Media Resource

BackStory: Saving American History

The Steamtown archival collection, shown as several rows of metal shelving holding archival boxes.
Photo caption

The Steamtown archival collection, managed by the National Park Service, contains materials about railroads in the eastern and midwestern United States.

EDSITEment (and BackStory) has a lot of material about history, but less about how the historical narratives that appear on the site were created—and challenged, and recreated. In this episode entitled Saving American History, you'll learn about some of the people who have created records, archives, and collections that future generations use to study and understand the past.

A full transcript of this episode can be found on the BackStory website.

William Plumer and the Young Government (00:40-7:35)

Comprehension Questions

  • Why was it important that the documents Plumer found were original documents?
  • How did Plumer's record-saving process change? What kinds of things did he preserve?
  • How might the records Plumer kept be shaped by Plumer's own identity?
  • What is the "so what" of Plumer's work, according to Joanne Freeman?

Discussion Questions

  • What allowed Plumer such intimate access to Congress?
  • To date, Plumer's papers are only available in hard copy at the Library of Congress and on microfilm. (Microfilm is film containing images of documents; a special microfilm reader is needed to view it, and purchasing collections on microfilm is expensive.) What challenges might this pose to someone who wants to learn more about Plumer and the early Congress, or conduct research using his papers?

EDSITEment Resources

Learn more about the early party system in the United States with the curriculum The First American Party System: Events, Issues, and Positions (grades 9-12).

The Age of Antiquarians (7:35-20:15)

Comprehension Questions

  • When did people in the U.S. start to become concerned with the preservation of the nation's past?
  • Who wrote early biographies of the founding fathers?
  • How did Watson try to create a record of "ancient Philadelphia"?
  • How did Baldwin try to preserve the past?
  • What about Watson's approach to the past might seem "modern," according to Cotlar?
  • What were some reasons that people like Watson and Baldwin collected these materials?

Discussion Questions

  • One of Watson's approaches to documenting the past was to survey elderly people. What are some of the pros and cons of using a questionnaire to survey people?
  • Who do you think was able to engage in these acts of preservation and collection? What resources and conditions were needed to make such preservation possible? How might these shape what was saved, and how?
You Can Save History (20:15-29:25)

Comprehension Questions

  • What do some listeners of the podcast collect? Why?
  • Why does Nathan Connolly think it can be powerful to see material evidence of the past, even if such evidence is a replica?
  • What similarities and differences are there between the professional historians hosting the show and the antiquarians and collectors they talk about?
  • What kinds of papers and documents do you think are at risk of being lost? Why?

Discussion Questions

  • Do you collect anything, or know someone who does? Why?
  • Do you agree with Connolly that material traces of the past can be more powerful than historians' writings about the past?Why?
Cat Memories Forever? (29:30-40:07)

Comprehension Questions

  • Why might people assume the internet is a perfect archive? Why is this not, in fact, the case?
  • According to Jason Scott, what is one of the paradoxes of digital information?
  • Why does Scott try to avoid curation?
  • What are some of the uncertainties involved in internet preservation work?

Discussion Questions

  • In the first segment of the podcast, you heard about William Plumer's papers and how the format in which they're preserved limits access to them. The Internet Archive, on the other hand, is accessible to anyone with an internet connection, meaning access is still limited, but far less so than in the case of Plumer's papers. What other challenges does an archive like the Internet Archive pose to researchers?
  • What challenges do you think people like Jason Scott face as they try to preserve content in this new medium? On the other hand, what possibilities does digital preservation offer?


About BackStory

Founded in 2008, BackStory is a weekly podcast that explores the historical roots of current events. Hosted by a team of historians of the United States, the show features interviews with other scholars and public historians, seeking to bring U.S. history to life.Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the show do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Learn more at the BackStory website.