Gatekeepers, “The Voice”, and Other Antiquated Notions
Recent events have me thinking a lot about the nature of collaborative historical research and application, living in the 21st century (Hello, George Jetson!), and a whole lot of other tangled stuff that may or may not be useful to readers.
But when has that ever stopped me sharing an opinion? Or this, a loving and loquacious look back at where we’ve been, where we are, and where we could go. (Oh, what a nicely-paved road! Why are we in this handbasket?)
Pre-reading Apology To Those Reading On Mobile Devices: this, like so many of my posts, will be an endlessly-scrolling Wall O’ Text that every coherent internet writer is told to Never Ever Do. I added capricious line breaks. But its still Many Words. So I put up a pretty and historic image of the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, so the Lords of the Internet won’t show up at my cottage doorstep and beat me with ethernet cables.
Let us Proceed With The Novella, after the jump.I came into living history during the last century, which makes me sound very antique indeed. In reality, it’s been about 24 years, which, given the 5-year “The Hobby Is Dying” histrionics cycle, is actually nearly five lifespans, so I am in fact 395 in average people lifespans, which is fairly antique, after all.
In the beginning, the world was formed. And then a lot of other stuff happened.
Eventually, human people came up with the concept of Immortality Through Reflection, and Honoring Ones Forebearers. Some time after that, these concepts coalesced into dressing up like the Original Cast of whatever era seemed to us the most nifty, and attempting to experience another’s life for a weekend or two. We developed very small, locally- and regionally-focused communities to dress up and do odd things with other dressed-up odd people, and it was pretty cool. If we had a voice, it was simply through long association with those around us. There were natural gatekeepers in this process, of course, and getting up the nose of the wrong person could cast you out entirely. Schisms, reformations, fire, brimstone… the medieval years of living history were a fraught and amazing time, from what I learned at the feet of my Respected Elders.
Later, I was born. Anyone reading this from the future: the 1970s had some really bad fashion and music and dance and stuff. It was not my fault. I was too little to be any strong influence. Please don’t feel you have to replicate things like this when you eventually undertake 20th century living history. Seriously. Just don’t.
Then I spent 19 years getting taller.
I came into the hobby near the very beginning of non-academic internet use and public listservs. For the younguns, those were email subscription lists that came through dial-up servers at blazing TEN-mb per second speeds (with their own super-cool self-made soundtrack). And heaven forfend anyone call the house while you were trying to download; an incoming call kicked us off the connection. We paid by the minute for access. And my laptop weighed a full 15 pounds. (But it could *technically* fit on a lap, versus a sizeable desk, so it counted as “portable.” Dead elephants and granite boulders the size of your house are also technically “portable.”)
The Lists had gatekeepers: people who let you know into whose territory you were diving, and what the standards of civility would be, and who would, if pressed, handle trespassers with the Big Spoon of Banning. Being removed from a List was bad. More than “farted in church” bad. Depending on the List, getting up the nose of the wrong people could severely limit what living history options you had.
But, because the Lists sent you everything, you could learn pretty quickly from the examples of others. If you were receiving messages from the list in real-time, rather than daily digest format, you could watch the immolation of flagrant trespassers live, and then replay the whole adventure later when you read the digest.
(It was actually kind of awesome. Not kidding. No such thing as thread editing. You kids on FB have no idea how wild the Olden Days could be. We were all gunslingers and outlaws and wore big, big hats.)
Gatekeepers (list owners and moderators) crafted the culture of their Lists to meet their own goals, so you could get into some glorious “Research & Application” cultures that could train you in the fine points of accessible research and how to pull it off in real life, with accompanying Very Lovely People to shepherd you gently toward quality, or you could find some eye-popping “No Farb Too Far” lists where anything went, everything was possible, and history could go hang, ’cause it was just a hobby, and it should be FUN, darny-heckit.
Technology barriers provided their own gatekeepers to open and easy access and discourse. Still, the ability to email the director of a historic site, or the curator of a collection, sped up the research process by a month for each inquiry, not to mention mileage, hotels, and vacation time that was otherwise required to commune with The Sources upon which we were trying so hard to base our living history pursuits. It took me five attempts and finally downloading email in the middle of the night to get to read responses, but that was so *easy* compared to finding time to fly or drive to museums and collections while being an at-home mom to an ever-growing brood.
