special interests is the history of the Columbia River Gorge, its development for tourism, and its regulation as a National Scenic Area. Last year when I did one of those McMenamins lectures, I put the presentation together by scanning some black and white glossy prints that have been in my files for 20 years and pulling other images from half a dozen different web sites (special appreciation to the staff historians at the Oregon Department of Transportation). The message was my own interpretation of the role of "imperial" urban centers in the development of tourism, but the medium was a PowerPoint drawn from open access websites.

We can generalize. Our local proliferation of lectures and history nights wouldn't be possible without the wealth of images on the web. Some of the presenters have their own collections. Others pick and choose from the millions of images online. Audiences come to learn from words, but they also expect pictures—and lots of them. When I talk about Portland's changing neighborhoods, do listeners come for the carefully gathered statistics on ethnicity from the 1900 census that I find so interesting? Or do they come for the pictures of vanished houses and turn-of-the-century trolley cars? The whole, I hope, is more than the sum of its parts, but it is the abundance of scanned images that grabs the attention.

The availability of images is a great equalizer that smooths the disconnect between academic and popular approaches. It's one thing for me to talk about Henri Lefebvre in a graduate seminar, another to use "before and after" images of a vanished African American neighborhood to help an audience think about Lefebvre's "right to the city" without necessarily using those words. Moreover, audiences at the various presentations find it hard to tell the difference between university historians, public historians, and community historians if we all have decent PowerPoints.

A Website of One's Own

Web sites and blogs are easier than old-fashioned self-publishing. If you have amassed interesting information that you couldn't fit in your MA thesis, post it on a website. If you want more than a dozen people to read your actual thesis, post it as well—a good alternative to going through the scholarly publishing routine if you are not aiming at an academic career. This sort of posting, of course, is far more attractive if it includes lots of scanned images and documents. Graduates of Portland State's MA program in public history sometimes supplement their thesis with a web site.4 While she works on shaping her dissertation research into publications about the history of childhood, Tanya March maintains a web site on her housing project.5

People who have never been interested in a graduate history degree can also take their collection of postcards, scan them, and put them up. If you are fascinated with old buildings or old neighborhoods, put up pictures and scan in old documents... blog about what you know... invite comments to fill in details and start a discussion. Portland has half a dozen interesting history blogs, all relying on scanned images for much of their impact. They're not always interested in how the details fit into larger narratives, but they repeatedly teach me new things about a city I've been studying for three decades.6 They're also a reminder that I need more pictures for my own web site where I've largely been posting op-ed columns and shorter magazine writing.

Historians All

here is even more community history going on, of course. As I write, historic preservation activists have just completed a neighborhood National Register Nomination to which I've contributed. Community historians have recently published several solidly documented architectural and neighborhood histories. Graduates of Portland State University's public history program are preserving documentaries made in the 1970s and presenting them with framing commentary by architects and historians—sometimes with their own sets of scanned images. Historical walking tours are available in flavors from traditional to twenty-something hip. Residents and tourists can visit not only the Oregon Historical Society but also the Architectural Heritage Center (which has its own public programs), Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, and Oregon Jewish Museum (which recently cooperated on very cool programming about Mel Blanc, the Portland native who voiced Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig).

Carl Becker delivered my favorite American Historical Association presidential address eight decades ago, reminding his audience that we are all historians in the most basic sense of constructing temporal stories from the chaos of events:
Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research. Such research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history.7

Becker was thinking in theoretical and political terms about the production and validation of knowledge, but the ubiquitous scanner is now helping to give concrete form to his point about the democratic basis of historical understanding. Scanners are an active technology for research and dissemination of historical information. They are also a metaphor for a changing world in which the historical enterprise is increasingly available for everyone. The result, at least in my city, has been burgeoning popular consumption and production of history. I find it exciting. Without abandoning specialized academic and monographic history, we have great opportunities to encourage, cooperate, and partner with the non-academic and community historians to help history do its work in the world.

Carl Abbott is professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, co-editor of the Pacific Historical Review, and president of the Pacific Coast Branch-American Historical Association for 2012–13. In addition to the books mentioned in endnotes 1 and 2, he is also the author of Frontiers Past and Future: Science Fiction and the American West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006). He posts less academic stuff at www.theurbanwest.com.

Notes

1. The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993); How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008).

2. Portland in Three Centuries: The Place and the People (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2011).

3. Edward Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press, 2003).

4. Sarah Paulsen. " The Oaks in the Progressive Era."

5. Tanya Lyn March. "Guild's Lake Courts."

6. Examples from Portland include the very interesting blog Cafe Unknown, the extensive Historic Photo Archive, and the historic photo blog Vintage Portland.

7. Carl Becker, "Everyman His Own Historian," American Historical Review, 37, no.2 (January 1932): 234.