Jason Steinhauer, author of History, Disrupted, on campus March 28

February 27, 2023 By Troy Reeves, UW Archives Oral Historian

In this rapidly changing world, it takes work to keep up with the daily onslaught of information and demands on our attention and time. But when it comes to the past, it’s history. You can’t change it, right? Yet Jason Steinhauer asserts that history not only can be changed but is, indeed, changing. He brings the conversation to campus on March 28 when he discusses his new book, History, Disrupted: How Social Media and the World Wide Web Have Changed the Past (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). He will address the effect things like ChatGPT, social media, and artificial intelligence have on history. Do you know how viral tweets or silly posts can impact the past? Jason Steinhauer has plenty to say on the subject.

As a public historian and scholar, Steinhauer’s resume includes work at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress and on campus at Villanova University. I first met him in 2011 at the Oral History Association Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado. He was working for the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project, his 2nd full-time job starting his public history career. In the last decade, Steinhauer has moved away from traditional brick & mortar institutions to consulting, serving as a visiting scholar, and using his experience to envision, implement, and present the idea of History Communication. 

In his book History, Disrupted, Steinhauer sounds the alarm for the futures of history, journalism, science, writers, researchers, and others. He says, “The technologies we use profoundly reorganize and reorder our world, and what they mean for history, the humanities, education, the arts, journalism and our very concepts of knowledge and creativity—and how those are measured, evaluated, disseminated and compensated— are undergoing seismic disruptions.” Steinhauer, sponsored by the Friends of UW-Madison Libraries, in collaboration with other with many other campus sponsors all mentioned below, will be speaking about these ideas at the Discovery Building on campus this spring.

It has been an honor to remain in Jason Steinhauer’s orbit these last 12 years. And it was a privilege to interview him in preparation for his March 28th presentation. What follows are the highlights of our chat.

Reeves: Please tell us briefly about your education and career.

Steinhauer: I’ve always had an interest in public history and museums; I used to create museum exhibits in my parent’s basement as a child. As a student at The George Washington University, I was drawn to American Studies and the ability to combine museum work with history, journalism, media, archives, libraries, and other fields. Upon graduation, I was hired on the curatorial staff at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York. I later returned to graduate school to get a Master’s in History and an Advanced Certificate of Archival Management from NYU, where I worked on archives projects for institutions, including the New York Public Library, New York Historical Society, and Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. After working for seven years with the Library of Congress, I was selected as the founding director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University, which I built from the ground up. Today, I’m a bestselling author and speaker, Global Fellow at The Wilson Center (a think tank in D.C.), and have begun to build my own institution, called the History Communication Institute, which seeks to make the Web and social media a better place for accurate historical knowledge and to instill broader historical and media literacy into the general public.

Reeves: As you say when contextualizing your recent book, History, Disrupted: How Social Media & the World Wide Web Have Changed the Past, “The Internet has changed the past.” What do you mean by that?

I think people will have their eyes opened, and their horizons broadened about what social media is doing to us and how it affects everything we know and learn—including history.

Jason Steinhauer

Steinhauer: The Web and social media have threatened the very existence of the history profession. With so much historical information freely available online, why should anyone pay for professional historians? Or pay to take a history course or earn a history degree? This is what we see across the country as history departments are shuttered, museum funding decreases, and historians face a shrinking job market, low wages, and career insecurity. It’s a crisis not dissimilar from what the music industry faced in the late 1990s and early 2000s when streaming, downloading, and peer-to-peer file sharing, led by Napster and others, threatened the existence of the entire industry. Since the emergence of Wikipedia through the ascendance of artificial intelligence, the Web and social media have been chipping away at the authority and relevancy of the history profession, both academic and public history—so much so that now, 20 years on, the profession finds itself at a crossroads. The Web has changed how we communicate about the past, where we speak about the past, who shares about the past, and the prospects for the entire history profession. The effects have been seismic; mine is the first book to unpack the larger story and its consequences. 

Reeves: You have worked to build the field of history communication. What does it mean to practice it? And does being one relates to the key arguments in your book?

Steinhauer: When I worked at the Library of Congress, I interacted extensively with Science Communicators and the field of Science Communication. I wondered aloud if the discipline of history should be investing in History Communication and Communicators. I posed this question to the field and received a lot of interest. We all knew intuitively that the rapidly changing communications landscape meant we needed to be more strategic and thoughtful in how we communicated about history on different platforms. Part of that meant understanding with greater depth and complexity what was happening on those platforms and how Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and artificial intelligence are changing how people learn and search for information. That’s where my book fits in; it offers a guide to how these platforms privilege certain types of historical stories and information and how platform designs and algorithms affect what people know (or think they know) about the past. Having that knowledge, I’d argue, can make one a better history communicator.

Reeves: Can you comment on the research into this book, specifically how libraries & archives supported your work?

Steinhauer: The Library of Congress and the Falvey Memorial Library at Villanova University were critical; this book could not have been written without those two institutions. The idea for this book came to me while I worked at the Library of Congress and was informed by scholars I met there. I wrote the first draft at the Library of Congress and relied on books in their collections that were unavailable elsewhere. Access to hundreds of journal articles was also made possible through the Falvey Library, and two librarians at Falvey—Erica Hayes and Beaudry Allen—gave me critical data scraping tools that enabled me to do an original analysis of Twitter that had never been done before.

Reeves: How do you think this evolution will affect how we learn history and how historians teach it?

Steinhauer: This assumes there will be historians in the future, which is not a given! I was surprised when I interviewed people for my book at how many of them told me they felt they could now learn the history on their own using their phones. Several people told me plainly that they saw no need for historians or history courses—everything they needed to know about the past they felt they could Google or find on Wikipedia. These platforms have already changed how and where people learn—or think they learn—History and historians in classrooms, museums, and historic sites must adapt. We’re working on that at the History Communication Institute; we aim to develop entirely new approaches to communicating about the past in the classroom and among the broader public.

Reeves: What do you hope attendees will take away from your March 28th lecture?

Steinhauer: People have told me that after reading my book or hearing me speak, they can never see the Web and social media the same way again. One person said my book had changed his opinions of his Amazon Alexa. So, I think people will have their eyes opened, and their horizons broadened about what social media is doing to us and how it affects everything we know and learn—including history.

Jason Steinhauer will speak at 4:30 P.M. in the De Luca Forum of the Discovery Building, 330 N. Orchard Street, on March 28, with a reception and book signing immediately to follow at 5:30 P.M. This free, public event will be recorded but not live-streamed. Please register to receive event reminders and recording: https://go.wisc.edu/6husfi

It is sponsored by the Friends of UW-Madison Libraries with additional support and collaboration from UW ArchivesGeorge L. Mosse Program in HistoryUW Public History ProjectWisconsin Historical SocietyUW Department of Communication ArtsUW Center for the Humanities, UW German, Nordic, and Slavic Department.

Books available for purchase during the event are provided by Mystery To Me.

For additional information or accommodations, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Friends@library.wisc.edu.