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The Continual Creation of Knowledge

Mike Hillman

In a recent column the the Fredrick Gazette, Mr. Gordon praised the effort of Mr. Scharf in documenting the history of Frederick county and implied that any new history would be flawed if the researcher failed to review Mr. Scharf's work. I agree. However, unlike Mr. Gordon, I feel that any history that is solely dependent on the work of others, not original research, will inherit, and magnify the errors of the original - analogous to Xeroxing a copy of a Xerox that was itself Xeroxed.

The real issue here is not whether one should merely refer to Mr. Scharf's work in doing historical research, but weather one should defer to it. As whether to view history as cast in stone once written, or as always open to new findings and welcoming new discoveries. In the former case, there is no room for new knowledge, the latter is defined by the continual discovery of previously unknown or unavailable creation of knowledge.

Consider the significance of the highly successful biography of John Adams -- by David McCullough. While many fine books and papers have been written on this early President, McCullough's exhaustive research and his keen insight not only of history but contemporary society produced a work that made society aware of this important figure in a new and vital way.

To his credit, Mr. Scharf did a herculean job in compiling his 'History of Western Maryland.' But he was limited in what he could do by the tools of his time. Historians today however, have at their disposal tools Mr. Scharf could not even dream of. The computer and the internet are credited with the increased productivity seen in the workplace over the past decade, however their effects in that environment pale in comparison to their impact in historical and genealogical research.

Today, historical researchers can scan copies of documents form diverse sources, convert them into electronic form, enter them into databases and correlated them together in a blink of an eye. Thanks to the internet, researchers from the comfort of their homes - can log into vast archives over the Internet. Family researchers across the county can share their research in on-line discussion groups, and in doing so, add to each other's knowledge about their families' history. Thanks to modern technology, while one once considered themselves lucky to know the barest of information about a grandparent, today it's not uncommon to know the details of the life and time of one's ancestor who braved the Atlantic crossing.

It is this new knowledge era, the efforts of thousands, not just one, that the Greater Emmitsburg Historical Society is leveraging in their efforts to author a new, more robust, and yes, more accurate history of Northern Frederick County.

The framework of this new history is based on legal documents, land records, wills, and court transcripts: facts - not tradition, hearsay, or folklore. To this we add in historical news accounts to produce a skeletal structure that identifies key events, landholders, and personalities related to this area. This information is then made accessible on-line at the Historical Societies' web site. This open public web site is where family researchers are encouraged to add details of their own genealogical and historical study, particularly their own family specific perspectives to historical events.

In doing so, the Historical Society has created an online archive for anyone researching family members who once called Northern Frederick County their home. With each new researcher, we learn more about the rich and wonderful history of this area ... our knowledge is ever growing, and hopefully will forever continue to grow.

It is the fruits of this exhaustive effort that Mr. Gordon so capriciously dismissed in his original article last month. In dismissing our findings on the origins of Emmitsburg's founding, he never once contacted us, and, at his own admission, he never reviewed our documentation. Instead he just assumed we were wrong because our findings did not coincide with his existing knowledge.

Yes the goal of a historical Society must and should be the preservation and sharing of existing knowledge. But that goal should never take precedence over the discovery and sharing of new knowledge. Time does not stand still, nor does the discovery of knowledge. The new knowledge technologies enable historians to discover details previously unavailable to paper bound researchers of earlier eras, and to add context to the events occurring in a way that more fully communicates to this generation the factors that influenced those early pioneers who we seek to understand.

I don't know about you, but I myself would not want to live in a world where all knowledge is assumed to be known. Humanity lived through just such a time - which historians aptly dubbed 'The Dark Ages.' Its high time we lift the rich history of the Emmitsburg area out of its own dark age and into a world in which new discoveries are treasured, not scorned.


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