Friday, March 23, 2007

Review: The People History Site

This post is sponsored by ReviewMe, which pays bloggers to review its advertising clients' products and services. I have not been in contact with anyone from the website being reviewed, nor have I received any pressure to write a positive review.

I mentioned a few days back that I have been invited to take a closer look at The People History, a website that proclaims it's "Where People Memories and History Join Together." (I'm not sure if that's supposed to be better punctuated as "Where People's Memories and History Join Together" or "Where People, Memories, and History Join Together." Either way, that needs to be fixed.)

The People History is the brainchild of Steve, who describes himself thus:
My name is Steve and I am 56 years old and married to a wonderful supportive wife and I have 3 children who keep me young at heart even if not in body, and currently reside in the midwest of the United States , I started The People History after realising that the books I enjoy reading the most were autobiographies and biography's and when I tried to understand why I enjoyed them, I realised it was the small snippets of social history gained through the authors memories.
Each of us has stories and memories to tell that are interesting both from a personal view and from a social history perspective to many others and I hope
we can add something for our children, historians and of interest to all of us.

First of all, let me say that I'll be the first person to sign any petition that calls for history to be further democratized. Those of us who are hoity-toity humanities Ph.D.s with a progressive bent are all about de-consolidating the power of the textbook giants and encouraging people to participate in history, literature, science, and the arts on their own terms and in ways that are meaningful to them, their families, and their communities. Yet I think sometimes many of us are too quick to dismiss efforts that are decidedly unacademic. Although it's still showing its growing pains a bit, I find The People History to be a worthwhile endeavor, and I look forward to seeing it mature as it attracts more visitors and contributors.

But what's on the site? I encourage you to check it out--because I'd love to hear your thoughts on it--let's have a little discussion in the comments, maybe? (I'm looking at you, Queen of West Procrastination and Breena Ronan and Jeff and Kristen and a whole bunch of other people whose opinions I value but to whom I'm too lazy to link right now.) The site is divided into two main sections, History and Memories.

The History section contains some common economic statistics and major events, as well as some illustrations of and pricing for items in these categories: Cars, Clothes, Electrical, Food, Furniture, Homes, and Music. The History section thus endears itself to an elementary school or middle school student who was assigned to write a report on a particular decade. I also find it to be the least interesting portion of the site, even though it is in many ways about material culture, one of my passions. Still, the site might also be interesting to people wanting to take a quick trip down memory lane. You can find out, for example, what happened the year you were born, or the years you were in fifth and sixth grade (for me, that includes the Challenger explosion and Halley's comet--and yes, the discovery of mad cow disease. What a great year for science!).

Far more interesting to me is the Memories section. Anyone can send in memories from the 1920s through today; memories are posted at the webmaster's discretion as he wants to keep the site family-friendly and unoffensive. The range of memories is quite astounding. Memory is, of course, famously unreliable and thus is far more interesting than historiography (which is itself pretty unreliable, too, since it's ever so fragmentary--trust me, I know, as my dissertation is based on archival evidence). What we remember and how we choose to articulate those memories says so much about our cultures and psyches.

For example, take the submission "When Chewing Gum Was a Big Deal." The author claims that when she was in school (in Canada), the biggest problem facing children and teachers was whether or not kids were chewing gum. I thought this was a piece from the 1940s or so, but no--its author says she was in school from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. That happens to be the time when I was in school. (I graduated from high school in 1993.) I read this post and was disappointed because it doesn't ever really get to the chewing gum--it's more a half-baked meditation on school violence. And of course, while reading it, I was all "WTF?!" because let me assure you, in the U.S. at the time, school violence was indeed an issue, and no one blinked an eye at gum, unless you were, say, diving into the school swimming pool.

But it's just such clashes of memory and experience that promise to make The People History exciting. Because while you and I may think about history in meta terms--about historiography, and voice, and who has access to what documents and archives, and who has the time and resources and credentials (in the eyes of certain libraries, only Ph.D.s qualify) for rigorous historical research. But the average person isn't going to be grappling with such issues; she may have learned (and forgotten) History (with a capital H) from a series of textbooks. The opportunity to share her memories, and to have them woven into the fabric of a larger collective history, may be an exciting one.

I'm quite impressed by the spectrum of memories shared on The People History blog. Besides the chewing gum submission, there's an interview with someone who moved into a 1960s-era home with a bomb shelter, a reminiscence about Mark McGwire's record-breaking 1998 home run, and posts about the milkman, somebody's uncle's wedding, and Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. The writing is uneven, sometimes irritatingly so, but I could easily lose myself in the site for a few hours because of its sheer diversity of content.

So I give The People History, as rough around the edges as it currently is in terms of design and content, a thumbs up. It may never become uber-popular, but it has its purpose and no doubt gives voice to people who might not be interested in setting up their own blogs or web sites.


steve said...

