UWO

Where to begin?

About a year and a half ago, I moved to London.  No, not that London.  The other one.  In Ontario, about a two hour drive south of Toronto.  I was just beginning the Public History MA Program at the University of Western Ontario, and anticipating that I would have to field a lot of inquiries there as I had in Vancouver, where acquaintances, relatives, co-workers, and generally well-meaning people interested in my career goals had inquired what exactly “public history” was.

My answers were usually prefaced by a nervous, apologetic chuckle; they were also often riddled with ellipses:

“Public history…well…hehe…you see…it’s, uh, history…for the public! Ha ha…ahem.”

Of course, I learned to articulate more sophisticated answers before I left — such as “I’m going to study how history has been communicated to the public as well as participate in the communication of history to the public” — but they never deterred the practical listener from asking the typical, and typically dreaded, question:

“Oh.  Well – what are you going to do with that?”

If I felt the listener was at all capable of secret, impractical dreams, I’d share about my interest in history and communication and design, about how I hoped to develop exhibit content one day because I enjoyed research and writing and uncovering the compelling -story part of history – or herstory! – to share with a wide audience.

But if I was tired – and dubious of my listener’s sympathies, I’d simply say “museums.”  Understanding would dawn in my interlocutor’s eyes, followed by a shadow of pity – for the narrow field I’d chosen.

“Vancouver doesn’t have a lot of, uh, museums,” they’d say, after a significant pause.

You can imagine my surprise then, when three of the first handful of people I met in London, outside of my peer group, did not look at me with confusion, pity, or disbelief when they heard about what I was studying and learned that I had flown all the way from Vancouver to study it.

Although these listeners all came from different backgrounds – one was a Master’s student in the Department of Mathematics at Western; the other a PhD candidate in Physics, also at Western; and the third a congenial middle-aged employee from Loblaws – their responses were unified in their recognition of the relevance of such a program – or, rather, the relevance of such a program’s approach.  Both UWO students in fact drew analogies between Public History and — wonder of wonders! — other scientific fields based on the common ground that they were all about communicating specialized knowledge to a general audience in a comprehensible way.

So, I heard for instance about how a friend of the Mathematics student, studying Geography, was enrolled in a course geared towards presenting information about natural disasters and how to prepare for them to an uninitiated audience.  I also learned that the PhD candidate was involved in explaining developments in biophysical engineering to a non-scientific crowd.

As for the friendly Loblaws employee, with whom I had begun a conversation while we were both waiting for the bus, she was eager to hear about the potential of the Web for making history engaging and accessible.  Moreover, she was excited about its educational prospects in a Digital Age and could understand why I had chosen to pursue this field.

“How exciting!” she had repeated, again and again, during the course of our conversation.  (“How odd,” I had thought, again and again, that she could understand my enthusiasm and imagine the work I’d be doing better than some intellectual professionals I had encountered.)

I’ve never forgotten these three Londoners; they gave me hope that perhaps the field I’d entered was not so curious – or impractical – after all.

And hope, I remember, was something I greatly needed as a new student to London at the time who, being a generally risk-adverse-“let’s-weigh-all-the-pros-and-cons-of-a-decision”-type person, had just thrown caution to the wind to move east.  I had left a comfortable position at a local university – you know, one with regular pay and benefits; what aspiring Public History students dare to dream about at night – where I had been working for a solid three years in order to move to (the other) London in pursuit of what seemed a vague dream at best.  To find out that that dream was not so nebulous, not so incomprehensible as feared, when I described it, haltingly, to three strangers, was a thrilling relief.

Since that time, and especially after a most rewarding internship at the fabulous City of Vancouver Archives this past fall (and if you’ve never associated the word “fabulous” with “archives” before, please be forewarned: I fully intend on convincing you of this association in future posts), I’ve learned that the reaction of those three Londoners was not a strange fluke of a sympathetic universe.

The idea that had resonated with them, what I had learned to articulate better by then – the idea of taking specialized knowledge and making it accessible to an uninitiated audience – is one that is not so very impractical at all.  Many, many professionals do it: from doctors and pharmacists who have to communicate important and complex information to those for whom medical language would be gibberish, to programmers and developers who have to work closely with non-technical clients whose vision of a particular application’s functions may not be, let us say, technically sound or practicable.

The ability to translate esoteric knowledge into palatable information – what Public Historians in training must learn to do and do well – is applicable to those fields that deal with the general public.  And, at last count, there are 2, 933 fields that do this.  Alright, I just made up that number, but you know what I mean.  Walk into any bookstore, for instance, and you cannot miss the countless number of books by subject experts written purposely for the layperson.

