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
between YOU THE VISITOR and we THE PEOPLE HISTORY
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.