In a moment of serendipity, Andrew Torget and his two young children found themselves scrolling though the fabled Guinness World Records. They began looking for low-hanging fruit in hopes of adding their names to the record book, a dream deferred from Torget's childhood. While his children had as little luck as their father did at their age, Torget is planning on making yet another attempt at global glory. This time, his intentions go far beyond either fame or novelty.
“I approached the [UNT] library saying, ‘What if we tried to set a Guinness World Record for the longest history class?” says Torget, an associate professor at the University of North Texas. “I [will] teach my entire Texas history class from beginning to end, all in one swoop.”
The class will begin at 9 a.m. Aug. 24 at the UNT Union Lyceum and is open to anyone who’d like to sign up. Around 45 “students” will be in attendance at the start, and the class will conclude at 3 p.m. the next day. Those in attendance will not be required to stay for the duration or even remain awake. As long as 10 people are actively engaged throughout the lesson, the record will be valid. Independent witnesses will also be on hand to ensure Guinness’ criteria is met.
While Torget's children partially inspired him to string together an entire semester's worth of material for the 30-hour lecture, the true motive behind the stunt is to help raise funds for The Portal to Texas History, a digital archive containing more than 10 million pages of historical documents and primary sources that UNT Libraries have compiled for the past 16 years. Torget says he hopes the attention garnered by his world record attempt will help UNT Libraries raise money needed to meet the requirements of a National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant the library received in 2015.
“I wanted to use this as an opportunity and sort of sacrifice myself for two days to see if we can help them with that cause,” Torget says.
First conceived in 2002, The Portal is compilation of private collections and archives from institutions that were unable to digitize the collections. In February, UNT added its millionth item to the archive, which includes newspapers, photographs, legal documents, poems and patents from as far back as 1820. Torget says the implications of an archive such as this go far beyond the realm of the historian.
For example, some people would simply slip through the cracks of a 19th century census. Those people do, however, show up sometimes in small-town newspapers. But the possibilities don’t end there. Torget says digitization projects have had a profound effect on the way we see and study the past.
“That’s the big change in doing history over the last 25 years," he says. "It used to be when you did history, it was the person who could go to the most archives is the one who won. Essentially, access to information was the hardest thing. Now it’s been completely flipped on its head when you have things like The Portal to Texas History or archives like The Valley Project, where you can access hundreds of millions of records online, and suddenly the question now isn’t ‘What do you do with too little information?’ It’s ‘What do you do with too much?’”
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The Valley of the Shadow project, hosted by the University of Virgina, was an attempt to answer that question. It's an online compilation of Civil War-era documents covering Confederate Augusta County, Virginia, and the Union-held Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Torget managed and co-edited the site, a bottomless pit where all perspectives of the day are easily accessible yet overwhelming in number. From the politically detached government records and battle maps to relatable personal letters, accounts and newspapers, both sides of the conflict are fully displayed. The project was meant to force readers to make their own path through history while reminding them exactly how much information there is to sort through and how much they're missing.
The Portal already contains more than 10 million pages and only covers Texas. With that much to go through, even if you find a needle in a haystack, Torget says, there could always be a haystack full of needles.
In his mind, the future lies in learning how to better compile and visualize these mass archives of information. It's a fitting thought for a man who’s about to attempt the longest cram session in history.
“The sciences have had their microscopes for hundreds of years, and they’ve done amazing things with them,” Torget says. “We’re just starting to build our microscopes in the humanities, and we’re just at the beginning of being able to do that.”