Malcolm Gillies, 'Virtual Histories: Facts, Contexts and Interpretations': Paper for Virtual Histories, Real Time Challenges Seminar

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© Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History

Virtual Histories: Facts, Contexts and Interpretations

Malcolm Gillies

I am very pleased to have been asked to present this opening talk to our day on Virtual Histories. I do feel a bit of an imposter, however, as I am not a historian by trade. And, to be honest, I do not know much about technology, either. But if you were around in the Library last night, and heard my presentation about Percy Grainger (a side-show to the Library’s Eccentrics series), then you might have gathered that I am a music historian of sorts. So, please forgive me if I teach you history, technology and information specialists how to suck eggs or just bore you with some naive ideas — as it were, from the fringe of The Arts –of what your disciplines are all about.

What does “virtual histories” entail? I was challenged to ask this basic question because after spending a few enjoyable hours on the Web, looking up the projects in which many of today’s speakers have been involved over the last ten or twenty years. “Virtual history” would seem to encompass just about everything concerning the presentation of history and its data using computers: electronic publishing of journals and books, digitized catalogues, gateways enabling rapid disciplinary connections, digitized archival or library collections of historic materials, computer-based methodological tracts or templates, and so on. And then I realized that “virtual history” went beyond that: were microfilms and microforms “virtual”? The answer would seem to be “yes”. Well, then, what about photocopies or photographs? They, too, seem to qualify as “being such in power, force, or effect, although not actually or expressly such”, as The Macquarie Dictionary so elegantly defines “virtual”. I went one step further: is all history virtual? The answer, in one sense, would seem again to have to be “yes”. For, to refer back to The Macquarie, history is never “actually or expressly such”. History is always a simplified illusion of what actually or expressly was. That is, it is at best a “virtual reality”.

Having poked a stick at “virtual”, I turned to “history” and “histories”. So many of the Internet databases and CD-ROMs with titles of virtual or electronic “history” appear not definitely to be so, but rather to be compendia of facts and collections of documentary facsimiles presented in a kind of neutral, air-conditioned way. Now, this presentation clearly has many advantages: original documents can be better preserved if only virtual fingers finger them; copyright willing, scholars and enthusiasts the world over can potentially share in the documentary riches rather than only those admitted to the owning archive’s sacred chambers; through use of library or archival gateways, apparently disparate materials can easily be linked at the manipulation of one’s mouse; materials of different media (written, sound, visual) can be interleaved and interrelated as many a physical repository finds impossible or grossly inconvenient. But such bases of data, built of facts or documents, do not a history make, for they lack the aspects of context and interpretation which turn an attempt at record into an attempt at history.

I turn to a favourite little text What is History? by Edward H. Carr,1 which most of you will surely know, and a few probably despise. Writing in 1961, Carr emphasized what I would call the “virtual” nature of all history: that, however thick the facts and however skilful the narrative, we never can find out “how it really was”; that, however simple the story, it still involves massive selectivity, and hence, gross subjectivity. As Carr says, some element of interpretation necessarily enters into every historical fact. He stresses that all history is contemporary history, for we can only see the past through the filter of our own present, through the filter of current problems and preoccupations, increasingly, I am sure he would have added today, through the filter of our technologies. What I like most in Carr, who was writing just before the first major computer applications to the Humanities, is his rejection of the history-as-jigsaw model. Even if we have a wealth of data at our fingertips, how has it been preselected and, hence, to some degree, predetermined for us? Where have the jigsaw pieces come from? We have, Carr reminds us, a great inheritance from Greece of the fifth century BC. But it tells that century’s story mainly through the eyes of Athenian citizens. Spartans, Corinthians, or Thebans — let alone Persians and all sorts of non-citizens — have a tenuous representation in its materials, and hence, in our historical view. And while political and artistic life is well represented, we could go on, private life is only spasmodically accounted for.

Carr accuses the late nineteenth century of having had a fetish for facts –irrefutable, objective, encyclopaedic facts — and a corresponding neglect of contexts and interpretations. His commentary has a peculiarly contemporary ring, as I think we are again in an age led by hard-headed positivists addicted to the burgeoning world of facts, of objectivity and pseudo-objectivity, of definite things to know: in a word, of a commodity called “knowledge”.2 Now, however, technology has almost infinitely expanded the capacity for fact gathering, in many cases making the historian’s job harder than easier. David Rundle, writing in last November’s History Today lamented that, gateways notwithstanding, “Trawling through the Web’s excess of information for a suitable site can be like a paper(less) chase through the arcane, the inappropriate and the just plain bizarre.”3 My concern is, however, more that by removing the necessity for data collection in situ and through the increasing reliance upon automatically culled selections of data, material is frequently ripped, literally cut, from its context. Such data’s broader validity is often unverifiable. The much-vaunted search capacities can be a trap for the unwary, encouraging a non-linear reading of passages out of context, leading to simplistic or sometimes even false conclusions which might be contradicted in the next (unread or unpresented) paragraph of a document.

The growing body of electronic collections in the field of History has, it seems to me, hastened some developments in the discipline. Technology has afforded this century the most intimate of insights into private life, most of the details of which were discarded or simply forgotten in previous centuries as one generation succeeded another. That magnificent, five-volume series A History of Private Life 4 shows just how much harder historians of private life have had to work when looking at times before our own century. For the collection of historical data of those earlier ages was mainly focussed on great individuals or great institutions. Starting with photography in the mid-nineteenth century, however, technology has increasingly documented the lives of the unrich and the unfamous, not to mention the infamous. Now, in the computer age, the pace of that documentation is positively galloping.

