One of the things that’s a big part of the rhetoric of Web history is the sense that the Web can be used to effectively do (yes, split infinitive) “history from below.” Social historians have long contended that in order to really understand how history works, you have to talk not just about elites, but about groups that aren’t traditionally considered significant historical players: workers, women, the poor, etc.. There’s a perennial problem with social history, though. Diplomats, presidents, and captains of industry leave behind tons of papers; they patronize archives; they have libraries named after them. Ordinary people don’t. So how can you do the history of, say, working class movements without traditional archives?

One answer is that there actually ARE materials that have been preserved, but which you’ve got to dig around for. British labor historian E. P. Thompson’s “The Making of the English Working Classes” is a brilliant example of how working-class newspapers, labor union archives, provincial history society libraries, and other offbeat sources turn out to shed a lot of light on the lives and ideologies of long-dead British radicals and movements. Likewise, state and ecclesiastical records, trial transcripts, Inquisition records, and other outputs of bureaucracies and modern organizations can be used by imaginative historians to get at the lives of ordinary people.

The hope of historians working online is that the Web can be used as, well, a Web– for capturing experiences, or narratives, or memories that people have locked up in their heads, and which otherwise would never get out in public. A brilliant example is the SeniorNet Roundtable on World War II, and its discussion group. Thousands of people have contributed to it; some of the comments are pretty mundane, others are wonderfully detailed; and virtually none of this material would be preserved, had this project not existed.