White clock, 2018.
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Practicing History Is in Filling the Gaps

Mar Hicks, a historian of technology who tweets @histoftech, posted a thread with her thoughts on having read a couple of biographies about Steve Jobs. One was by his first daughter; the other by this daughter’s mother.

This particular tweet from the thread is illuminating:

 

It got me thinking: what would a history of Jobs, drawing only on sources written by women, look like? We so often as historians have to reconstruct women's lives from archival gaps, from narratives that disdained them or intentionally cut them out. What if we flipped the script? - Mar Hicks tweet, January 8, 2019
It got me thinking: what would a history of Jobs, drawing only on sources written by women, look like? We so often as historians have to reconstruct women’s lives from archival gaps, from narratives that disdained them or intentionally cut them out. What if we flipped the script? – Mar Hicks tweet, January 8, 2019

Yes, women’s lives have typically been left out of historical documentation. If you read obituaries from the late 1800s and early 1900s, if there is an obituary for a woman, it will often leave out her first name, listing her by her husband’s name. She is subsumed by her husband’s identity.

We’ve made great strides in recording and collecting women’s history since that time, but there have been and continue to be many gaps for various communities. We don’t have enough history of LGBTQ people, Native Americans, African Americans, people with disabilities, and etc. The everyday history of ordinary people in all groups is still difficult to come by, in spite of all the sharing of meals, pets, and minutiae on social media. Historians don’t have practical methods to access the social media feeds of most people. (If we were major marketing companies, we’d get this data thrown at us in droves because privacy doesn’t matter when there is money to be made from it.)

Most of history is about the highly successful or those wealthy or well off enough to afford them the luxury of having their histories recorded. If you’ve got a way with words, you can record your own history. But, you still must have the luxury of having the time to do it. (I am very fortunate to have a life and family that have not only given me the space to write, but the encouragement to do so.)

So, given the paucity of recorded and archived history in relation to actual lived history, the practice of history is about filling an infinite number of gaps.

Those who practice history must develop a specific skill set. We have to be endlessly curious, asking loads of questions. We have to recognize that there are gaps, and we have to have a copious knowledge about typical human behavior and trends over time. We need to understand where to find historical resources and how to use them, turning a critical eye on them so we aren’t led astray. Plus, we need to have enough imagination to be able to stitch together potential options for filling those gaps using all of the above skills.

Practicing history is serious fun because our brains love a mystery and the gaps in history provide plenty of mystery.


Tune in to next week’s blog post for a discussion about a specific form of everyday history that is often actively ignored by historians.