A Model Primary Source Blog: Paleo-Future

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By Adam Crymble

Photo of burglars robbing a house from a hovering airplaneEver since burglars learned to perform effective aerial assaults, society has been in a downward spiral (see photo). It’s unsettling to know that someone can fly in, sneak down the chimney and make off with all your hard-earned space credits. Good thing at 122 years old, you’re now considered middle aged and have some time to recoup your losses before retiring to the moon.

Historians often study what people in the past were like, but few stop to look at what they thought we’d be like. Stepping in to fill that role is St. Paul, Minnesota based writer, Matt Novak, who has kept a blog, Paleo-Future: a look into the future that never was since 2007.

With each entry, Novak guides readers onto a brief sojourn into the past where they can look forward at what our own society might have been. Inspired by a childhood trip to Disney’s out-dated “Tomorrowland” exhibit, Paleo-Future uses copies of primary sources and brief commentary to engage readers, many of whom may have grown up during the 50s, 60s and 70s, when the majority of the predictions showcased on the blog were first made.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Novak says his most popular posts are those that are “wildly inaccurate.” This no doubt includes entries such as the 1949 article in the San Antonio Light newspaper, which predicted we’d soon see the city of New York entirely roofed over. The would-be development was touted as an ingenious way for scientists to provide “climate to order.”

Even stranger is a 1960 Chicago Tribune prediction that forecast we would soon have “Man-made balls of fire” in the sky that provided 24-hour sunlight. Novak rightly placed this entry in the “why the hell would you do that?” file. Continue reading

Translated Paper: “Why is Vietnam Recovering, while Cuba is Sinking?”

Today we published a translated English version of the first paper ActiveHistory.ca “Why is Vietnam Recovering, while Cuba is Sinking?” written by Yves Montenay, and translated by Michael Poplyansky.  Here is the abstract:


Before going their separate ways, Vietnam and Cuba followed similar political and economic paths, making the impact of economic freedom on each country’s development very clear, both directly and comparatively. This paper will not discuss full employment, because in Communist Vietnam, as in today’s Cuba, everyone theoretically had an assigned job—even if it was not the job that one hoped for, or at the location that one preferred, much less at the salary that one wanted. Nor will I evaluate the progress of “liberalism”, since the term implies political freedom; I will simply examine the consequences of legalizing formerly banned economic activities.  Click here to read full paper. Click here to read the original French version.

History for Haiti

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Today Foreign Ministers from the ‘Friends of Haiti Group’ are meeting with Jean-Max Bellerive, Haiti’s Prime Minister, and UN officials in Montreal to discuss both the current situation in Haiti and longer term plans for the country’s stabilization and reconstruction. As they discuss Haiti’s future, it is important for them to also consider Haiti’s past.

Over the past two weeks, some aspects of Haitian history have been addressed in the media. With the exception of Pat Robertson’s attempt to evangelize through fire and brimstone, many of these explanations of how Haiti came to be mired in poverty had merit. They range from harsh reparations to former French slaveholders after the successful Haitian Revolution, rampant deforestation, US occupation during the middle of the twentieth century, to the brutal dictatorships of Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier.

This history has been used to explain Haiti’s poverty and why it is important to help as the nation is rebuilt. Within these snapshots of history, however, Haiti is typically envisioned as heading in a downward direction; its exercises in self government depicted as failures.

Although some discussions of Haiti’s history have delved into the deeper roots of the country’s troubles, many have primarily focused on its governance. Both the BBC‘s and CBC’s web histories of Haiti, for example, devote half of their discussion to the Duvaliers and the ousting of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. With the exception of a much better contextualized article in the Guardian, few of these reports emphasize the role that the predecessors of the leaders meeting today played in bringing about Haitian instability and poverty (France and the United States are two principal ‘friends’).

If Haiti is going to change for the better after this disaster, international leaders need to pay attention to the role that foreign involvement in Haiti has played in bringing about the current situation, and work together with Haitians towards a sustainable form of involvement that does not replicate the mistakes or deliberate interventions of the past.

