The Profession

History Matters

Alexandra M. Lord, December 2011

When we arrived at the hotel, the owner greeted us enthusiastically. She was, she said, thrilled to have "real historians" visit. She had spent years researching the hotel's history within the Japanese American community in Seattle and she had painstakingly restored the building. The traditional bathhouse in the basement retained its original ads and, most chilling of all, suitcases left by Japanese Americans who had been sent to the internment camps were still piled high in the basement. Following the advice of the local Japanese American community, the owner had left these untouched.

Yet even as the owner greeted us, she peered behind us and asked "and the other historians? They're coming, too?" Awkwardly, my colleague from the National Park Service and I explained that although a thousand historians had converged on Seattle, these historians would not be visiting the Panama Hotel. The conference was an opportunity for historians to give papers about history—thinking about historic sites or how history is presented to the general public was not its focus.

As a historian, I greatly enjoy learning from the conference papers I hear presented at each conference I attend. But I also struggle to understand why attendees at a conference that proclaimed the thematic title "History Without Boundaries" lacked interest in exploring one of Seattle's most compelling historic sites. In the 10 years since I left academia, I have come to understand and value tremendously the work that members of the general public have done to protect, preserve, and promote histories in their community. This work is as important as that done within the academy but because non-academics and academic historians often operate in isolation from one another a great, and damaging, divide exists between what is commonly called public history and academic history.

Academically trained historians may—and do—have exciting and provocative discussions about history among themselves but their failure to step outside of either the classroom or the sterile meeting rooms of chain hotels has meant that their discussions rarely progress beyond the confines of the Ivory Tower. Journalists, not historians, write National Book award winners as well as other bestselling histories; and filmmakers, not historians, provoke Americans to think about history. Heritage tourism is a multimillion-dollar industry; books, television shows, and films about history have attracted huge audiences; preservation projects rejuvenate local economies; and millions of Americans have walked into archives seeking to find and understand their own family's history. These events, however, routinely happen at a substantial remove from academic history.

Ironically, both when I was a graduate student and later as a professor, I frequently attended graduate-student or faculty-only dinner parties in which we historians all loudly lamented Americans' poor understanding of history. Based on little evidence, we were all firmly convinced that Americans did not value history. It was only after I left the academy that I began to see that Americans do value history tremendously—and that they are actually often as passionate about history as I am. More often than not, the people whom I have met outside the academy seek out good history but they have difficulty finding it, in large part because we academically trained historians are more inclined to speak and write to ourselves than attempt to communicate with those outside the academy.

Capitalizing on the public's love of history to promote a better understanding of history not only among ourselves but also among all Americans is, I think, long overdue. And what better organization to lead this effort than the American Historical Association, an organization whose founding was predicated on the need to improve and promote understanding of history among the American public?

To engage more directly with the American public will require that we reassess how we interact with the public. On a very basic level, we need to understand that we can learn as much, if not more, from those outside the academy as we can learn from our colleagues in higher education. Rather than simply encouraging K–12 teachers, for example, to attend the AHA annual meeting, it is time for us to listen closely to what these teachers can tell us about how history is taught in American schools and the constraints these teachers face when teaching this subject. In short, we need to recognize that K–12 teachers are our equal partners, not junior colleagues, and we need to establish close partnerships with those who provide students with their first exposure to history.

Similarly, it is time for us to think critically about how and why Americans spend millions of dollars on genealogy each year. We need, also, to respect these genealogists. I have spent hours watching my older sister, an attorney and a summa cum laude history major from Yale, research our family's genealogy. Over the last five years, she has traced not only our family's journeys from Britain, the Netherlands, and northern Greece to America—but also the journeys my husband's and her husband's families made from the shtetls of eastern Europe to America. Her ability to navigate name changes, to find relatives as they appear and disappear in the written record, to untangle family myths from historical truths, and her desire to understand the context in which our families and those of our in-laws made their journeys is multifaceted. In fact, when I was writing a book on the history of federal sex education, she assisted me in navigating the shipping records and other information needed to trace Surgeon General Thomas Parran's journey to Denmark to study sex education in the 1930s. I am now eagerly waiting for her book explaining and contextualizing my great-grandfather's suicide and his wife's subsequent bizarre religious mania. Yet I have met countless professional historians who express, at best, a bemused condescension when confronted with the idea that genealogists actually do good history. The assumption that genealogists need to be educated by professional historians—as opposed to the idea that professional historians and genealogists can learn from one another—is widespread.

Although rarely discussed, tapping into the love of history found among genealogists, preservationists and others is crucial if we are to promote the study of academic history. We need to ensure that our conferences are welcoming not only to academic historians but also to those who love history and do history within their communities. Restructuring the AHA annual meeting so that the discussion is about the diverse ways in which people (in the United States and elsewhere) use, understand, and value history would be an excellent first step.

Obviously welcoming and promoting panels by nonacademics who promote history—whether they be filmmakers, K–12 teachers, or preservationists—is crucial if we are to benefit and build on the general public's love of history. But we academically trained historians also must learn how to step outside of the academy to engage in the broader national discussion about history. To do this, we need to listen carefully to nonacademics and learn how Americans use history; in this regard we can learn a great deal from our colleagues in the museum world who routinely evaluate how site visitors enjoy and learn from brick-and-mortar exhibits as well as from web exhibits and who then use this information to improve their own work. It is not enough, in other words, to build it with the simple expectation that they will come. We need to meet people midway so that we know the questions they seek to answer—even as we encourage the development of new questions.

Most importantly, we need, as AHA Executive Director James Grossman and AHA President Anthony Grafton have said, to stop seeing public history as a separate track and to see public history instead as a central component of what all historians do.1 As part of this, we should recognize that public history is not confined to American history (a misunderstanding that is widespread) and that our partners in the public can teach us about the many different tools they use to promote history.

I am not naïve enough to believe that this push to greater inclusivity will, in and of itself, resolve all of the problems facing historians today. However, without greater inclusivity, it is unlikely that Americans will see and understand why it is important that history departments be staffed by full-time faculty, that grants promoting the study of history be fully funded, and that archives continue to be supported by federal, state, and local governments. In short, greater inclusivity will not only improve the quality of work we do (as we come to understand, for example, how preservationists research and understand the idea of place), it is also fundamental if history is to flourish in the future.

Alexandra M. Lord runs Beyond Academe, a web site that assists historians in finding work outside the academy. She is also a federal historian.

Note

1. Anthony Grafton and James Grossman, "Plan C" Perspectives on History 49:8 (November 2011), 5–7.