From the Intersections: History and New Media forum in the May 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

Roy Rosenzweig and the Future of the Past

Steven Mintz, May 2009

Editor’s Note: The late Roy Rosenzweig, an inspiring pioneer in the magical arts of melding history and new media, has been remembered in many an elegiac essay. In one sense, this special issue of Perspectives on History, in which many articles inevitably refer to Rosenzweig, is itself a testament to his life and work. Yet it seemed necessary and fitting to remember him here once more with a tribute.

Roy Rosenzweig’s death was not only a devastating personal loss to all who were his friends and students; it constituted a profound tragedy for the profession. Our discipline not only lost an exceptionally productive and imaginative scholar, but a genuine visionary. Roy was the historian who thought most intensely about the ways that the internet and new media technologies could alter the way that history is researched, taught, and presented. More than that, he was an ardent proponent of “digital democracy”: increasing access to historical content, both primary and secondary sources; expanding the range of topics and voices investigated by historians; and allowing nonprofessionals to take a more active role in historical research and debate.

Along with his remarkable team of collaborators, Roy published the first multimedia history textbook, created extensive archives that made high quality primary sources available at no cost, and developed digital tools that allowed professional historians, teachers, and students to interrogate the historical record in exciting new ways. He also encouraged historians to experiment with nonlinear ways of presenting their findings, allowing users to reinterpret the evidence on their own, and spurred teachers at all levels to test techniques that emphasized group conversations through discussion lists and bulletin boards and creating ongoing collaborative projects that would be published online for all to see.

Three themes run through Roy’s digital scholarship. The first involves the ways that new media technologies disrupted the practice of historical research and therefore forced historians to ponder many previously ignored issues. Among those are issues relating to authenticity, authority, reliability, and trust. Misinformation and forgery are rife on the Web, and gatekeeping mechanisms developed over the past century function far less effectively in cyberspace. To what extent can scholars, teachers, and students rely on the information found online? Then, too, there are issues relating to professional validation. Should we encourage junior scholars to pursue new media projects? How much should these projects count when these scholars come up for promotion and tenure? How are such projects best evaluated?

A second theme that runs through Roy’s cyber-writings involves digital history’s promise and perils. As he pointed out, each new communications technology has generated enthusiasts and skeptics. On the plus side, digital technologies greatly increase the range, accessibility, and manipulability of primary sources and significantly enhanced opportunities for interactivity and scholarly dialogue. Yet digital media also pose potential problems, especially about quality and durability of electronic resources; the passivity induced by sites that place a higher emphasis on glitz than contextualization and interpretation; and the inaccessibility of many proprietary databases. Roy was especially haunted by the specter of “gated communities” controlled by information conglomerates who would erode or balkanize the web into for-profit silos.

A third key theme involves the history profession’s role in shaping “the future of the past.” Confronted with ever more abundant historical resources, would historians rise to the occasion and embrace new methods of analysis, such as data mining and systematic sampling? Would graduate schools train future historians in skills essential in a new media environment, such as digital archaeology, the reading of arcane computer formats, or digital diplomatics, the authentication of electronic documents? Equally important, would our professional organizations take a leadership role in teacher development, assisting K–12 teachers to better evaluate the quality of information, deal with conflicting evidence, and construct effective “hands-on” history activities? And would the profession make its voice heard on issues relating to copyright, fair use, and the preservation of the historical record, subjects too long left exclusively to archivists? No one wrote more eloquently or persuasively about the fragility and perishability of information in the new media age.

A true digital democratizer, Roy sought to realize Carl Becker’s vision of everyone as a historian. He urged our professional associations to offer the public free access to publicly supported scholarship and to find ways to mobilize the enthusiasm and energy of amateur historians. He pushed K–12 schools to move beyond their obsession with rote memorization and their fetish with names and dates to adopt an inquiry approach to teaching that would help students understand the problematic nature of historical evidence and the constructed nature of historical explanations. By providing teachers with guided inquiries, a wealth of annotated sources, critical evaluations of websites, and practical advice about how to use diverse sources—auditory and visual as well as textual—he sought to transform this democratic vision into reality. And to a remarkable extent, he succeeded.

More than two millennia ago, the Roman poet Lucretius wrote of the “vitai lampada,” the torch-bearers who transform the lives of those around them. Roy was one of those torchbearers. In that spirit, let us celebrate Roy’s memory, and do our best to carry his guiding light.

—Steven Mintz is professor of history at Columbia University.