Thanks for your review

It was fair and I do know that the design is flawed and could be much much better.

Currently I am grappling with the choice between paying a web designer for some help with a new design or setting up something where for each memory added and donating $5.00 to a charity helping children in an underdeveloped country.
I personally would prefer to use the $2000 I have set aside for this to do some good for kids ( One of the first postings I recieved was from a boy in Burundai about using the site to find out about his birthday ( and I am trying to look into charities that may be working in that country )

It is funny you mentioned the Chewing Gum Memory as one of the anomilies the site has raised is how very diverse peoples memories are and so dependent on where they grew up not only country but also city or in the sticks .

Anyway I would like to thank you for taking the time and effort to review The People History where people memories and history join together to create an online social history


Jeff Mather said...

I took a look at the site after you mentioned it a few days back and just finished reading a bit more closely now.

It's an interesting idea, a moderated blog with lots of authors talking about the way they thought things were. I didn't read most of the rememberances -- lots of homework going on right now -- but I skimmed a week's worth.

I don't know. . . . I just couldn't get into it. I like history a great deal, and I always get suckered in by oral histories much more than I expect. So I was a little surprised.

This project is a time capsule of what we choose to remember or share now about the past. I suspect this project might be more interesting years from now.

It's also unusual (to me at least) because it's a mostly anonymous, aggregate sort-of-history. There's "Steve from Canada" and "Tosh from the UK" and "Dan from the US". It's not at all focused.

If anything, it's a fabulous distillation of the blogosphere itself: lots of people talking about themselves to anyone who will listen without much worry about what will eventually happen to those ramblings.

steve said...

Jeff Mather

I do take issue with some of your arguments, There are plenty of instances where autobiographies are published most often by the great and good or those who are famous enough that people will read and buy them , but many of the very ordinary people of this world have little chance of anyone reading what they consider important memories , many of the memories may not be considered great literary works but are no less important to preserve how those ordinary people were affected by changes in society or events in history that had direct impact on their lives.

I have a piece going out on PBS in mid April with some memories recorded on film by people ranging from mid 40's to 86 , the memory from the gentleman of 86 concerns the era of the depression when he was 7 years old his memory has needed to be heavily edited because of his age ( but still caused eyes to water by almost all those in the room ), his written memory would more than likely have you consider as just someone adding to the blogospere without being well written and just a name of Ed , USA as the poster ( memories from the Interviews will not be added until the piece is released ). But I will post as he originally did with no changes.

I personably think history is divided into 2 areas facts which can be verified and ordinary people's recollections of those times
Below is one of the many examples of what the site is about that I feel is important

But I must be very wrong as it just someone telling something that means nothing

The People History

Jeff Mather said...

I'm not saying that these memories aren't meaningful to the people who wrote them or to present and future historians. And I'm not saying that there aren't gems there in the posts.

But what I am saying is that I think many of these posts will be more valuable to readers and researchers in the future than they are now. Consider the one from Aimey about 9/11 that ends with this observation about what we're thinking now:

"I think I realized that day that life would never be the same, and 4 years later it seems to be a never ending battle to keep us safe from further attacks."

We don't really need anyone to tell us what the current political and social dialogue is like. But I suspect that when we look back in 10 or 20 or 50 years for attitudes about the so-called War on Terror and whether it had popular support, Aimey's little aside is going to be more valuable. And it will be a nice complement to more mainstream sources like the New York Times or the White Hose press briefings or John Stewart. (Personally I find entries in my own private journal more interesting years after I write them because I see who I was at a particular time and how my activities, concerns and personality have changed.)

Which brings me to my comment about the blogosphere. Many sites like The Clutter Museum, The People History Site, and my own occupy a curious relationship with the present and with history. Weblogs democratize everything: events, opinion, scholarship, even history itself. The fact that people talk without necessarily needing an audience -- although I know we all hope for one -- is one of the most interesting things about the blogosphere. I didn't mean it as an insult.

steve said...

Jeff Mather

OK Jeff I sort of went off the deep end , I don't care what people say about the design of the site but do not get upset about the content some of the memories we have collected since the memory part of the blog went online in January are true gems ,

When I had the idea for the site what I was after were memories from peoples lives BEFORE the Internet took off or at least before 2000 as up to then many ordinary people had no way of expressing the effects on their lives from major events, a couple which I am quite proud people decided to share are those below


I agree that the blogosphere has allowed people to document events from their lives much better , but my own concern is that is few will be able to find and read them

The People History currently shows about 10,000 page views per day which is increasing and the Memories section has does about 1,500 of those page views per day.

One of the reasons I allow Bloggers to leave their site at the end of posts is so people who find a memory interesting or pertaining to something in their lives they can then visit the posters site