I’ve just read that Roy Rosenzweig, professor of history at George Mason University and director of that university’s influential new media center, has passed away from cancer, at a tragically young age. How sad. I knew Roy, but not too well, and most of our contact was over a quarter century ago, when we were both members of the “editorial collective” of the Radical History Review.
Roy has left a presence in any number of historical fields. Of his work as a social historian, his history of Central Park, with Betsy Blackmar, The Park and the People, is of special interest to this blog. He was also a key figure in the growth of public history as a special field, and his volume with David Thelen, The Presence of the Past is perhaps the most interesting and creative volume ever written on how Americans understand and use the past, and how individual memories of things past or things told can blend into a broader notion of “history.”
In recent decades he has been a pioneer and tireless advocate for digital history. As someone who is not an “early adapter” and has been content to ride the technology wave from the rear, he has been an inspiration. There is always a great deal of hype surrounding any new technology, a tendency to say, as all the idiot savants said after 9/11 that “everything has changed,” while in practice of course, some things change and some things don’t.
There was great resistance to digital history in some quarters of the history profession. I remember Roy’s cogent article defending the web as a source of information—sure, he wrote, there is crap out there, but it is simply a matter of learning to read carefully and critically, which is the same skills you needed anyway when, for instance, schoolchildren were captive to the World Book Encyclopedia and the Britannica for their reports. And he was a strong defender of the wikipedia, which has proven to be a remarkably successful, accurate, and universal research tool. (And as always there was a leftist, populist strain to his work—historians who complain about the lack of good resources on the web, he once noted, all too often work in major institutions which keep the best proprietary data bases locked up and unavailable to the hoi polloi trolling the web.)
Digital history has and has not transformed history. Monographs are still written, published in book form, and read on laps, not on lap-tops. But I continue to be amazed by the keyword search data bases such as ProQuest, which enable research that would have taken months to be completed in minutes, and has facilitated a new type of quantitative history. (The post I had on this blog several weeks ago on the frequency of the appearance of the Mets and the Yankees in the Times is an example of this.) And history blogs such as Greater New York are a new phenomena, a way of discussing history somewhere between private correspondence between friends and finished and polished papers at conferences. This sort of communication simply didn’t exist before the internet, and how it is and will change the nature of historical discourse is something we will watch unfold in the years to come.
It is a pity and a tragedy that Roy won’t be around to watch it, and the other ways in which digital technology will change the ancient calling of historian. He will be missed, by those inside and outside his huge circles of friends.