History from the Bottom Up
History from the bottom up (sometimes called "new social history") is a way of looking at history that grew popular among historians in the 1960s and 1970s. It is often contrasted with history from the top down. The latter is what most people are familiar with in high school and most documentaries. History from the top down focuses upon the stories of senators, great businessman, and generals. While those "great men of history" are well-known, they are not who made the most history. That can be claimed by the common person. Farmers, mothers, cotton mill workers, school children, etc. ... the people who lived each day just trying to continue to live another day. People who do not have streets or avenues named after them. People whose houses are rarely preserved for people to tour decades later. People who never owned a single thing in their lives, sometimes even including themselves. People who might not even have a marker in a cemetery.
All of the counties within the Wiregrass have had at least one book written on them by a local historian. Some are quality works of history, others are little more than published name-dropping narratives that focus upon prominent families that are often related to the author thereof. Works on local history often have room for improvement.
The Wiregrass Region has been home to millions of a people over the course of history. Most of their names have been lost to time and are irretrievable, but the stories of some can be rediscovered.
The Tools of a Social Historian
In comparison to more conventional types of history, history from the bottom up has its own sets of challenges. Primary sources are often limited to documents that are produced by everyone. A person focusing upon history from the bottom up would benefit greatly from learning how genealogists and family historians research. There are few documents that everyone will generate over the course of their lifetime. Genealogists have often been derided by professional historians as being unreliable when it comes to the facts, which has given rise to the phrase "to lie like a genealogist." Genealogy is not without its problems and fraudsters, but the sources used by genealogists are a seldom used goldmine for historians focusing upon the common person.
Most people will appear in at least one United States Federal Census if they have survived beyond age ten. What information was recorded in a census record varies from census to census. In theory, everybody alive at the time of a census should appear in a census. As any genealogist will tell you, that is not always the case. Census enumerators might skip over one side of a street, an enumerator might have missed a farm deep in the country, somebody might have been visiting relatives elsewhere, or any number of other things. Census records can also vary in the accuracy of their information.
Birth and death records are also valuable in both history from the bottom up and genealogy, but when they were first required varied from state to state. Furthermore, oddities in record keeping happen. A child might not have been expected to survive, so a birth certificate might have never been issued. A person might have died out in the country-side and been buried without a death certificate having ever been issued. Information from death certificates can also be inaccurate. People filling them out might have not known the deceased well, or might have been filling out the information while still getting over the person's death.
Local newspapers are another valuable resource for social historians. One can create a narrative about a person from census records and death certificates, but newspapers can give details that can really flesh out the story of a person's life. They can tell how a farmer had been working his land for forty years and had his house burn down after it was struck by lightning. Not everybody will have an obituary. Obituaries cost money to print. Newspapers can also vary in reliability.
Oral history is a major tool for both genealogists and social historians. Getting a person's account of their own life is an extremely valuable resource. They can have memories of not well accounted by other sources, and memories of people who have been gone for decades. Oral history is not without its problems. To quote a certain TV doctor, "everybody lies." People want to make themselves and their family members look good. Also, memories fade and can become unreliable unintentionally. Family stories can be passed down from generation to generation. Some are based in fact, but others can be entirely made up. Once a person dies their oral history knowledge goes with them. This makes collecting oral history a matter of great importance. The 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s are quickly changing from a realm of living memory and to one of the subject of history books.
The most important skill for a social historian or really any historian is their ability to scrutinize and weigh their sources. Why was a source produced? Who produced it? How does this information compare to other accounts? Which source is more reliable? Why? What biases does the historian bring to their interpretation of a source?
There are many other records that can be of assistance while focusing upon history from the bottom up.
The Digital Revolution:
The Internet has greatly changed how we consume and interact with information. Many history resources have been digitized and are easily accessible as long as one has access to the Internet.
The cost of data storage has dropped significantly over the past decade. Due to the creation of Google Sites, quality web sites can be created for free without too much of a limitation from a storage limit. Google Sites has a free storage limit of 10 GB. That limit is reachable by the WRDHP, but that amount is far a away for now (February 2017). YouTube does not have a limit to the number of videos that a user can upload. Our YouTube channel will be used for hosting oral history interviews, documentaries, and other videos.
A major part of the WRDHP will combine photographs that are geotagged and the Google My Maps. Due to financial limitations, not all historic structures are able to be physically preserved. There are many historic homes, farming structures, and other structures within the Wiregrass that are already in a state of decay. Some of them could meet some of the qualifications for help with preservation, but that process can be difficult to complete. Photographing at risks sites, collecting the history of those sites, geotagging those photographs, and uploading the photographs and associated information to the My Maps service, will allow those sites to be preserved digitally. This method also allows the physical context of the site in relation to its location other places. A Photograph without context (either of the people within it or the location of where it was taken) soon become a curiosity that does not hold attention of those in the future once people with knowledge of the subject disappears and the setting changes over time.
