Live Tweeting History

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A tweet from William Christie, a member of the First Minnesota Light Artillery during the Civil War, recently popped up on Twitter: "Boys are already trying the new War songs. It's likely that we'll sing Bass many times at Vicksburg before we'll sing anywhere in the North."

The quote came via the Minnesota Historical Society, based on what the soldier might have tapped out on his smart phone, had one been available 150 years ago.

"There's a lot of technology out there changing the way we interact with the world, and, as historians, we owe it to ourselves to at least play with it," said Monica Rankin, assistant professor of Mexican and Latin American History at the University of Texas-Dallas. "Sometimes it doesn't work very well and sometimes it works really well."

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Museums, historical societies, and universities have been experimenting with various ways of using the social media tools to educate and engage students and communities in history.

Both K-12 and college professors have been retweeting @MNCivilWar. Museums and historical societies have the resources to conduct long-term experiments with multiple characters that play out over several years over Twitter. Some educators favor blogs developed specifically for education or a more condensed approach on Facebook.

"The traditional way of interacting with history is reading something on a page and writing something on a page, and that doesn't work for everyone and it's a bit outmoded, considering what we have access to today," Rankin said.

"Today's social media version of a book or a documentary does essentially the same thing: recounts something in history, gives various perspectives, and analysis. There's no reason you can't do that on Twitter. Whatever format you choose to communicate historical all comes down to sources and responsible scholarship."

Case in point: The Minnesota Civil War project, which will play out over two years, draws from diaries, letters, census documents and newspaper accounts. Staff members and a volunteer then storybook the narrative on an Excel spreadsheet, and create tweets for the dozen or so characters involved in the story based on those primary sources.

"The important thing is to drive people back to the original source," said Wendy Jones, director of the Minnesota Historical Society's museum education, "and to use critical thinking skills to investigate original sources."

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