The Authentic History Center: A Website Review

A Rotten Place to Visit and You Wouldn't Want ...

Image by John McNab via Flickr

The Internet is rarely the best place for “one stop shopping.”

As in the non-digital world, one often has to go to multiple sites to get the best prices.  For some reason, no one site has the best of everything, which really plays havoc on your shipping and handling costs.

The same is true for the history educator that needs visual artifacts in a hurry.  For frequent visitors to the Neighborhood, there is a list of my “Non-Blog Faves” to the right, websites that cater to the needs of today’s history-minded folks.  Note the length: although many of these sites claim to be “one-stop shops”, there’s always that picture of a basket or a weird Mayan dish that can only be found on certain sites that bug out your school district’s firewall (believe me, I know).

Recently, I needed to find such a place for the entire collection of photographs in Jacob Riis‘ groundbreaking 1890 work How the Other Half Lives.  I was creating a slideshow with the photos and its a royal pain in the ass finding them all in one site.  Usually, it would take multiple image searches and sifts through multiple prints of dubious quality.

Just before I bitch-slapped my laptop in frustration, I cam across a curious little site.  The Authentic History Center had what I needed, and then some.  Not only did it have all the photos, but all the TEXT as well, including the drawn illustrations.

What balls on these guys, I thought.  This had to be investigated further.

Any site that has a single creator or author should be used with a cautious eye.  Too many kooks, nutjobs and dangerously uneducated wingnuts are out there to spread misleading and false information disguised as fact, simply because it sounds kind of official: read www.martinlutherking.org if you don’t believe me.  So I was immediated suspicious of any guy that creates a site claiming “authentic” history.

Well, Thank God.  The creater of the Authentic History Center project is a crazy history-obsessed wierdo like yours truly–and possibly any one of my regular readers.

(…and believe me, the world needs more wierdos like us)

Michael Barnes is a high school history teacher in west Michigan who created this site to provide a catalog of popular culture throughout American history.  His artifacts cover a wide range, from posters (his World War I posters are most impressive) to magazine covers, cartoons to audio and video recordings.

What’s better, the artifacts are meant to be studied with as little editorializing as possible.  A student doesn’t have to worry about some grad-student pea brain or a bedsheet-wearing cross burner slipping bad info into the term paper.   Even if you need analysis, Barnes provides incredibly even-handed views.  Along the way are interpretive essays that give some insight into the historical events, people and crises covered in the artifacts.

His honesty shines through in his intro to How the Other Half Lives, for example:

This pioneering work of photojournalism by Jacob Riis focused on the plight of the poor in the Lower East Side, and greatly influenced future “muckraking” journalism. Riis mostly attributed the plight of the poor to environmental conditions, but he also divided the poor into two categories: deserving of assistance (mostly women and children) and undeserving (mostly the unemployed and intractably criminal). He wrote with prejudice about Jews, Italians, and Irish, and he stopped short of calling for government intervention. Still, the catalyst of his work was a genuine sympathy for his subjects, and his work shocked many New Yorkers.

Concise, accurate, good use of the source material and generally a great summary of the work (although he did neglect to mention that many of Riis’ photographs were staged).

The AHC is a work in progress, so don’t expect everything you need to be there right away.  The site is constantly growing with new artifacts and new materials.  Until then, take some time to explore what Michael Barnes has and see how it can be used in your classrooms.

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