The process of geotagging photographs and placing them on a Google Map can also be used for providing context to historical photographs. This will be helpful for photographs of buildings that have been destroyed or areas that have undergone other drastic changes.
Old Records, New Technology
Advances in technology have also made it easier to take data from historic records and make that data easier to interact with. We do not have many detailed maps of the Wiregrass from before the American Civil War, and maps of the region until the 1910s rarely showed individual property owners. We do have tax records that give acreage and land lot numbers, as well as deeds from courthouse records. From these records when can reconstruct detailed maps of the Georgia area of the Wiregrass with Google Earth. The Google Earth .kmz files can then be uploaded to the My Maps service. Nearly all of the county level Georgia tax records for the year 1890 are also still in existence. We can reconstruct a detailed 1890 map of the region from those record for that period as well. These maps can be used to note how land ownership changed (and in many cases did not change) over time, narrow down the location of lost family cemeteries, and otherwise see communities developed over time.
Alabama and Florida both use the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) and have when the entry upon a section of land was made. Those records could be used to generate maps similar to ones being created for Georgia.
These mapping project seek to take information that would normally take specialized knowledge (such as the often confusing Georgia land survey systems) to understand and make them easier to understand and interact with through the My Map user interface. Suddenly "LL 62, LD 11. Originally Irwin County" goes from being a confusing set of numbers, letters, and words to being most of downtown Valdosta, Lowndes County, GA.
Research Lag and Local Communities
There is a divide between academic historians and local communities. There are many historians out there doing great research on local history topics or regional history topics, but that fresh research often takes years to reach communities. Academic research and publication is a long process. Research happens and continues to happen for years, as does the writing process. A work then has to be peered reviewed. Academic history journals are typically not read by people who are not academic historians. Academic history books are more commonly read by your average person than academic history journals, but take even longer to compose and peer review than academic journals do. New research from academic history journals and academic history books take even longer to be incorporated into history textbooks, if it even does become incorporated into history textbooks. Not everybody continues to actively learn about history upon graduating from high school or college.
Some of the people who bridge the gap between academia and the average person are librarians, local historical society workers, and museum staff. Getting the community involved with their own history is a major task for those last two groups. Information literacy is becoming an increasingly important task for librarians. Teaching people how to search for and be critical of sources of information is important when most people get their historical information from sources other than books and public history facilities.
Making accurate sources of history easily accessible through new media is critical. Likewise, maintaining a social media presence is also critical to getting people involved in learning about their history, preserving it, and helping to produce it. The WRDHP aims to engage the citizens of the Wiregrass through social media and to use New Media to help with the preservation of the history of the Wiregrass.
The Wikipedia Problem
Wikipedia is seen by many in academia as inaccurate and something that anybody can contribute to. This view has begun to be challenged by others in academia. Please see "Sleeping with the Enemy: Wikipedia in the College Classroom" by Cullen J. Chandler and Alison S. Gregory in The History Teacher vol 43 no. 2 for more information about how some in academia have begun using Wikipedia in the classroom. Wikipedia does have accuracy issues, but it has also attracted many administrators and editors who watch out for vandalism, articles with poor citations, and various other issues.
What makes Wikipedia attractive to a typical consumer of information? It is easy accessible, not behind a paywall, covers an increasingly wide variety of topics, and covers basic information somewhat well. Easily accessible and not being behind a paywall are linked and should be considered to comply with S. R. Ranganathan's 4th law of Library and Information Science: "Save the time of the reader." Information consumers can find what they want quick and without having to pay for the information they want. Academia must recognize the draw of Wikipedia. Being critical of its content does not change how easily accessible it is. It far easier for academia to join Wikipedia as administrators and editors and improve the over all quality of the content than it is to try to dissuade information consumers from using Wikipedia. The WRDHP seeks to encourage those in academia who specialize in subjects related to the Wiregrass to get involved with the creation, improvement, and upkeep of Wikipedia articles on those subjects.
Wikipedia has three core content polices:
1. Neutral Point of View
3. No Original Research
The third, No Original Research, makes writing Wikipedia articles on history from the ground up and local history in the Wiregrass difficult due to the lack of secondary sources. Because of that, the WRDHP seeks to serve as a quality secondary source for articles on the Wiregrass that might not be covered well in the existing history on those subjects. We seek to produce content that is both academically sound and accessible to the average person.