One way to do this is by focusing on histories of the past that actually discuss the Haitian people, and not just how they were affected by outside forces. There have been a handful of discussions since the earthquake that have balanced the challenges that Haitians have faced with their resilience in dealing with them. TV Ontario’s The Agenda featured a rich discussion which both contextualizes the current situation in Haiti and lays out a framework for reconstruction. Last Tuesday, CBC’s The Current interviewed Rebecca Solnit. Her recent book A Paradise Built in Hell profiles five disasters during the 20th century and how the people affected responded to them. Her argument, that when faced with disasters, people tend to work together for the common good while elites tend to work towards maintaining their own control, provides a critical lesson for Haiti’s leadership if that society is going to be built differently in the coming years. Karen Dubinsky, a historian at Queen’s University, was also interviewed by The Current. She uses her research on Operation Peter Pan, which removed children from Cuba in the early 1960s, to caution foreign governments and individuals from the temptation to adopt children out of disaster zones like Haiti. Most directly, Allen Wells, a historian of the Caribbean, has argued for a reshaping of Haiti’s history in order to focus more on the resilience of the people. Continue reading

New Active History Paper: David Webster, Narratives of Colonization, Decolonization and Recolonization in Papua

We are happy to publish a paper by David Webster of the University of Regina. This is the third paper written for ActiveHistory.ca. Check back next week for a translation of our first paper: Yves Montenay, Pourquoi le Vietnam s’en tire et Cuba s’enfonce. If you would like to contribute a paper to this website please consult our Paper Guidelines

Narratives of Colonization, Decolonization and Recolonization in Papua

After the resolution of the Aceh dispute and the independence of East Timor, Indonesia’s most serious conflict is in Papua (formerly Irian Jaya). One major stumbling block to conflict resolution is the clash of historical narratives. Papuan nationalists claim their land was “already sovereign” from the 1960s and that the Indonesian state and military have denied them the right to self-determination. The Indonesian official narrative argues that Papua exercised its right to self-determination along with the rest of Indonesia in 1945. Conflict resolution in Papua will require a dialogue between the two historical narratives in order to create a space for understanding of the other side’s case. This paper reviews each side’s narrative of the conflict’s history, using documents published by each, and assesses the clashing historical understandings. Read Full Paper Here

Cover of Kembalinya Irian Barat [West Irian’s Return] (Jakarta: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, 2002).

Cover of Kembalinya Irian Barat

Infrastructure History: Connecting us to the Past

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It helps us quench our thirst, wash our dishes, and clean our bodies, but a sense of its past often emerges only when its use is disrupted.

Over the past week, a recent spurt of articles in Toronto newspapers reported numerous cases of leaking watermains across the city.  Corrosion is one source of the broken pipes; another is changing temperature, which impacts soil movement and creates pressure on the fragile, rusty conduits.  A recent cold spell burst an eight-inch main and cut power to 19,000 residents.


Notable in these articles is how the (often temporary) failure of the infrastructure of everyday life – in this case water pipes but we can think of roads and electricity wires to name a few others – connects people to the past.

Continue reading

ActiveHistory.ca featured in York University History Department video

ActiveHistory.ca is featured in an internet video on York University’s history department.  Entitled “Making History Relevant”, the video premiered at the recent American Historical Association conference in San Diego.   Click here to view the video, located at the bottom of the right hand sidebar of the website in the “New Featured Films” section.

In the video, Jonathan Edmondson, chair of the history department, notes the important social responsibility of historians.  Similar to ActiveHistory.ca, York’s December 2009 conference – Global Football: History, Gender, and Nation – sought to connect the work of historians to a broad audience.  The conference brought together historians, soccer fans, journalists and sport officials to discuss the relationships between football and a number of important themes, such as the construction of social identities and globalization.

The video is available on Historians tv, a website that covers a variety of historical issues.  The site includes a short videos on New York’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum and African Burial Ground Monument, and an interview with historian Natalie Zemon Davis on her personal experiences of teaching history throughout her storied career.  These three videos can be viewed by clicking here and are found on the right hand sidebar of the website.

“Local Effort Brings Our Past to Life”: Halifax Chronicle-Herald

A recent article in the Halifax Chroncile-Herald discusses a fascinating project mounted by the Dartmouth Historical Association which will see 2,500 local histories of Dartmouth, Preston, Cole Harbour and Eastern Passage distributed free of charge to Halifax area students in Grades 4, 5, and 6. Local historian Harry Chapman raised an interesting point in the newspaper article:

“We were discussing history in general, and my view is that the history curriculum from Grade 4 to high school, they deal with Canadian history, Nova Scotia history, the American revolution, American civil war, the British empire, ancient Greece, but nothing of the community that the children are living and growing up in, whether it be Dartmouth or Digby or Annapolis Royal or Parrsboro,” said Chapman.

