Each year students enrolled in History 440: Local History for the Web are provided with a general local history topic for that year. General topics vary widely and could include: experiences during the First or Second World War; aboriginal history; ethnicity, settlement and community; institutional development; the history of schooling; or sports and leisure. In groups or individually History 440 students research specific themes related to that overall topic and develop a series of web pages for public consumption. Students are graded on both the quality of their research and the effectiveness of their web products. Over time, this web site will become an accumulative repository of Fraser Valley history.
THE HISTORY DEPARTMENT at the University of the Fraser Valley developed History 440: Local History for the Web to address three important historical areas: local history, history and the Web, and the teaching of historical research methods to senior students in the history program. Each one of these concerns contains a gap that needs to be bridged. History 440 was conceived as a way to bridge those gaps.
Local history abounds with ghosts.
The pursuit of local history provides an opportunity to examine the communities where we live, work, and play. Many of us were first drawn to the past by looking at the history of our communities, the changing ground beneath our feet. For this reason doing local history can be deeply personal. In some cases the faces of the past are people we know, or knew; sometimes they are members of our family. We can often touch the homes, buildings, streets, and parks we uncover in the past; if now gone, we grant them a second life through the resurrecting power of research and memory.
The familiarity of local history makes its accessible. It also reveals the lived reality of often ordinary and forgotten, even hidden, lives. Yet, as natural as this community past might be, professional academic historians have found fault with many local histories. They cite concerns about the all-too-narrow scope of local history, the tendency to pander to local elites within the community, the reticence to ask difficult questions and pursue potentially divisive issues often pertaining to systemic inequities in the community, and the lack of a structured and objective set of research methods.
Until recently, the worlds of local history and that of academic history have been far apart. The latter has been the realm of local independent and often amateur historians, community-based historical associations, and local museums and archives for public use. In contrast, academic history has been produced by professional practitioners within defined fields of study for specialized audiences made up of other academics and students within university and college classrooms. The histories produced by these two groups are different in terms of topics chosen, interpretations made, and methods used. With the partnership and support of local history providers, History 440: Doing History for the Web is a modest effort to bridge that gap.
Another bridge to build is that between the values and practices of the academic discipline of history and new media, in particular the formative structures of the web. Increasingly people are discovering their history online in the myriad of web sites devoted to the past. The academic historical community has benefited enormously from the proliferation of these web-based histories and resources. Academic historians, however, have been hesitant to integrate the ways of the web into their own work – most academic journals and monographs, while available in electronic form, have not changed in terms of their text-heavy, print-oriented format.
For its part, the academic historical community has questioned the ability of new media forms to carry the intellectual complexities of the written word. How, for instance, can an argument developed in a journal article of 10,000 words be translated on to web with its multilayered and truncated format? And academic historians are quick to defend their traditional print-based media on the basis of values – in fact, the most progressive members of the academic community see it as their mission to preserve the core academic standards of historical scholarship as we make the transition to new media. A leader in this movement is The Centre for New Media at George Mason University in Virginia. For over a decade scholars at the CHNM have been debating the pros and cons and complexities of marrying history to the web. History 440 is a small part of that greater progressive movement, and is an attempt to bridge the values of academic history with the formative structures of the web.