Doing Recent History: On Privacy, Copyright, Video Games, Institutional Review Boards, Activist Scholarship, and History That Talks Back


Recent history—the very phrase seems like an oxymoron. Yet historians have been writing accounts of the recent past since printed history acquired a modern audience, and in the last several years interest in recent topics has grown exponentially. From Walmart to disco and from Chavez to Schlafly, books about the history of our own time have become arguably the most exciting and talked-about part of the discipline.

Despite this rich tradition and growing popularity, historians ...

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Recent history—the very phrase seems like an oxymoron. Yet historians have been writing accounts of the recent past since printed history acquired a modern audience, and in the last several years interest in recent topics has grown exponentially. From Walmart to disco and from Chavez to Schlafly, books about the history of our own time have become arguably the most exciting and talked-about part of the discipline.

Despite this rich tradition and growing popularity, historians have engaged in little discussion about the specific methodological, political, and ethical issues related to writing about the recent past. The twelve essays in this collection explore the challenges of writing histories of recent events where visibility is inherently imperfect, hindsight and perspective are lacking, and historiography is underdeveloped.

Those who write about events that have taken place since 1970 encounter exciting challenges that are both familiar and foreign to scholars of a more distant past, including suspicions that their research is not historical enough, negotiation with living witnesses who have a very strong stake in their own representation, and the task of working with new electronic sources. Contributors to this collection consider a wide range of these challenges. They question how sources like television and video games can be better utilized in historical research, explore the role and regulation of doing oral histories, consider the ethics of writing about living subjects, discuss how historians can best navigate questions of privacy and copyright law, and imagine the possibilities that new technologies offer for creating transnational and translingual research opportunities. Doing Recent History offers guidance and insight to any researcher considering tackling the not-so-distant past.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Potter and Romano have drawn together an admirably diverse set of scholars and archivists at all levels of the profession to comment on a broad range of critical and contentious issues in historical scholarship. I am unaware of any other collection that accomplishes what this one does so ably: allowing the reader to enter into and contend with a set of larger epistemological, methodological, pedagogical, presentational, and legal issues that directly affect the ways historians do their jobs in the second decade of the twenty-first century. This book should become a standard reference and teaching tool.”—Stephen Brier, codirector of the New Media Lab at the City University of New York

“How I wish Doing Recent History had been available when I began writing histories that were ‘just over my shoulder.’ Potter and Romano demonstrate that tackling recent history poses unique challenges, and they offer absolutely indispensable guidance in meeting them.”—Alice Echols, author of Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture

“This book hits all the marks. The writing is lively and well paced; the research and historiography are first-rate; there is a nice mixture of known, established authors and rising young scholars; and the questions taken up are directly relevant to what many of us do every day, both in our classrooms and in our scholarship. It’s timely, smart, wide ranging, and thought provoking.”—Robert O. Self, Brown University

“This collection of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays addresses the various pluses and minuses of doing ‘recent’ history.”—K.B. Nutter, Choice

“Even if you are not a historian, any information professional will learn something from this book, as it covers a large range of topics including those discussed above as well as the commoditization of information, the effect interviewers have upon the oral histories they collect, and much more. This book is highly recommended to all historians, archivists, and librarians.”—Tennessee Libraries

“[A]ny historian who reads [Doing Recent History] stands to gain something. . . . Potter and Romano open up the possibility that an all-encompassing methodology is no longer an option for historians. This collection encourages scholars to discard, once and for all, the notion that any history is absolute or completely objective and to recognize the interplay of subjectivity and intersubjectivity involved in doing recent history. This book may help historians accept that studies of recent events are valuable as primary documents in and of themselves.”—Molly Rosner, Oral History Review

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Claire Bond Potter is a professor of history and American studies at Wesleyan University. She is author of War on Crime: Bandits, G-Men, and the Politics of Mass Culture and also the blog Tenured Radical. Renee C. Romano is an associate professor of history at Oberlin College. She is author of Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America and coeditor of The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory (Georgia).

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Table of Contents


Introduction. Just over Our Shoulder: The Pleasures and Perils of Writing the Recent Past
Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter

Part 1: Framing the Issues

Not Dead Yet: My Identity Crisis as a Historian of the Recent Past
Renee C. Romano

Working without a Script: Reflections on Teaching Recent American History
Shelley Sang-Hee Lee

Part 2: Access to the Archives

Opening Archives on the Recent American Past: Reconciling the Ethics of Access and the Ethics of Privacy
Laura Clark Brown and Nancy Kaiser

Who Owns Your Archive? Historians and the Challenge of Intellectual Property Law
Gail Drakes

Part 3: Working with Living Subjects

The Berkeley Compromise: Oral History, Human Subjects, and the Meaning of "Research"
Martin Meeker

The Presence of the Past: Iconic Moments and the Politics of Interviewing in Birmingham
Willoughby Anderson

When Radical Feminism Talks Back: Taking an Ethnographic Turn in the Living Past
Claire Bond Potter

Part 4: Technology and the Practice of Recent History

Do Historians Watch Enough TV? Broadcast News as a Primary Source
David Greenberg

Playing the Past: The Video Game Simulation as Recent American History
Jeremy K. Saucier

Eternal Flames: The Translingual Imperative in the Study of World War II Memories
Alice Yang and Alan S. Christy

Part 5: Crafting Narratives

When the Present Disrupts the Past: Narrating Home Care
Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein

"Cult" Knowledge: The Challenges of Studying New Religious Movements in America
Julius H. Bailey



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