An Appreciation: Matt Novak, Creator of Paleofuture

I'll be the first to admit that I'm a bit of a fuddy-duddy (as youngsters once upon a time called oldsters). I'm sixty. I've been around the block. Blah, blah, blah.

But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the "new." Especially when it comes to doing history. Yes, I learned how to "do" history back in the old days when PCs and Macs were new and shiny and few people owned one (at least few by today's standards). When using the library and conducting research, I used index cards, a pen, and paper books. And when not reading paper, I relied on microfilm and microfiche (which I still do because that's still the repository of much of the material I use in my research).

But this dog has learned and appreciates new tricks, not least when it comes to doing history for a broad audience. And in that regard, Matt Novak rocks it, man. He rocks it.

 Courtesy Paleofuture

Courtesy Paleofuture


Novak started out a few years ago with a blog he called Paleofuture: he dug around and found odd tidbits and predictions and other miscellany from the past and posted those findings, copiously illustrated, and his commentary, at his site.

Last year, the folks at Gizmodo wisely "acquired" Novak and his huge following. He posts a constant stream of his findings, which range from 1990s commentaries on pop music to a delightful 1908 political cartoon about women frequenting saloons (a bit he picked up from the equally delightful Appendix, a journal of "experimental and narrative history").

 Courtesy The Appendix and Paleofuture

Courtesy The Appendix and Paleofuture

His work is a terrific model for a new kind of "public" history: digital, non-snooty (although how one quantifies or qualifies such a trait, I'm not sure), lively, and always with a enough substance to make it worth reading.

But of course that's its problem: Novak creates for "the public" and as I've noted more than once in my life, here and elsewhere, "public history" is scorned by most academics or, sadly, is a project relegated to museum exhibits that miss the mark in connecting with audiences they're designed to serve.

So: cheers to Matt Novak and his goofy, off-kilter, but substantive form of "history." I vote for teaching his work and methods in grad school seminars.