Because there is much more valuable knowledge being lost than being saved.
As a child I had an amazing conversation with my great-grandparents, who had lived through the Great Depression in the United States. Amongst other things, my great-grandmother told me about losing control of a horse cart in the dirt streets of San Francisco. She described a city still recovering from a devastating earthquake, much closer to the gritty miners town it was in the 19th century than the silicon city we see today. I have never heard a story like it since, and twenty years after her death I can’t find my notes. Even if I could find my rudimentary scribblings, I couldn’t see her face or hear her voice.
Almost everyone shares some version of this experience. Where there is no shortage of fascinating works of history–Google Books lists 20.5 million results in a search for “history” — there are billions of stories, like mine and yours, that are not available to the public, stories that will be lost unless we proactively collect them. Not historians, not journalists–people like you and me.
In a world where more and more people carry sophisticated recording equipment in their pockets, it’s about time we fixed this problem. In fact, we have. We’ve created a platform where the stories that mean the most to you can take their place in history.
Once upon a time…
The idea for Tell History came about in March of 2013 during the Nowruz New Year celebration in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The future cofounders of Tell History had gathered in the ancient town of Akre, nestled between three rocky peaks in the Zagros Mountains that run between Iran, Iraq, and eastern Turkey.
We were part of the thousands pouring into the town for the holiday, watching dozens of people carrying flaming torches up narrow mountain trails before igniting giant bonfires around the city. Youngsters shot off fireworks, and someone fired earth-shaking mortar rounds, a modern twist on a tradition that stretches back thousands of years to the ancient Zoroastrian religion.
We were overwhelmed by how much we found there
Over the weekend, we discovered Akre itself has a rich heritage, testified by remains of a Sumerian citadel on one of the mountaintops, a church just below, a Jewish quartier 100 meters away, and a center for a mystical Sufi sect around the corner. But archeologists have barely scratched the surface of Akre’s treasures, and many artifacts have been lost or taken as souvenirs. The Sumerian temple is most often used as a place to picnic or as a public toilet. History is something that is taken for granted in a region so overflowing with cultures, religions, languages, and one accustomed to frequent political upheaval.
We had questions, and locals wanted to talk about their city
On this short visit to Akre, we spoke to many people about the history of the town. During the course of several feasts and explorations in the area, we heard stories of the last Jewish families that lived in the town, of tribes kidnapping villagers, battles fought, duels, murders, ghosts that haunt the streams, of visitors who came from as far as Pakistan and Afghanistan to the Sufi center to swallow swords. We learnt of lost techniques for building houses, changing fashions, and countless stories of brave resistance (and traitorous betrayal) during the Baathist regime in Iraq.
So many stories on every corner of the town…and almost none of them recorded in any way
Much of the knowledge of this place will die with the individuals who lived these incredible lives. There is a great local oral tradition but unless lucky enough to access the community and have a translator, these rich personal histories are isolated from the world.
Our first thought was: how can we remedy this problem? Should we shoot a documentary about Akre? Maybe, but this would take enormous amounts of time and money, and inevitably countless of stories would be discarded on the editing room floor. Should one of us do a PhD dissertation about this fascinating place? No–one person couldn’t manage all the work or absorb all that this place had to offer.
We realized that the best solution would be to try to enable ordinary people like us–whether in the community itself or interested visitors–the tools to record the people of Akre. In the age of the smartphone, we figured it should be easy for anyone to be able to conduct a short interview. All you would need is a phone and a good question to ask.
It turns out this is a pretty big problem everywhere
As we worked on a solution one thing became clear: this problem was not unique to Akre. Talking about our idea with friends and relatives all over the world, we were shocked by how many people were concerned about the loss of important memories in their communities. People also told us that they didn’t feel traditional history spoke to their experiences or described the world they knew.
Whether it was in the United States, the UK, Germany, Pakistan, or Nepal, everyone we spoke to immediately identified people they knew who had led fascinating lives, who had important stories to transmit. But almost none of these people would ever speak to a journalist, filmmaker, or researcher. Nor would they put all their memories to paper, whether it be a memoir, letters, or a blog. The fragility of these memories–the chance they could be lost to subsequent generations–was a source of concern to the people in their lives.
Together, we can build something special out of these memories
Tell History allows you to share the best stories from the people you care about.
Collectively we are building a more democratic history
We don’t want to supplant the role of professional historians. Well-trained academics will always be needed to dive deeper, verify, cross-check, review, organize, and publish according to peer-reviewed standards. But historians and journalists aren’t the only ones who discover amazing stories with value. We all run across them. We will have a more democratic history when you bring these stories to light.
Does this sound ambitious? Certainly. And it relies on you.
Are you a citizen historian?
You may not realise it but we all consider history and talk to those who have lived it most days. Maybe you do it at holidays, maybe over dinners, walks, or at a bar. Talking about where you were when _______ happened. Remembering when school was different and how your experience is different to your friend or loved one. Maybe you do it for work. In short, you are already a citizen historian.
It doesn’t take a degree or training or preparation of any kind. Citizen historians like us pay attention to the world around us and understand issues that matter to our society. We talk to the people who have lived through something significant, and now we can save these memories “on the record” with Tell History.
Any democracy is only as good as the sum of its individual citizens. Tell History is filling the gaps in the history books, and this includes you–the citizen historian–to engage the people around you and to share the stories that matter.
This involves thinking about the stories that aren’t usually heard. Engaging the people who have witnessed history and seeking to understand their lives. Documenting a person’s story so that it can be shared and considered by others–because if it is meaningful to you, it probably will be for someone else too.
Collectively these actions can build a more complete understanding of the world we live in, reshaping the contours of history to reflect the experiences of ordinary people–the people we know, people like us.