How to Keep History

Last semester (Fall 2010), I had the opportunity to study in Washington, DC through William & Mary.  During my time there, I visited the National Archives and the Library of Congress archive building in Culpepper, VA.  There, we learned of the challenge of archiving and the constant innovation in technology.  For example, the Library of Congress told us that they had just purchased all Tweets, meaning they would house all Tweets ever Tweeted(?) in the Library.  To me, this seemed absurd, why would you want meaningless statements in 140 words or less? Especially given the universality of Twitter, that any Joe Schmo could tweet something and have it saved for posterity.  But it’s clear that with all the advances in technology over the past 20 years, archivists are meeting the challenge of appraisal head-on.  The only problem, well not the only problem, but one of the problems that sticks out to me is the culture divide.  Technology has advanced at a higher rate over the past two decades than ever before.  While this can be very beneficial for society, it also leaves some older generations in the dust.  Archivists who went to school in the 1960s or 70s may be less likely to be aware of things like Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media sites.  Therefore, archivists have the double duty of taking care of history as well as keeping up with the present, and that can be hard!  Even I have trouble with Facebook and I absolutely REFUSE to get a Twitter.  Don’t even get me started on texting!  But because these media get used so heavily by our generation, archivists have to re-orient there way of preserving history for posterity.  Instead of preserving letters of correspondence, they’ll be saving texts that don’t even have real words in them! How sad.  Anyway, I digress.

The reading we did this week was from a book by John Ridener on the study of archival theory.  The first part of the reading opens with a quote from George Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” [and the future!] –George Orwell.  The second part of the quote in brackets is my addition.  I fully believe that whoever is controlling how we preserve our present and our past, controls our future in the sense that, whatever is preserved and however it is preserved, determines future society’s interpretation of history.  Whenever I am studying history or reading a historical document, I keep a healthy dose of skepticism in mind.  To me, even primary documents are skewed but that’s because they are in the perspective of one person.  History is subjective.  How we interpret events in the present, determine how we shape that event as a historical one for the future.

Ridener says, “The often-contentious disagreement regarding if and how archivists should select material to become part of archives is the key to understanding the many discourses of archival theory” (Ridener 3).  I agree.  If it were up to me, we would save everything.  It’s impossible to say what did and did not have an impact on our culture.  However, I understand that choosing what to save is vital and can be quite difficult.  That’s Williamsburg Documentary Project is so important.  We study the history of a small town and write down and record memories that may have otherwise been lost with the passage of time.  Colonial Williamsburg is in the business of re-creating history from three or four hundred years ago.  As far as I know, no one besides us is taking the time to record life in Williamsburg after the colonial time period.  And really, Williamsburg’s history is just important as any other history, because everything that happened here, shaped the present state of the town, and that’s what we need to preserve.


The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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