Doing Recent History: on privacy, copyright, video games institutional review boards, activist scholarship and history that talks back


Renee C. Romano  Oberlin College

Robert S. Danforth Professor of History, Comparative American Studies and Africana Studies

Recent history—the very phrase seems like an oxymoron. Yet historians have been writing accounts of the recent past since printed history acquired a modern audience, and in the last several years interest in recent topics has grown exponentially. With subjects as diverse as Walmart and disco, and personalities as disparate as Chavez and Schlafly, books about the history of our own time have become arguably the most exciting and talked-about part of the discipline.

Despite this rich tradition and growing popularity, historians have engaged in little discussion about the specific methodological, political, and ethical issues related to writing about the recent past. The twelve essays in this collection explore the challenges of writing histories of recent events where visibility is inherently imperfect, hindsight and perspective are lacking, and historiography is underdeveloped.

Contributors to this collection consider a wide range of these challenges. They question how sources like television and video games can be better utilized in historical research, explore the role and regulation of doing oral histories, consider the ethics of writing about living subjects, discuss how historians can best navigate questions of privacy and copyright law, and imagine the possibilities that new technologies offer for creating transnational and translingual research opportunities. Doing Recent History offers guidance and insight to any researcher considering tackling the not-so-distant past.

"Doing Recent History lives up to the promise of its sprawling, ebullient subtitle. Claire Bond Potter and Renee C. Romano have gathered intelligent, deeply researched, and well-written essays; organized them into engaging thematic groups; and capped them with an outstanding introduction. This thoughtful and thorough essay can stand alone as an introduction to recent history and should be widely assigned to undergraduate majors, while the volume as a whole will raise important issues for discussion in graduate methodology seminars. Tremendously teachable, the book will also speak to established scholars in many subfields."
Julian Carter,  ​Journal of American History

“Potter and Romano have drawn together an admirably diverse set of scholars and archivists at all levels of the profession to comment on a broad range of critical and contentious issues in historical scholarship. I am unaware of any other collection that accomplishes what this one does so ably: allowing the reader to enter into and contend with a set of larger epistemological, methodological, pedagogical, presentational, and legal issues that directly affect the ways historians do their jobs in the second decade of the twenty-first century. This book should become a standard reference and teaching tool.”—Stephen Brier, codirector of the New Media Lab at the City University of New York

“How I wish Doing Recent History had been available when I began writing histories that were ‘just over my shoulder.’ Potter and Romano demonstrate that tackling recent history poses unique challenges, and they offer absolutely indispensable guidance in meeting them.”—Alice Echols, author of Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture

“This book hits all the marks. The writing is lively and well paced; the research and historiography are first-rate; there is a nice mixture of known, established authors and rising young scholars; and the questions taken up are directly relevant to what many of us do every day, both in our classrooms and in our scholarship. It’s timely, smart, wide ranging, and thought provoking.”—Robert O. Self, Brown University

"This collection of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays addresses the various pluses and minuses of doing ‘recent’ history.”—K.B. Nutter, Choice

“Even if you are not a historian, any information professional will learn something from this book, as it covers a large range of topics including those discussed above as well as the commoditization of information, the effect interviewers have upon the oral histories they collect, and much more. This book is highly recommended to all historians, archivists, and librarians.”—Tennessee Libraries

“[A]ny historian who reads [Doing Recent History] stands to gain something. . . . Potter and Romano open up the possibility that an all-encompassing methodology is no longer an option for historians. This collection encourages scholars to discard, once and for all, the notion that any history is absolute or completely objective and to recognize the interplay of subjectivity and intersubjectivity involved in doing recent history. This book may help historians accept that studies of recent events are valuable as primary documents in and of themselves.”—Molly Rosner, Oral History Review