U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Will Be the Sources of Intellectual History For Our Age?

A few days ago I spent some time reading a back issue of Negro Digest. Published for the February 1968 edition, I was using it for a project on the legacy of black history. But I found myself intrigued by what I was reading from Vincent Harding, whose introductory essay in the issue, “The Uses of the Afro-American Past,” should be required reading for any student of the philosophy of history. As I read his essay, I reflected on the late 1960s and early 1970s as a golden age of black American periodicals—magazines such as Negro Digest (which changed its title to Black World in 1970), Freedomways, the scholarly publication Black Scholar (which still publishes high-quality academic work today), as well as history-heavy issues of Ebony and Jet. But looking back, I now think: what will be the sources historians consult decades from now to understand black American—and, by extension, American—thought in this age?

This question was not just prompted by reading the always eloquent Harding. Reading Holly Genovese’s essay last week about art in New Orleans and its potential use as a source for intellectual historians, I begin to realize that the history of thought in our day and age will require future historians to look at a wide range of sources. The usual magazines—New York Review of Books, Atlantic, New Yorker, National Review, and so many others—will be important fodder. One wonders what websites will be the most important to intellectual historians down the road. Places like Grantland or The Bitter Southerner, just to name two examples, will be important in terms of capturing the cultural zeitgeist of the moment. Places like Daily Kos and Brietbart will be integral to any retelling of the polarized partisanship of our day. And, of course, social media will be important too. My sympathies to the historian in the year 2117 who tries to write a cultural history of memes such as Pepe the Frog or Crying Jordan.

Yet, with the web, the worry is whether such sources will still be around a decade from now, much less a century. Then there’s the other concern: how much will these sources reflect what people thought in the early twenty first century? This has long been a concern for intellectual historians—whose thought are we writing about? Granted, it will be easy to understand what the intellectual elite thought during our era. No doubt a Ta-Nehisi Coates or Melissa Harris-Perry, just to give two examples for black American intellectual history, will be easy to find in the archives. But let’s think back to Holly’s post for a moment. When historians a decade, fifty years, or a century from now, wish to capture the thoughts of “everyday people”—to borrow a phrase from Sly and the Family Stone—what shall they look to? It’s tempting to say Twitter and Facebook. The Library of Congress is already archiving Twitter–although they have begun to run into serious problems there. And to some extent they’d be right. According to Pew, sixty-eight percent of all Americans—this includes folks who both use social media and those who do not—use Facebook to stay in touch with others. Twitter, by the way, is only at twenty-one percent.

Still, I think about older sources like letters and diaries. Perhaps those are going to be replaced by Twitter and Facebook—and, admittedly, I shudder to consider that. I hope, against hope, that my Facebook rants about the Atlanta Falcons shall not, someday, become prime fodder for a sports historian (although if it provides him or her a chuckle while doing research, perhaps I have done some good after all). Rebecca Erbelding’s recommendation to people to keep journals during the Trump Administration—so that future historians can have a better archival base to work from—reminds us of how important physical sources will remain for the foreseeable future.

Of course, I do not envy future intellectual historians trying to write about our era. With both Trump and Obama, the explosion of social media and online cultural sites means they’ve got a lot to work with—and, unfortunately, a great deal they’ll likely have to discard. Even today, we have much to work with in terms of twentieth century intellectual history, with television, radio, magazines, and the early days of the internet to work with. To those historians working for, say, Starfleet in the twenty-third century, all I can say is: good luck.