What perhaps sets a Public Historian’s training apart from, say, that of a doctor or a pharmacist (other than, you know, the fact that we don’t have to deal with cadavers or chemical substances) is that we also learn how to make the knowledge we’re sharing compelling and engaging, not just informative.

Yes, that might mean that we play the entertainer and not just the educator a lot of the time, but we try to be responsible, ethical entertainers.  And also, I think it’s safe to say, (almost) everyone likes to hear a good story – so why not tell one if you can?  History is certainly full of them, just waiting to be told.  How it is told to a general audience – using what words, what images, what methods, what technologies – lies in the province of Public History.

After completing the program at Western and having a chance to translate theory into practice at a local archival institution, I can only say this: I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to venture into the study of Public History as well as to have had the support of family and friends who, if they didn’t altogether understand why I had chosen this particular career path, still cheered me on from a distance – and continue to cheer me on now, as I begin an exciting position as part-time Archivist at the City of Vancouver Archives, responsible for outreach efforts.

And that nervous chuckle that once was a knee-jerk reaction whenever anyone asked me what I was studying?  Gone.  In its place is an enthusiastic determination to get the word out about the value of history to society.  And by the way, I’m fully intent on making history and archives sexy.  But that is for another post altogether.  🙂

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“Would a complete chronicle of everything that ever happened eliminate the need to write history?” — St Andrews final exam question in mediaeval history, 1981

“To give an accurate and exhaustive account of that period would need a far less brilliant pen than mine” — Max Beerbohm

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About a year ago, I took a short creative non-fiction course on the topic of writing historical narratives for a general audience. The instructor, Dr. Richard Mackie, emailed the class the above quotes, to stimulate thoughtful reflection about the nature of history and historical writing. (The first quote was actually a question that Dr. Mackie himself encountered as a History student at St. Andrews in the 80s.) These quotes have come to mind lately as I’ve been ruminating about the implications of doing history in a digital age.

The era of the Internet has, I think, made the idea of a “complete chronicle” of our current times more conceivable than ever before. The Web has certainly made it possible for virtually anyone, irrespective of gender, class, ethnicity, etc., to share their thoughts, ideas, photos, videos, even “statuses” (i.e. what one is doing at a precise moment in time) continuously. Provided that all of this electronic data is adequately preserved, there is going to be a vast abundance of information available for anyone a generation or two (or more) down the road who is curious about the interests, opinions, tastes, preoccupations, etc. of ordinary people in our time.

Yet, such information, no matter how detailed, is not the same as history. The chronicling of people’s lives, even on as minute a level as that expressed in an article about “lifelogging” by New Yorker writer, Alec Wilkinson, [1] results only in the production of information. It is the interpretation of that information, the piecing together of disparate parts into a coherent and (hopefully) elegant narrative which pulls out (or, more accurately, constructs) themes and patterns, that transforms it into history, into a meaningful story about the past.

What’s interesting, of course, is that although no historian (I think) would ever claim to write the history on any subject, discussions about the potential of history in the digital age has sometimes suggested the ability for history to be more complete than ever before. The idea of hypertextual history, for instance, where readers of a historical account can click on links leading them to pertinent primary source documents on the topic, say, or to other similar or divergent viewpoints about the particular subject they’re examining, has almost a decentring impact at the same time that it provides more information. It can be easy for readers, I think, to be overwhelmed by the profusion of hyperlinks within a text, and perhaps to never finish reading the actual article to learn the historian’s particular approach to the past.

The beauty of history, I think, is not that it claims to be a complete, exhaustive chronicle that leaves no stone unturned in its examination, but that it presents one angle on the past, a new way of understanding something that is extraordinarily complex and, for that reason, is open to — and I’d even say requires — multiple interpretations. History is, after all, a story as opposed to a record book, a narrative as opposed to mere facts.
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[1] Wilkinson’s interesting article recounts how computer guru Gordon Bell has been involved in a “lifelogging” experiment, in which he wears a Microsoft-developed device called a SenseCam around his neck that takes continual pictures of his day-to-day experience and allows him to record his thoughts at any given point in time if he so wishes. According to Wilkinson, Bell “collects the daily minutiae of his life so emphatically that he owns the most extensive and unwieldy personal archive of its kind in the world.” Alec Wilkinson, “Remember This? A Project to Record Everything We Do in Life,” The New Yorker.com, May 28, 2007, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/05/28/070528fa_fact_wilkinson.