When Does A Current Event Become History?

Apr 18, 2017

This commentary originally aired on April 19, 2016.

When does a current event become history? As a historian of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this transition has already occurred for the subject matter of my work. While new research can deepen my understanding of people, places, and events, very rarely does the historical landscape seismically shift under my feet.

 Colleagues writing about the late 20th century—like those of us who lived through it—have a different experience. As new archival material is declassified, catalogued, and otherwise opened to public and scholarly investigation, the opportunity to shift the historical paradigm is greater, but the question remains: Where is the line between past and present?

For me, having graduated high school in central Oklahoma, one such event is the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. On April 19, at 9:02 in the morning, a bomb exploded, killing 168 people, injuring nearly 700 others, and destroying and damaging more than 300 buildings within a 16-block radius. On that same morning, 200 miles away, I had just finished an exam and was beginning to learn about the event.

My first clue was not a piece of information, but instead the fact that the local broadcasters I had grown up watching were on the national news in the middle of the day. As the story that affected my friends and neighbors unfolded, I learned in real time, what my students, twenty-one years later, read about in their textbook.

When does this event become history? In 2001, historian of memory Edward Linenthal wrote The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory, the first serious attempt to historicize it. Still, at some level, this event and that day will always be lived experience for me. But as a historian, I have no doubt that future scholars will dig through yet-unopened archival material, unravel the events, and place them into the ever-shifting narrative of American history.