Contingency History

I just want to share a blog that I recently started reading and, in particular, its most recent entry.

The blog is called Letters of Note and is edited by a freelance writer and a “self-styled ‘curator of correspondence'” (this is in and of itself interesting, in light of recent discussions about the web and new forms of history / historians that it enables – and, to clarify, I don’t mean that in a negative way).

Letters of Note essentially finds and shares interesting archival material – whether in the form of personal letters, faxes, post-cards, etc.  It doesn’t seem to have any intentional boundaries in subject matter and includes letters from Frederick Banting (!), Mark Chapman, Conan O’Brien and one from the creators of the South Park movie to the Motion Picture Association of America regarding the rating of the movie (that one I’m not going to link – you can guess why).

The most recent entry, was called In the Event of a Moon Disaster and was a contingency speech written for President Nixon to be read should the Apollo 11 astronauts be stranded on the moon.  It is a very eerie look into what could have  easily been a very different (and sad) version of this event.

This letter, to me, demonstrates the value and power of archival material. As historians, we know that we are dealing with at least two versions of history: what we think happened and what actually happened.  This letter forces us to think of history differently – it terms of what almost happened and what people thought might happen.  If you consider what people were thinking (and have evidence of such, like this letter), then you would likely evaluate their actions, motivations and decisions in a different light.

Also, to tie this into Digital History – I just want to point out the way the editor has been able to organize his past posts. Using tags, he is able to categorize his material in several (6) ways, including by author, by correspondence type, and chronologically.  Tagging his entries likely took little time and provided his readers with many ways to search, browse and consider the posts.  Also, by using a “category” tag, it also creates new relationships between the materials that would perhaps not be obvious before.

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5 thoughts on “Contingency History

  1. Thanks for info on this great blog! I have already subscribed to it myself. Reading Nixon’s document made me feel quite eerie and made me wonder how many other speeches on various topics have been written of presidents that were never read. Imagine a contingency speech for the Cuban Missile Crisis, or Germany’s Victory in WWII. Crazy Stuff!

    I liked how an image of the document was shown so you cold read the original, as well as the transcript. My only complaint is that though the National Archive is referenced as the source, when I clicked on the link I was brought to a generic page on the National Archives site. No specific information about the Nixon document was given.
    All things considered however, I was still very impressed.

    Great blog!

    • Glad you like it, Craig. I also noticed that the source link didn’t take you to the exact place the document was located. I tried this out on a few other letters and it seems that most take you to a direct source (it might even just be the NARA documents that don’t link exactly, but I’m not sure because I have only tested out a few).

      I agree that thinking of this contingency material is pretty neat. One of the comments in that post mention that Eisenhower had a contingency speech in the event the D-Day operations failed. I found this letter yesterday, but I can’t seem to put my fingers on it again.

      I think this site ties in nicely to our readings this week for Digital History. Clay Shirky talks about these new tools inverting the way we traditionally shared information (instead of gathering and then sharing, they allow us to share and then gather). Nina Simon discusses the use of social objects to generate conversation and information exchange. This site accomplishes both of these objectives. A great example of the former, can be seen in the post and comments on the Mark Chapman letter. If you scroll down in the comments, one reader actually knew the person who purchased Chapman’s signed album. This conversation would have been virtually impossible if the Chapman letter had been, for example, shared at a conference on Archives.

  2. I agree with Craig! Letters of Note has really neat documents posted! Since exploring the awesomeness of tagging with Delicious and as seen in the blog, I can’t wait to explore some more uses of tagging!

  3. Joanna,

    I’m really happy you dug up this blog and shared it with us. I love the fact that there is such a broad variety in the letters that Shaun Usher exhibits (from Charlie Chaplin, to Paul McCartney, to Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouts movement). I wish he included more information on his motivations to create the blog and his approach, since his “About” section leads us to ask many questions.

    I particularly like the point you made about the two “histories”: what we think happened and what actually happened. And what we think may very well vary between and amongst those who lived it, and those who observe or study it. I really enjoyed the “contingency” speech that you highlighted. I can’t help but wonder how many fascinating documents of the sort have been destroyed, either by its creator of by its predecessors, for a variety of reasons (public perception being an important one). As I mentioned once in class, there are rumours that before the Mackenzie King diaries became public domain, Jack Pickersgill (Mackenzie King’s Assistant Private Secretary and author of the most extensive biography on King: The Mackenzie King Record) had removed or destroyed passages from his diaries. I wonder what potential impact motivated Pickersgill to action.

    Thanks Joanna!

  4. I love the fact that the letter to Banting from Teddy is in here! We actually had it on exhibit for a while at the museum, along with a picture of Teddy before insulin, after insulin and Teddy in his 70’s!

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