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Professors in Egypt Use Online Resources to Create Living History

How does one live through history? Textbooks tend to convey a detached narrative, somebody else's story, but history happens to all of us. Take citizens in Egypt, who're currently enmeshed in a gigantic national revolution. A team of activists, historians and professors led by Khaled Fahmy of the American U. in Cairo are working to change the way Egyptians, and possibly the rest of the world, experience the history around them.

A Historical Challenge

In amassing important information relating to the Egyptian Revolution, Khaled Fahmy and the rest of the Committee to Document the 25th of January Revolution are challenging several key assumptions about the discipline of history. How do we interact with it? How accessible is it? Traditionally, the leaders of many Middle Eastern countries haven't been especially forthcoming with their historical documents, creating a milieu in which their history appears detached, almost irrelevant. In reality, Fahmy argues, that couldn't be further from the truth.

According to Fahmy, history is about the 'production of knowledge,' not its 'preservation.' One might forgive some Middle Easterners for favoring the latter. For decades, historical documents have been guarded by countries' governing bodies, who often limited access to them beyond any reason. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, laypeople had almost no ability to view such documents, and even professional historians had to jump through bureaucratic hoops to gain access. If they could obtain clearance to visit the National Archives, key documents may have been missing or at least were highly unorganized. Making their historical repositories visitor-friendly hasn't necessarily been a priority for Middle Eastern countries.

Information Overload

We can contrast this strikingly limited access with Fahmy's vision, in which historical documents are by the people, for the people. If anything, Fahmy's team now faces the problem of too much access. The Egyptian Revolution has been famously documented by cell phones and Web 2.0, especially Twitter; many records of the recent turbulence exist. The challenge for Fahmy's team is to comb through those records, securing the most compelling and relevant material for their project. 'Tomorrow I can put an ad in the paper and I'll be flooded with material,' Fahmy told The Chronicle.

The Archives Come Alive

So what exactly is Fahmy's project? A completely open, totally digital online archive of materials from the Revolution. When they're done, Fahmy's team will have assembled newspaper clippings, private testimonials, photographs, oral histories and more taken from those directly involved in recent events. All pieces of information will be tagged with appropriate keywords to make the archive as searchable and user-friendly as possible. That's actually provided Fahmy's team with its biggest challenge - how best to store and present this wealth of information in a way that people can take advantage of.

Fahmy ultimately hopes that his archive's users will begin to see historical knowledge as living, present, relevant, open to interpretation and changeable. He likens the discipline to physics; work's constantly being done to find the best hypotheses, test them and move forward with more complete knowledge. No doubt such a project has tremendous relevance for those Egyptian citizens who've lived through a turning point in their history, but likely it can teach all of us a lesson about how we view history as well.

Closer to home, other scholars are finding unique ways of using digital technology to bring history to life.