Why bother with history, when you’re rich and powerful? . . .No, you don’t need history. What you need is something more like a pretty carpet that can be rolled out on ceremonial occasions to cover all those bloodstains on the stairs.
This quote comes from an unnamed Nigerian friend of Michael Frisch’s in “A Shared Authority” (20). It graphically illustrates that which is all too common and tragic in history and memory. It is also what we, as public historians should feel obliged to counteract.
In Frisch’s thought piece, “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen and Back,” he discusses ways in which public historians may be able to use new digital tools to do so. Specifically, he examines the use of oral histories as primary research aids, and how the digitization of interviews makes them much more useful and accessible. He offsets these advantages by reminding us that “searching” is not as straightforward as it may seem. He gives the example that an interview subject is not going to say outright, “and now I will tell a story about the social construction of gender.” Therefore, a researcher must still read “between the lines,” “against the grain,” or what ever metaphor you may prefer.
It’s a good point, and worth thinking about. A source’s inherent value may not be readily apparent when you find it, even with the convenience of keyword searches. However, the sheer number of unexpected sources that arise with database searches testify to the immediate and undeniable advantages that digitization offers.