Sharing photos from exhibits required taking film, developing and printing physical prints through a commercial service at the drugstore, and selling reprint sets for costs of printing and shipping and a tiny bit of your time for hand-numbering the backs of each print to correspond with the note sheet you printed out on a dot-matrix printer.
But OH MY GOODNESS, the 56K modem debut. I cannot overstate how glorious those days were. You kids with your fancy Pokemon-Gos and Blueteeths. You’ve got no idea. Rejoice and be glad in them.
This was also a Golden Age for specialty publications, and the living history hobby embraced the option of special magazines By Us, For Us with a glad and joyous embrace. Under skillful editorial direction, these magazines weren’t just collections of advertisements. They had *footnotes.* They had year-long article series that walked you through a full cycle of farm production. They had wet-plate images by modern collodian artists that could be laid side-by-side with originals, and compare favorably.
These specialty magazines were bi-monthly inspiration writ large on good paper, with covers that could stand up to reading in the… well, in whatever homey circumstances you might personally find to read them. I have it on maternal authority that it’s okay to lock yourself in, for instance, the salle de bain, because if you can see the children’s little fat fingers shoving under the door, they are Just Fine, and you can finish at least this article, surely.
So we had editors as a sort of gatekeeper: more engaged in flying fantastically colorful banners of accessible historical research from the parapets, with welcoming “From The Desk Of” letters each issue sharing their fond hopes for each of us, and encouraging us each to find our own passion, write it up, and send it in to share with everyone else.
The sheer physical demands and costs of niche publication, mailing and distribution, and running a functional business in a hobby that was decidedly smaller than, say, the Crochet Doll Door Stop and Bed Pillow Alliance was (if sheer volume of published patterns are any indication), presented its own style of gatekeeping: only those with true determination, fibrous moral fiber, and cussed bullish doggedness were willing to put up with it all and produce a print edition of anything, much less mail it out to strangers.
Fast forward about two Hobby Death Histrionic life cycles in our history lesson, and we find the listservs are still alive… but slowly moving toward the more searchable, permanent forms of database-supported forums, and deliciously-nested comment threads. Many of the List owners moved over to the database format, so our gatekeepers continued to be familiar digital “faces”, and the same range of community cultures were very much present. Forum owners provided generous homes for all of us, and that was when bandwidth was proportionally as expensive as buying armaments for a small dictatorship, and ISPs didn’t take discounted ramen bulk purchase in lieu of cash money. Cost and time continued to be gatekeepers.
Back in those Olden Days, we *needed* our gatekeepers. Without the Calendar of Events in the magazines, and Upcoming Event chatter on forums, and custom listservs for private event mentoring and organizing, we’d have felt as bereft as individual hermits sitting on our mutual mountaintops, trying to raise the next hermit over with some creative semaphore signalling and random smoke puffs. We got used to being connected easily across the country, and we couldn’t go back.
Now, grab hold of your garters. I’m going to time-hop to right now. Present day. 21st Century Reality.
We.. um… don’t need the p0st-rennaissance gatekeepers so much.
Mutiny, rebellion, cats laying down with dogs…. I’m wicked, full stop.
In these amazing sci-fi reality glory days, we are set up for a very happy “By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know ‘Em” situation for astonishing and fruitful future growth of living history that’s both for us, and for the public. Let’s do a quick run-down of how primed we are for totally radical awesomeness:
Wireless. We’re wireless in ways Tesla only dreamed. We can connect and collaborate around the world, any time of the day or night, and interact with fellow enthusiasts at literal lightning speeds (if we’re near decent wi-fi, anyhow.)
We wallow in an increasing wealth of digitized collections. Papers, ads, letters, photos, extant garments… things that would cost thousands to access Lo, These Many Years Ago, are freely available, or found behind very modest paywalls. For a monetary pittance, we can pass the gates, and learn directly from vast primary sources. The people who built and maintained the Library at Alexandria would *literally* give their left feet, and possibly a few ears and a spleen, to see what we can see in a first-stage, shotgun-burst Google search.
