History Project Sheds Light on New York Blackout

Posted: September 8, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

When the lights went out a few weeks ago, the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason was ready. Within an hour of the blackout that affected parts of Canada and the U.S. Northeast and Midwest, the center had set up a new survey to record personal accounts of the power failure on its Blackout History Project web site. Since then, the site has been recording people’s stories and reactions to the biggest power failure in years, thus ensuring that the information is preserved.

“Our primary goal right now is to collect information for future historians,” says Tom Scheinfeldt, who manages the Blackout History Project with Dan Cohen, visiting assistant professor of history and art history. “In this age, the new role for historians is to react to news and try to save as much of it as we can while it is happening.”

The Blackout History Project began in 1998 with the help of a grant from the Sloan Foundation. The project, headed by Jim Sparrow, visiting instructor of history and art history, was designed to collect oral histories of two major power failures that struck New York City and its surrounding areas: the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965 and the New York Blackout of 1977. A few hundred accounts were collected, along with an extensive timeline, academic essays, and interviews of workers and professionals involved with the power failure.

With the most recent blackout, the center’s Blackout History Project has been recharged. Contributors from around the world have already recorded more than 150 personal accounts and thoughts about the blackouts, and the site is still accepting contributions. Media outlets such as National Public Radio, Fox News, ABC News, USA Today, and the BBC have carried stories on the project, giving the web site even more national attention. The archive will eventually be placed in the Special Collections and Archives of the George Mason University Libraries.

“The project is very exciting for historians because we are collecting data as the events are happening,” says Scheinfeldt. “Future historians will be able to read personal accounts from people who told their stories within minutes or days of the event, which creates a more accurate archive and preserves the stories for future generations.”

CHNM’s other projects have also garnered national and international attention. In 2000, another grant from the Sloan Foundation allowed the managers of the Blackout History Project to expand their work to include the Exploring and Collecting History Online (ECHO) project. Through this project, CHNM managers developed low-cost and easy-to-operate software tools that allow them to quickly develop surveys that collect oral histories and digital items. These efforts allowed the historians to create the September 11 Digital Archive, which was recently acquired by the Library of Congress for its special collections. Through ECHO, CHNM professors also created a web site on the day of the Columbia Space Shuttle tragedy, collecting and preserving personal accounts from people all over the country.

CHNM uses digital media and computer technology to change the way that scholars, students, and the general public learn about and use the past. For more information about CHNM, visit its web site.

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