Digital History — Spring 2010

January 29, 2010

Thoughts on Seneca Falls as seen through four lenses of interpretation…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 2:47 am

For this assignment, we were instructed to pick a topic of interest to us and investigate how Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica, top Google sites, and a conventional source of our choice treated the topic, giving particular attention to what these artifacts can tell us about the future of historical narrative, as discussed by the authors of this week’s readings. I chose to compare different versions of the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, commonly considered a landmark event in the history of the women’s rights movement in America.

What I conclude from this limited survey is that, although digital scholarship enables myriad possibilities for non-linear narrative, a traditional linear narrative and navigation style often still provides the backbone of the garden-variety didactic history project, digital or otherwise. Each of the treatments of Seneca Falls proceeded in an essentially chronological fashion. Like the scholarship on the Dust Bowl referenced by William Cronon, they tended to choose a beginning and end for the story which provided a sort of teleological moral framework for the reader. HistoryNet’s relation of the events includes a full discussion of the suffrage movement and the enmity and eventual cohesion of AWSA and NWSA before the passage of the 19th Amendment, thereby placing Seneca Falls firmly within the narrative of women’s fight for the vote. Wikipedia covers a shorter span of time, but incorporates a more historiographical and critical perspective, giving special attention to contemporaries’  varying interpretations of the Convention’s legacy and importance.  With his skepticism about the unacknowledged bourgeois ideologies inherent in the project of “lower case” history, Keith Jenkins might appreciate the  section on the compilation of The History of Woman Suffrage (1881), in which the authors describe Elizabeth Cady Stanton as consciously positioning the Convention as central to the story of women’s suffrage.

Additionally, Wikipedia’s  inclusion of Lucretia Mott’s perspective complicates the traditional suffrage-focused narrative of Seneca Falls. In Mott’s recollections, the Convention appears as one of a host of related events promoting the overall welfare of American women — not as the figurehead event of the fight for women’s rights. While I do not necessarily argue that the “discovery” of this source should be considered as the final word on a “true” past, it’s safe to say that this interpretation challenges the suffrage-centered narrative of first-wave feminism (itself an invented paradigm). Digital projects can sometimes more easily acknowledge and incorporate elements of uncertainty or tension in historical interpretation, creating a space for contested analysis and debated “factuality.”

Interestingly, despite only devoting two paragraphs to the Convention itself, the conventional source took care to place Seneca Falls within the larger landscape of women’s reform. In addition to suffrage, the participants “demanded specific social and legal changes, including a role in lawmaking, improved property rights, equity in divorce, and access to education and the professions” (429). More broadly, the textbook highlights the many connections between antebellum women’s activism and abolitionism. Each of the sources surveyed noted the ties of many of the Seneca Falls women to the abolition movement. Of the digital sources, Wikipedia provided the most complete account of the connections, but the conventional source yielded the most sophisticated analysis of the two movements.

Of course, the intertextual nature of the digital offerings means that the reader could quite easily perform their own research on the feminist-abolitionist connection by consulting the primary and secondary sources in the hyperlinked footnotes, or by following in-text wiki links to the biographical pages of women and men active in both movements.  As would be expected, the best digital offerings (Wikipedia and Britannica) were extensively hyperlinked, allowing the reader to branch off at any point to learn more about individual people, places, and events pertinent to the Convention. Like Thomas and Ayers’ The Differences Slavery Made, the interactivity of the digital medium allows the reader to (in theory) control the parameters of the educational experience, easily going above and beyond their initial exposure to the ideas presented. Although the book related the interconnected nature of the two movements most skillfully , digital media has  room for expansion that print media simply cannot match, even if publishing companies were thriving in the way that Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence so ably shows they are not.

Of course, as Thomas says in his remarks about the design and writing process for The Differences Slavery Made, infinite disk space does not justify the addition of “bloated notes and extra material.” Wikipedia’s blow-by-blow retelling of practically each motion of the Convention certainly drags for the casual reader. HistoryNet, on the other hand, provides a narrative format that seems to privilege a good read over factual detail — for example, the superfluous assertion that “near panic gripped the five feminists as they gathered around the McClintocks’ parlor table the following Sunday morning”  as they contemplated setting the Convention’s agenda and writing a manifesto in only three days. Additionally, the complete lack of citations for the HistoryNet piece is troubling, especially given the number of (ostensibly) direct quotes used by the author. As Cronon points out, one of the important boundaries for proper historical narrative is that our stories cannot contravene known facts about the historical past (1372). Without citations, we have no way to check the veracity of this interpretation — and indeed, HistoryNet and Wikipedia differ over whether last-living signer Charlotte Woodward ever got to vote in the 1920 elections.

Ultimately, as the readings for this week suggest, digital scholarship has the potential to allow audiences to experience different types of historical narratives, like branching, non-linear projects that require interactive engagement. However, even for more conventional projects, the referential nature of hyperlinked footnotes and references make the process of the historian’s intellectual craft more transparent to the non-specialist reader. However, the four sites surveyed here show that traditional sources also remain useful in the age of digital scholarship. Their information is high-quality and reliable, and although it is embedded in ideological narratives, those stories can provide an embarkation point for new students or those struggling to gain cultural literacy — and for more advanced scholars, they provide important background theories to think with and against, using new media and old.

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