Historical Acitivsm In A Digital Age.

As my previous post mentioned we recently had a class on writing for a public audience. We were given the assignment of writing a 400 word newspaper article on any topic of historical relevance. My ‘article’ was a blog idea I’d been toying with for awhile, and here are the fruits of the assignment:

Your family has been attending the same church for as long as anyone can remember. Your family has celebrated numerous marriages and mourned many deaths in the same church. This memorable and center of much community history is being turned into condos. You have virtually no means of stopping it, but on the plus side the condo will have a very nice pool.

Throughout Toronto and Montreal numerous historic churches over have been sold, are slated for demolition, or are currently being renovated into condominiums. Without active preservation efforts historic churches, like all old buildings, are susceptible to the demands of our changing society.

Over the past decade, more than 150 churches have been sold in Toronto and Montreal. Other churches have been abandoned, with hopes that a potential developer will eventually want to develop the land. What is more shocking is what some churches have been renovated into. Churches have been renovated into rock climbing and fitness facilities, concert halls, factories, and numerous other commercial ventures. Not all churches were lucky enough to merely have their building converted. In 2000, St. Jude’s, Toronto, was sold to developers to be made into condominiums. But, when faced with complaints from heritage groups, costs of renovations, and design complications, the building was torn down without notice.

The issue is not the merely loss of beautifully constructed religious buildings. Rather, irreplaceable community history is being forgotten and at times destroyed. In Montreal, the Church of Saint-Eustache, which features stones damaged by British cannon fire from 1837, and where more than 100 Quebec patriots died, is at risk of being sold or demolished. Many churches have similar historical significance, even if it is just the history of the parish and the community which was once based around the church.

Heritage designation can discourage developers from buying historical churches, as it limits the renovations which can be completed. However, only 75 of Toronto’s many churches are heritage properties. But is heritage designation enough? Often heritage designation only preserves exterior elements, when some of the most historically significant elements are located inside churches. The transformation of churches into commercial spaces can destroy historical interior architecture and eliminate places of rich community heritage. Creative housing and business solutions are essential in an urban world, but historical buildings are far more culturally valuable than another rock climbing facility.

After thinking about this topic a bit more, I began to consider how the internet and digital publishing can be used to support various activists groups. Similar to expanding the range of historical literature, digital technology can be used to spread concern about virtually any cause. With websites, blogs, twitter, facebook groups, and numerous other wide reaching, getting the word out isn’t hard. the internet as a forum for activists isn’t a new thing, but I think public historians and heritage groups need to continue to expand their online presence through as many different types of technology as they can. In most cases this only presence can be built up with minimal costs, and by anyone who has a rudimentry understanding of the internet.

Academic, Public, and Digital Writing.

On of our recent public history class discussions focused on writing for a popular audience. The ability to write for a larger, non academic audience is a valuable skill for any public historians. Writing text panels, tourism packages, website texts, and blogs all require a different style of writing than the traditional essay. While allowing more freedom of expression, less strict grammatical rules, and fewer guidelines, popular writing has it’s own challenges. Years of academic writing practices are hard to break. The use of verbose language, complex sentences, and the format of an essay have been ingrained in the minds of many academics.

That being said, I’ve actually come to enjoy writing both digital and print text that is intended to reach a wider audience. Writing text panels, and short website text is definitely a challenge that is very different from writing a paper full of elevated language. The idea of writing for a larger audience on the web, via my blog, took some getting used to. The idea of putting my work, ideas, and commentary on the web was a scary thought at first. What do you mean the entire world is able to look at my work? In reality, I’m sure the entire world isn’t looking at it, but it is still a drastic change from writing a paper that no one other than a Professor will ever read. I still occasionally have concerns that certain things aren’t ready to be put on my blog, and subscribe to self-censorship at times.

But, overall I think that presenting ideas online opens up an entirely different avenue of learning. The ability to create hyperlinks, inter-textual works, and the accessibility of digital writing, makes it a valuable forum. Digital writing can be used to test ideas, gain experience writing, and potentially create an audience for your work, all of which are valuable pursuits and much harder to achieve in the traditional print world.