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Warning: History geekery to ensue

September 3, 2009

So, I consider myself to be a historian. No, I’m do not have a PhD, nor am I a candidate for one. No, I do not work in an academic or university setting. No, I have never had a major paper or book published. But I’m still a historian. Why? Because I’m a student of history. I study it, I read, write, and talk about it, I even teach others about it, though not in a formal classroom.

To some people, historians are only those who dedicate their lives to conducting “new” research in the field and who get published in peer-reviewed academic journals. That’s silly. That’s like saying, to put it in City Girl, Country Food perspective, that someone who doesn’t have a horticulture degree can’t be a gardener, or someone who didn’t graduate from the Culinary Institute of America can’t be a cook.

To be a historian you have to love history. You have to study it, appreciate it, and most importantly, draw your own conclusions about it. True historians don’t just regurgitate what they read in books, they analyze it, compare and contrast to other information, and sometimes they even draw inferences based on the available data. Being a historian is about critical thought. You don’t need a PhD for that.

Most people, including myself, would probably narrow the field to identify me as a public historian. What is public history? Well, unlike traditional history – which seeks to add to historiography by raising new questions, coming up with new theories, and analyzing “new” primary sources* – public history is all about disseminating accurate historical information to the general public in a way that is engaging and relevant and preserving, cataloging, and interpreting the various artifacts and documents that “traditional” historians use on a regular basis. Basically, public historians want ordinary people to learn more about history – not only because it is important and relevant, but because it is fun – and to preserve and unlock the secrets of the things that tell us the most about history: artifacts.

Public historians work primarily in museum settings, be they traditional exhibit-driven museums, historic house museums, or living history sites. Public historians use primary and secondary sources** in research and use their findings to create interpretations of various aspects of history and disseminate them to the public. Public history is often closely linked with living history, which can be described as “applied” history. Basically, living history seeks to accurately recreate activities, events, fashions, and even personas of the past.

Public historians are curators, conservators, interpreters/”tour guides”, exhibit designers, collections assistants, archivists, executive directors, museum educators, writers, artificers of historic reproductions, consultants, etc. Basically, anyone who works in a history profession who is not a professor (unless they are teaching public history) or professional researcher or professional author. I do not consider reenactors to be public historians unless they are also employed in the field (as few are).

So, I am a public historian. My main focus is in historical interpretation (everything from tour guiding to doing interpretive text for exhibits) and museum education. That means that I focus more on the dissemination of information to the public, rather than the more curatorial/conservationist aspects of public history. I think that those jobs are extremely important, but I’d rather not be stuck in a climate-controlled warehouse accessioning and cataloging and cleaning various artifacts and ephemera. Though exhibits are fun.

What, you ask, brought on all this technical blather? Well, I got rejected from job # 10 today and was extremely depressed for most of the morning. But, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and forced myself back on that horse/computer chair. And lo and behold, just as the depression is about to set in again, I find a job possibility! It is for a part-time Director of Education at a local living history village. So not only is it in my field and close by, it’s in my particular specialization: interpretation and museum education! And, in having been to classes now and seen the coursework and driven the long-ass drive, I’m seeing the light of part-time work. It would be 9-2 Wednesday-Saturday, which would be perfect for my evening classes. It’s only a half hour commute from where I am currently. Alas, it is in the opposite direction of my hour and forty-five minute commute to classes at U Albany, but when it comes to the field, beggars can’t be choosers!

So, I applied for the job this morning and lo and behold! I get a call about three hours later from the executive director saying that she got my resume. She seemed very excited about me and wants me to come to the Civil War thingy they are having this weekend (Labor Day weekend), which looks to be quite large and kind of awesome! I even get in for free. My “mission” is to look around the site, take the various tours by the various interpreters, see what I think, and call her on Monday if I want an interview (as if I wouldn’t!). The boy hasn’t been there, but has heard from his history colleagues that the place is a little farby***, but that just means it needs a little work! Plus, having volunteered at Bonanzaville, USA before they got actual history professionals involved, I’ve dealt with farbery on a criminal level.

At any rate, I am ridiculously excited about this job and am praying that I get it. Especially since I have been job searching for around six months now and was just about to apply at Kohl’s and had absolutely no hope of getting even a seasonal job in the field anywhere nearby. So please, fingers crossed!!!

And now the boy is home from work, so we’re off for some much-needed grocery shopping!

*For you non-historians out there, primary sources are print or media sources that contain first-hand, first-person information and observances. Examples include letters, journals and diaries, government and legal documents, census records, news articles, historic artifacts, etc.

** Secondary sources are print or media sources that contain second-hand, third-person information and observances. They often also include analyses and/or interpretations of primary resources. Examples include reference materials, academic books and articles, etc. Basically, secondary sources are third-person retellings of events that did not directly happen to the person recounting them.

*** “Farby” or “farb” is a term used by many professional costumed interpreters to describe historically inaccurate elements in reproduction dress, objects, appearance, mannerisms, and interpretation. It comes from the phrase, “Far be it for me to expect accuracy over comfort” and is often used to describe less-than-professional reenactors.

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