Why Historians Want You to Journal in the Age of Trump

May 31, 2017

Courtesy of Rebecca Erbelding
Rebecca Erbelding, an archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, urges people to write down their thoughts about the political scene for the sake of future historians.

In the storm of breaking-news stories surrounding President Trump’s firing of the FBI director James Comey, Rebecca L. Erbelding, an archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, advised historians and scholars to take a moment to document the events.

In a Twitter thread, Ms. Erbelding recommended that historians write down their reactions to the day’s news, and keep the journal safe after writing.

The tweets were a reaction to Ms. Erbelding’s own exhaustion from keeping up with every push notification and breaking-news story, she said in an interview. While working on an exhibit for the museum that highlights how the United States took note of the Nazi threat before World War II, she began thinking about what archived material worked as the best sources, and made some of her recommendations based on her work.

The tweets, besides being tips for documenting history in real time, also highlight how the documentation of news developments by historians, political scientists, and scholars could define how the 45th president is eventually studied.

History is made every day, but there’s no doubt that this November something changed for Ms. Erbelding. Now, she says, she feels like she’s living in "extraordinary times" worth journaling about.

"There did seem to be a more palpable sense, at least to me, of, ‘I am actually living through history,’" Ms. Erbelding said. "It felt different. And I guess I’m going to try to keep it up until it stops feeling different."

She knows that the Library of Congress is working to archive Twitter, but Ms. Erbelding said there’s also value in people taking note of how specific political actions and policy changes make them feel. She’s careful to note that she doesn’t journal every day, but knows that documenting moments that feel personally important is significant for future scholars. It’s this type of documentation, written or typed on one-sided paper, that she could see archivists and historians using for displays in future museum exhibits, she said.

Ms. Erbelding also recommended that people bold or underline words that feel important. It’s a valuable visual cue, she said.

Visitors to museums are typically already bogged down by the text in the exhibits, so a letter on display has to be personal to leave an impression, Ms. Erbelding said.

"It has to be somewhat short and compelling," Ms. Erbelding said. "That’s why it’s always good when the person has selected out the underlined or bolded portion for you or has delineated something either with margins or blocking out certain sections."

While working on the exhibit "America and the Nazi Threat," Ms. Erbelding said she asked herself what tips she could offer to today’s historians about what is displayable.

Right now, the permanent collection at the museum doesn’t have too many journal entries, but there are several letters on display for historical context, she said. Still, she’s hoping that future exhibits can be filled with real artifacts, not just screengrabs from social media and protests of the past.

Blogging for Posterity

The day after President Trump’s inauguration, Ari Kohen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, started blogging about the administration’s new policies and political battles.

The blog, called Trump Watch, serves as a way to keep track of the breaking-news updates and the longer stories that follow, Mr. Kohen said. He knows his posts won’t capture every detail of Mr. Trump’s presidency, or how he feels about each of the policy proposals. But he hopes that keeping a definitive record can be useful for scholarship one day.

While all political administrations establish their unique way of leading the country, this one feels inherently different, Mr. Kohen said.

This summer Mr. Kohen is teaching a course that meets for three hours a day, he said. During breaks, one of the first questions students ask is, "What’s happened in the news in the last 75 minutes?" Questions like these are a new normal, Mr. Kohen said, and give him a newfound motivation to document the news.

"I’ve never been in a situation where there was constantly something happening," Mr. Kohen said. "This is completely out of any experience they might have had."

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Chris J. Prom, an assistant university archivist, collects signs from campus protests, and digital materials related to the university to chronicle its history, he said.

To document the new administration, Mr. Prom said he’s collecting news stories on his own. He said he wanted to start documenting history for his personal use after the election, given that Trump’s win came as such a shock to him and others in academe. He is keeping his own record by copying news articles with a digital bibliography manager, Mr. Prom said. He’s careful to write abstracts for each of the preserved articles so that they don’t get lost in the shuffle.

Not Just Yesterday’s News

Like other historians, Melanie Newport, an assistant professor of U.S. history at the University of Connecticut at Hartford, felt a need to start journaling after the 2016 election. "The more I’ve trained as a historian, the less I’ve journaled because I think I’ve come to appreciate my own insignificance," Ms. Newport said. "But then, you know, the day after the election I was kinda like, ‘Oh man, I have to comment on this.’ If somebody ever reads this I really do have to weigh in on what I’m thinking about on this particular day because it did feel like such a monumental shift."

She’s also gathered articles written by historians in the popular press, to show students how historians can be historical actors and not just scholars. Seeing scholars apply their work in activism, or just being more engaged with the general public, is a nice reminder that historians aren’t solely studying yesterday’s news but helping make sense of what’s going on today, she said.

"Over the course of the last 15 years of studying history, seeing the ways in which historians have weighed in and been historical activists in issues like gay marriage, with Occupy Wall Street, with Black Lives Matter, in some ways it’s been the drumbeat of my training as a historian," Ms. Newport said.

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a breaking-news reporter. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.