Sometimes, when I am taking pages of notes on a book or a primary source, or when I browse and organize my many bookshelves full of historical monographs, I wonder what would happen if my home froze in time and remained undisturbed for a 100 years or more before humans stepped foot in it again. Because I’m a historian, whatever future archaeologist or other wayward explorer who stumbled into my library would find is a wealth of information about the past. What would the books and notes tell future historians, not only about the history of mankind (more specifically American history), but about me?
To pursue this thought experiment further, we have to lay some ground rules in order to allow it to function without too many distracting technical questions. We’ll assume our hypothetical historians are fluent and literate in English (whether or not it’s their native language), so therefore they can read any written texts they find. For the sake of imagination, let’s assume that large parts of American history have been lost or are obscured, so they’re encountering some of the ideas contained in my library, if not for the first time, then rarely. Obviously these historians are bringing their own cultural biases with them, so to keep the experience simple we will not assume race, gender, or any other categories of identity – maybe these historians are even aliens from another planet seeking to learn more about the human race who have very different cultural assumptions from our own, so different we can’t imagine them. While hoping this isn’t a cop-out on my part, we’ll just assume our intrepid explorers have a cursory familiarity with but a healthy interest in the history they have found without complicating their assumptions by trying to determine imaginary bias.
One question I’ve purposefully left dangling is how these people or beings know what history is, or if they even conceive of it in the same way that we do. Let’s assume they too record facts about their past, and so, in the most basic sense, practice history. The first thing that our future historians may have to decipher is the way in which we write about the past and how we conceive of modalities of time (whatever time happens to be). If we assume they our familiar with our linear concept of time, simply looking at the way my books are arranged wouldn’t offer them any help in determining chronology, seeing as my books are all alphabetized. That means they’d have to figure out how to read our time line on their own. Different cultures conceive of time differently, so this may prove to be a challenge to them.
Let’s assume our explorers have managed to decipher our way of cataloging time, which in and of itself would teach them about how a western historian conceives of history and how westerners conceive of the structure of time. What else could they learn from my particular collection of books? I’m a 20th century American cultural historian who attends an institution that also requires me to be well-versed in all periods of American history. As an undergraduate I focused mainly on East Asian history, a fact which also informs the content of my bookshelves. With these broad categories now delineated, what kind of topics would our future historians learn about from my books?
They might first note a particular obsession with identity. From my books a future historian would learn at least a perfunctory history of race and gender in America (though, regretfully not nearly as much about class or sexuality). My books and notes would provide them with definitions of the concept of race and stories about how it operated in society. Future historians would also learn about gender, competing definitions of it, and also many books about how gender operates as a category of assessment in the historical field. Luckily for our future historians, my bookshelves contain many volumes on historical methodology, especially concerning gender. Learning the historiography of a subject would do a great deal to teach future historians about how our ideas about ourselves and how we deconstructed them changed over time as influenced by surrounding circumstances. Study changes in methodology also means they would study the changing circumstances that inform it.
Learning about identity through history opens a door for both future and current historians to examine all other aspects of society, culture, and politics. A book like Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound is a great example. Through May’s focus on gender constructs in the home in the 1950s, she is able to demonstrate how the Cold War state entered the home and helped shape family roles in order to guarantee the continuation of the national security state. May links identity formation to the policies and formation of the state. As our future historians journey from identity formation to political projects when they read my books, they would learn not only about culture and society but also about the way our government is structured, and the way it operated both inside and outside the halls of power. They would be exposed to the names of laws and policies these authors considered important and related to their topics, which, while informative, would still leave out a wealth of information. How would future historians decide which narrative focus to pursue? And what would they think informed my choices?
There are hundreds, thousands of years of history on my bookshelves. And these bookshelves display only a tiny fraction of what has been written by historians since the just the professionalization of the field in the 19th century. Say our future historians found a book from the Dunning School and Hannah Rosen’s Terror in the Heart of Freedom in my collection. How would they know which one to privilege when trying to construct an accurate picture of Reconstruction? Would they think that my passionate interest in culture and popular culture was a reflection of larger trends in historical inquiry at the time I was studying? In other words, would Karal Ann Marling’s As Seen on TV take precedence over Steven Casey’s Selling the Korean War in their understanding of our culture?
Perhaps the larger question here for historians is, how do we understand the historical worlds we construct for ourselves, and how does our work and study interact with those of our colleagues and peers? As I prepare for my comprehensive oral exams, I keep finding books to add to my list that seem just as compelling as the ones I’ve already read. Despite the daunting task of memorizing so many books, it seems I can never read enough to understand not only the multifaceted subject that is American history, but also to understand the workings of the discipline itself, the way through collective endeavor we all work to change it over time.
When I consider our future historians, I cannot help but picture them as frustrated with the lack of clear narrative my books would provide when taken in alphabetized pieces. Instead they’d find a mishmash of books covering a range of different but intimately interrelated interests. Having them sit for something like my comprehensive oral exams would perhaps be one of the best ways to help them understand the connection between William Cronon’s Changes in the Land and De Witt Douglas Kilgore’s Astrofuturism. Finding a historian’s treasure trove of books must be celebrated not only for the blanks that it might fill in, but for the incredible complexity of material that it would provide to someone trying to understand past cultures. How we think of the past both informs and is informed by the present. I would hope our future historians would keep this in mind as they browsed my bookshelves to learn about the past.