(Of course, with this increasing connection comes increasing ethical burdens: attribution, appropriate credits and use, the basics of Do Your Own Work, and Don’t Copy—these are all vital.)
We have totally free visual organizing websites where we can stash entire categories of links to things we find on-line, all over the world. We can access information through them at 2am IN THE FOREST, if we turn on our data service for a half-hour.
We still have the blessing of forums. They are faster, more elegant, and more searchable than ever. Bandwidth is still spendy. You do NOT want to know what we pay, and The Sewing Academy @ Home is ridiculously compact for database-based forums! There are *reasons* some of the biggest, most in-depth, history-heavy forums had to move to small paid subscriptions, and those reasons include “living indoors” and “eating at least once a day”–and that’s staffing with unpaid volunteers, Labor O’ Love/Starving Passionate Artist business model.
We have a morphed version of listservs, in the form of social media networks. (All the same fun of real-time immolation, too, some days.)
We have stable websites on which are massed extensive collections of primary source notes, original research, summary articles, and application projects.
We have blogs. OH, we have blogs! The ever-widening tradition of Hollering Into The Void is made more companionable with individual and group projects from passionate “armchair historians” and would-be time travelers, who blog and vlog and Instagram. Not only can we be our own Voice, we can join with other Voices as needed, and kick up a rousing chorus of Many Voices all singing harmony.
We have conferences and symposia and gatherings and “cons” (conventions, not confidence schemes, though those exist in living history, too: caveat emptor and semper gumby and all), and cheap flights and frequent flyer miles and rental car loyalty programs that make getting there cheaper than ever.
We have digital publishing, e-pubs, on-demand printing, lean publishing, hack-publishing, personal payment gateways, and entrepreneurial passion. We have independent pattern publishers, small makers, customized event networks, connected to one another to a degree that has never been seen before on this planet.
(Well, not since we started breaking out into TWO hovels, versus just the one hovel for everybody. It was easy to connect when it was just one hovel. The two hovel model started the whole disconnection mess.)
These 21t century paths to connection, all of them, are the 21st century version of 19th century literary collaboration serials. Dickens, Gaskell, and the other revolutionary writers would be proud of us. When they found themselves stymied by the traditional gatekeepers of Fine Lit’rachoor, they took advantage of the tech advances of their era, and undermined the gates. They set up pop-up and guerilla-marketed showcases that let them get their voices into the hands of those who were listening. They made a pop-culture revolution, and the gatekeepers had to scramble hard to keep up. (Spoiler alert: they never really caught up.)
These days, there are some older One Hovel Model enthusiasts who really, really, really want to claim gatekeeper status. This brand new Wild West of voluntary connection and collaboration is kind of scary.
But the simple fact is, we are choosing our own trusted gatekeepers again.
It’s getting increasingly easier to train newbies in Critical Thinking, Source Analysis, and Spot The Blowholes these days. And it’s so much more effective to have a widespread network of independent researchers coming together to share (in both free and life-sustaining monetized ways) the fruits of all our mutual labor. We don’t even have to be on the same continent to mentor one another, share notes, send sources, or test applications of various ideas and processes.
The metaphorical gates and our chosen gatekeepers don’t so much wall us in anymore. They become a nice vantage point from which to survey a broad, gorgeous horizon, filled with communities and a vast network of collaborative efforts. Sure, it takes time to find our balance. The gusts of wind can be a little wild. Sometimes there are antiquated gatekeepers who shake a pointy little stick and holler up the staircase at us.
We’re all figuring it out together, this cool new frontier of sharing really old stuff with strangers in public.
My kid takes dance lessons on-line with a teacher who lives two full days at 80mph highway speeds from us. We live in an amazing time. My Cool Projects list just gets longer, and there are some changes coming to The Sewing Academy this year that I think you’re all going to like.
So, hello! Don’t be startled when old parapets fall over, or just crumble in disrepair.
We’re a community, vast and personal. Living History isn’t dying. I’m 395 hobby-lifetime-years old, after all. We’re going to be FINE.
Welcome to the future of history.