In this book, then, the Dartmouth Historical Association discussed schools, ferries, canals, street names, and the general local history of people. They’re certainly connecting “historians with the public,” as ActiveHistory.ca aims to do.

This raises several fascinating questions. Should local history have a bigger role in history curriculums? Continue reading

Historical Maps on the Internet

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Old maps are useful sources for just about anyone interested in history. Maps easily convey change over time, as they show the expansion of  cities, regions, or countries. They also provide useful context to help understand where historical events took place. Thankfully, historical maps are increasingly accessible online for those of you unable to spend days in the map library at the British Library or another comparable repository.

A growing number of professional historians are using Geographic Information Software (GIS) to study historical maps and their relationships with other geographic data from the past.   David Rumsey’s map collection and Google Earth allow non-experts much of the same functionality of the complex and expensive GIS software and make it possible for all historians to examine maps that have been “pinned” on the the satellite imagery in Google Earth.  This allows direct comparisons between the old maps and the modern landscapes.

The David Rumsey’s historical map collection provides an amazing collection of historical maps and globes. A large number of these maps are Geo-referenced or “pinned” onto the digital globe provided by  Google Earth. Rumsey Historical Maps are included in Gallery of Google Earth. Open the Gallery (found in the the menu on the bottom left hand side of Google Earth) and click on Rumsey Historical Maps to add them as a layer on the digital globe. Once you have done this a few hundred compasses will appear in Google Earth (zoom in and out and navigate around the world to see them all). Find a map that interests you, such as Pownall’s 1786 map of North America and double click on the compass. A box will appear with the map. Double click on the map and it will appear as a layer in Google Earth over top of the satellite image of North America. Once the map has been overlayed you can navigate around and zoom in and out in the same way you do with the normal Google Earth maps.  The collection of maps is extensive and growing. The focus of the collection is the USA, but there are still lots of maps of other countries and cities around the world. The Canadian content includes a number of North American maps, two maps of Montreal, two maps of Quebec City and one of Lower Canada in 1815. Continue reading

Live Blogging History: Accessible and Creative

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By Adam Crymble

As I’m writing, there are only a few hours left in 2009. Last year marked the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec. This year, again an important Quebec anniversary came and went, but most English speaking Canadians probably didn’t even notice: the 250th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham during which General Wolfe wrested New France from his adversary, Marquis de Montcalm.

If you grew up in the Canadian education system, you almost certainly studied this battle. And, if your experience was anything like mine, you were told that on September 12, 1759, the brilliant strategist, Wolfe, sailed his ships back and forth in front of the city of Quebec, tiring out the French soldiers who had to march to and fro to keep their eyes on the British. Then, when the French were all tuckered out, Wolfe landed his ships, rushed up the bank to the Plains of Abraham and defeated a French army, claiming New France for Britain. Oh, and while he was at it, he was mortally wounded, but was kind enough to pose for this famous painting by Benjamin West:

I had always assumed the whole thing took about 8 minutes.

Imagine my surprise this past summer when stumbled across Canadian author and historian Christopher Moore “live-blogging” the siege of Quebec, which started almost eighty days before the famous battle. During the siege, the British artillery decimated the city of Quebec and terrorized its citizens, many of whom died as a result of the constant bombardment. Continue reading

“Web Tools Aim to Open the Gates to the Ivory Tower”: Globe and Mail.

An article in January 2nd’s Globe and Mail discussed various web tools that universities are using to ‘open the gates of the ivory tower.’ In her article, Elizabeth Church discussed a new search engine launched by Memorial University named Yaffle, which allows community members to search and uncover various Memorial research projects, opportunities for involvement, and learn who is working on what. Another project, by York University, summarizes various research projects into plain english (helped by a poet who holds a Research Assistantship) and places them on the website. The byline of the Knowledge Mobilization site: Turning Research into Action.

Both projects are in their infancy, but they are promising steps towards making research accessible. At York, there is only one summary available under the subject heading of history – Marc Egnal’s recent work on the economic causes of the civil war – but it is a fascinating example.

If you have a chance, please check out the linked Globe & Mail article and play around with the two sites. What are your thoughts, if any?

All the best in the New Year! Hopefully it will be an ‘active’ one.