We can’t go a class period without questioning how to present the past authentically. Over the past several weeks, we’ve all made and read suggestions such as shifting back to the list-like form of the medieval annals, making the recording process collective, or, like Couch, gathering history from the mouths of the people. Whatever methodology, it seems that we’ve all agreed on one thing: there’s no “one size fits all” strategy. Instead, just as when representing data visually, different recipes of techniques are needed depending on context; however, this week’s reading, “TEI by Example,” seems to warn against such an anarchic system.
Before standardized markup languages were developed in the 1980s, every project employed their own systems, as well as the software needed to analyze these patterns, rendering it nearly impossible for humanities researcher to share texts and programs. It was as if every set of scholars wrote their notes in different brands of invisible ink which could each only be read when placed beneath the glowing rays of a brand-specific, highly expensive light bulb. While it might sound absurd, I’d like to extend this analogy to history–the markup language of the past. If all historians record, and attempt to make sense of, events using random combinations of various methods as formerly proposed, will we be left with a view of days gone by that is as diverse, but also as murky and useless, as encoding in a time before TEI?
The answer, I believe, is yes. Picture this: one historian walks into a World War I convention with a neatly bound narrative, and he is soon joined by hundreds of others, some clutching poster boards marked with timelines and others waving CDs on which they’ve recorded propaganda songs. There are men in the corner waving guns in the air and decked out in uniforms while nearby, a woman holds a stack of love letters sent from soldiers to worried wives. They all have the same passion but very different ways of displaying and assigning value to it. Who gets to present first? And once this has been decided, how can those used to studying garments join in a scholarly analysis of music? The convention falls into chaos, and everyone goes home frustrated, unable to share valuable bits of knowledge because of too much diversity in format.
What’s the solution? This is the million dollar question to which, as I’ve previously stated, there is no single response. Here’s my stab at it, for what it’s worth. Taking TEI as an example, historians should create a list if guidelines–not rules or standards–which will help cut through the chaos while still, like the markup language, providing scholars the choice of customizable elements with which to represent their research. Just as TEI’s are generated by a consortium, these historical representation guidelines should be compiled by an international panel of historians. Once put forth, they will be voted on and amended. Hopefully, the end result will be something which will enable the study of history to come together in one, democratic and representative way. Let’s learn from example.