With technology’s aid, local history, family history and oral history have taken their place as disciplinary equals. As the formats of data presentation have changed, however, and the relevant wheat separated from the irrelevant chaff (as considered by subsequent generations), the danger is that — just like the collected family memorabilia of old — the original context of the data will be lost and the relics converted into an apparently objective, neutral and timeless format, easily accessible, to be sure, and beautifully packaged, but omitting some of the defining hallmarks of their time. If you read a transcript of an oral history interview, rather than hear the actual interview, for instance, the difference in impression can be startling. The accents, pronunciation and speed of delivery are so important is communicating a sense of context, affiliation or cultural sympathies. I give one example: Percy Grainger. Despite his role as an icon of Australian pianism, indeed of Australian athleticism, and Richard Roxburgh’s consequently broad vowels in representing him in the recent film Passion, Grainger spoke in real life with a clipped English accent. By verbal affiliation, he was an Englishman, although Passion has made him a latter-day Australian.

It is an interesting question whether the very medium of presentation of electronic data and the multiple options for presentation afforded by hypertext are bringing about changes in historical methodology. Are these electronic tools changing the very nature of knowledge and argument, the very nature of “truth”? In a provocative essay “History and Hyptertext” Monash University historian Graeme Davison suggests that the technology of hypertext well suits the causes of postmodernism, such as “the destabilisation of narrative, the introduction of multiple voices, the death of the author”.5 (This is something which Edward H. Carr did not contemplate — for him the authorial hand is always, and deliberately, strong.) Davison quotes at length from Ilana Snyder, who wrote in Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth of 1996:

Davison will not go that far, however, through a traditional Humanities belief that in an essay the author is not involved in multi-dimensional literary or historical play but must make a selection of the most meaningful of the connections, that is, must adopt a position of at least implied moral responsibility. Others are not so concerned, and at earlier levels of schooling certainly the play, fun and interactive element of using historical data and multiple pathways needs to be emphasized if the student is ever to become “hooked” on history. But for those out of their historical diapers, important moral questions remain. Are the enhanced capacities for selection both of data and of pathways leading to a more whimsical, amoral mix-and-match history, where the virtuosity, artistry or novelty of the way matters more than the unity of argument or ultimate worth of the historical end-point?

The biggest danger lurking in the growing electronic wealth of history and historical data may well be that this very material be taken to equate to History itself, or, alternatively, that the electronic world be mistaken for the entire world rather than, as it is, just another useful source for certain kinds of data and opinions. Already this tendency is apparent in school and undergraduate essays, with students looking to the computer for all the answers, being reliant upon, and so limited by, its searches and links, its unwieldy, unregulated mass of material and its standardized formats. Many students do not seem to realize that what is available electronically is still only the tip of the iceberg, particularly with a discipline as rooted in the past as history. Not only are there countless undigitized print sources stretching back at least for five centuries, but there are other vital historical sources — furniture, clothes, buildings, instruments, works of art, personalia — which are the very stuff of history, and which stoutly resist meaningful digitization. I guess that here I am suggesting that while a digital history classroom allows vivid representations of the world to be brought into the classroom, it is equally, if not more, important to take the class out of the classroom to confront real objects, places, repositories and people.

The apparent democracy of the Web is also seductive to the young scholar. The medium seems to induce a quite unreasonable expectation of free and unfettered exploitation of all presented materials. I notice that the Bali Oral History Project of Vickers and Warren, for instance, wisely established a permissions station at its Web entrance. Along with other conditions of entry, the user must agree not to quote from interview material found on the website without gaining standard permissions from the individuals concerned. The aggressive expansion of intellectual property rights which we are currently witnessing around the world suggests that more rather than fewer such electronic portals will be necessary in the future.

To conclude: a short bureaucratic promotion. Over the last decade the Australian state and university libraries, the Australian Research Council, the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee and the bodies promoting university and school teaching have sponsored a variety of digitization projects in the historical domain. Ease of research access, enhancement of learning possibilities, preservation of valuable primary sources and expected cost efficiencies have been the carrots for such investments. But what is now clear is that — as the late Victorians eventually came to realize — we can capture just a fraction of our essential world digitally. The enthusiasm and talent of persuasive individuals rather than any sense of coherent national direction would appear to have fuelled many archival digitization projects, although digitization of library catalogues has obviously been much more methodical.

What, then, of the future, with its promise of even more limited purchasing power and a static level of research funding? A March symposium on Australia’s information future laid the basis for a group which I now chair: the Coalition for Innovation in Scholarly Communication. It is a sober group intended only to have an eighteen-month life. It draws representatives from Australian libraries, the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, the Australian Research Council, CSIRO, the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee and the National Academies Forum. Its purpose is to raise consciousness of the crisis currently facing Australia in providing cost-effective access to scholarly research information, and of the impending danger of Australia’s intellectual marginalization. The Coalition recognizes that Australia’s information future will as far as we can foresee, be one of both print and digital materials, the purchasing, development and use of which can be better harmonized.

The fully digital library actually seems further away than it did ten years ago, when legal and economic impediments were not as pressing as now. After a series of short information-gathering exercises, to fill blatant gaps in our knowledge of Australia’s current position, the Coalition aims to develop as specific an agenda as possible for positioning Australia more strategically in the global knowledge economy. That agenda will, we hope, better inform libraries, archives and funding bodies about national information needs, possibilities and priorities for, among other things, digitization projects.

What is clear is that in the future partnerships between all key players in the information chain — creators, distributors, facilitators and users — are essential. Today’s symposium organized by the State Library and the Historical Association is just one such friendly partnership which bodes well for a healthy Australian information future.

Malcolm Gillies is President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and President of the National Academies Forum. A musicologist specializing in early twentieth-century studies, he has since 1992 been Professor of Music at The University of Queensland.