How to write history when everything eventually finds its way online

Michelle Moravec
2 min readMar 13, 2018

follow up to “Feminist Research Practices and Digital Archives”)

The Problem

As someone who writes histories of the still living or recently deceased, I often find myself facing ethical dilemmas that both involve the scope of my research (digitized archival materials make it much easier to locate information about not quite public figures) and the reach of it (even my arcane scholarship in paywalled journals is fairly easy to locate when searching for an individual’s name).

Feedback sought on provisional “guidelines” for writing about not quite public figures, either living or recently deceased.

When writing about not quite public figures, consider how they exposed themselves in their lifetime. Did they write for major periodicals, speak at large conferences? Were they more locally involved or perhaps visible only to a particular community?

In archived materials pertaining to your not quite public figure, ascertain if they deposited materials themselves or if the materials were donated by someone else. If the latter, think hard about the kinds of exposure these materials had at the time. Are these notes from meetings, memorabilia from public events, or private correspondence?

If your not quite public figure is still alive, all of the above applies. In addition, consider contacting them but be willing to understand that they might not wish to be involved with you. Honor and respect that. Consider how you will acknowledge that in your writing. Consider what you will do if they actively express a wish that you NOT write about them.

If you can find descendants of your not quite public figure online, then contact them. Often times, they are the keepers of the histories of their relatives and have invested effort and emotion into that memorialization.

Write nothing you would not say to not quite public figure’s face (or say to their descendants or friends).

What would you add to these provisional guidelines?

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Michelle Moravec

Historian doing corpus linguistics, Feminist writing about politics of women's culture, historying digitally #writinginpublic http://michellemoravec.com