The landscape of history
By Jon Malek
The last time I wrote in January, I spoke of the Philippines in the early modern period and the role it played in the development of Asian and global history. This time I want to talk about the sources we use to write history, without which historians would have nothing to write about. Sources of the historical past include written documents such as letters, books, newspapers, and government documents, as well as audio and video recordings. These can provide rich accounts of events in the past and can show us how people thought in the past. Other sources include physical remains of the past, such as buildings, tools, artwork, and other man-made objects. For instance, last month I talked about the discovery of ancient trading vessels near Butuan and what this told historians of the Philippines and Southeast Asia. In a recent book by Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Little Manila is in the Heart, she uses the history of buildings to help recreate the history of the Filipino community in Stockton, California, by describing events that occurred within their walls.
In the days before the Internet, sources of the historical past were difficult to come by. If you were a student or a faculty member at a college or university, chances are you had access to plenty of books and sources through the library. For those who did not have such easy access, though, using the resources of these libraries could be very expensive. With the arrival and quick development of the Internet, however, the amount of free information available online has grown significantly. This increased access has made information that was previously hard to get at, accessible with your fingertips. There are a lot of examples of this. The Library and Archives of Canada, for example, is putting more and more of its collection online, with Internet users able to search the archive and even view items such as photographs. Those interested in the history of the Philippines are also gaining access to more historical sources. Some of this information is made available by individuals interested in spreading historical knowledge. For instance, the Pilipino Express’ own Paul Morrow has information on the Laguna Copperplate Inscription, dated to 900 A.D., and has given a translation of this priceless piece of history. Sources are also made available by academic institutions. The University of Michigan has a fantastic website that makes innumerable sources easily available, including a massive photographic collection. One source of particular importance on this site is the Philippine Islands, 1493-1898, which is a massive collection of sources relating to the Philippines. I encourage everyone to check out these Internet sites – it’s amazing how quickly time will pass as you explore them!
These are just some sources for the more distant past. What about the recent past? For those interested in the history of the last 50-100 years, there is an additional and invaluable source: people! Consider the Filipino community here in Winnipeg. It is over 50 years old, and has an unfortunate lack of history written about it. If you wanted to know something about this community’s history (that you yourself didn’t already know), chances are that you would ask someone you know, whether it be a friend, parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle – the people that we know are often a treasure trove of history. This is exactly what ANAK did for the 2010 Manila to Manitoba exhibit commemorating the Winnipeg Filipino community. Not only do these people know the history of the community, but they are also, in fact, a piece of that history. The stories they tell all contribute to the rich narrative of history; their lives and experiences have not only helped to create the community that is present today, but they also help to preserve that community’s history and memory. History, after all, is not a thing of the past – we interact with it every day in our own little way, and every day we contribute to that history, though we may not know it.
The most invaluable part of personal stories and memories, I think, is that they capture something that many other historical sources do not. An historian, for instance, could turn to newspapers and government documents to find out about the immigration of Filipinos to Winnipeg and the growth of this community, but he or she would only be getting part of the picture and, in my opinion, would be missing the most important part, the lived experiences of that history. I’ve said it before, and I say it again: your life is history; your life makes history. Let us all recognize this and cherish the histories that lie within, as we realize they are just as valuable as any other source of the past.
Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and an alumnus of the University of Manitoba (B.A., M.A. in History). As part of his research project on the history of Filipinos in Winnipeg, Jon would be happy to talk to members of the community about their life experiences. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org