What is important about history, what is intriguing about history, is not the past but the old within our present. Like DNA, history is a living part of us and our world now that shapes and influences how the future–also in our midst–is integrated as it transforms us.
–with acknowledgement to Neil Gaimen
Popular usage conflates several meanings in the word history: the sum and scope of past events; research into or the study (particularly professional or academic) of some segment of those events–historiology, the proper though little used term; and results of such research or study, case studies or narratives or other interpretations of the past–historiography. The history of the word itself traces to an antecedent in common with story; and an origin in a learned or wise person, a judge.1 Events, memories-judgements, tales. Keeping in mind the distinctions among and the limitations within each meaning can be an aid to the clarity of ones reasoning.
We cannot know the past, even less than we can know present events, instead we have perceptions, memories, documents, an amalgam of artifacts. Compounding the difficulties of understanding such a mix, besides the problems inherent in perception and memory and substantial loss of remains, are the distortions involved when selecting, structuring, evaluating, narrating those (what are termed primary sources but what are really) bits of second-hand evidence, where point-of-view, worldview, prejudice, bias, ideology (how ever we term our mental processes and outlook) reconfigure and reinterpret, and inevitably recreate the past not as it was but as we tell ourselves it had been.
The very fabric of the tales themselves, the very telling is suspect because of language. All language is symbolic, words are not the ‘things themselves’ but symbols trying to evoke images or a sense of those ‘things’. Whether scientific or poetic, language imposes this limitation and contingency. (The language of mathematics and science is no different, though more ordered and rigorous, for its abstractions neglect and ignore much of the richness of the world–as if the magnificent reality and utility of water could be summed up in H2O.)
All these problems do not mean that understanding is impossible–though it is always approximate–but that one must be careful in using words and employing theories, and be vigilant to the inherent limitations of our data, tools, perceptions, languages, thoughts.
Two unfortunate divisions have developed in historical study: professional and, most often then, academic historians have separated themselves out of the mix of amateur and, now predominately, local historians.
Local history has demonstrated its economic value by contributing to the revitalization of downtowns and the growth of tourism in some areas. Local history has meaning to individuals and families, much more so than the abstractions of national and international history. Local history could contribute to local government decision-making, which has considerable direct impact on the quality of people’s lives.2
Local history has been criticized because of some practitioners’ carelessness with data and their lack of intellectual rigor. The criticism has some merit unfortunately, for too much local history is parroting of old stories without re-evaluation of their content, promoting a cause or place without a comprehensive review and balanced presentation of available data, and failing to establish the relative merits of different kinds of evidence–for example, not distinguishing folklore from more reliable sources.
A cautionary local example concerns a dugout canoe that was included in a traveling Hudson Valley Indian exhibit curated by the Putnam County Historical Society (now the Putnam History Museum) in the late 1980s. Charles S Zurhorst, who worked in public relations and authored one history book and another of criticism,3 had “found the canoe in an old shed, about to be torn down, near the intersection of Routes 311 and 216 [now 164] in Patterson, New York. The information that the owner had was quite sketchy beyond the fact that the canoe had been found ‘a long time ago’ on the shores of the Great Pine Swamp, near Patterson.” Mr Zurhorst first loaned the canoe to the Southeast Museum, and then presented it in 1985 to the Putnam County Historical Society.4 The canoe gained some local notoriety, even being mentioned in a 2010 archaeological report prepared for a local developer as having been carbon-dated to about 1620 and therefore being one piece of evidence that Native American’s hunted in the Great Swamp.5
For many years the canoe was housed out of public view at the Putnam County Archives. In 2015 interest was expressed in putting such a significant relic on permanent exhibit. The alleged carbon-dating results could not be located, however, and since there were reasons to question the purported age of the canoe, funds were raised by the Putnam County Historian for new tests. The findings were that the wood dated from the nineteenth century! Hoax? Publicity stunt? Product of wishful thinking?
At a minimum certain principals of evidence and research and conduct should guide the local as well as the professional historian.6 Of especial benefit would be the formation of a collaborative community of local historians to assemble and share research, encourage and critique one another’s work, and develop relationships with those in the broader historical field.
Professional historians have not been without criticism: for ivory-tower disengagement from the realities of the world; for ideological bias; for elitism. Some of the criticism could be, and has been, answered by engagement with topics within the traditional province of local history–for example, the story of a shoemaker, or of a small bicycle company, and their intersections with larger events.7
Unfortunately those involved in various aspects of history are extremely fragmented, to the detriment of all and to the efforts to preserve our common, though diverse, heritage.
Header images from the left: a. The Muddy Brook Rockshelter (photo by Judy Kelley-Moberg); b. Sketches of local prehistoric pot types by Judy Kelley-Moberg; c. & d. Pottery shards from the Muddy Brook Rockshelter reassembled by Judy Kelley-Moberg (photos by Ron Taylor); photos in the collections of the Patterson Historical Society.
Text copyright by Ron Taylor.
1 Oxford University Press (1971), The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
2 Some notable books on the subject are:
- Kammen, Carol (ed) (1996), The Pursuit of Local History–Readings on Theory and Practice. A diverse collection of essays that provide background and argue for the value of local history (and can supply some good quotes); but, for the already-committed local historian, of limited practical use, for which see Kyvig and Marty (2000) below .
- Kammen, Carol and Norma Prendergast (eds) (2000), Encyclopedia of Local History. Explanations of terms, and topical blurbs and short essays of value for listings of resources and their review in a historical context.
- Kyvig, David E and Myron A Marty (2000, 2nd ed), Nearby History–Exploring the Past Around You. A thorough and practical presentation of the elements of local history with suggestions for incorporating them into written histories. The extensive suggestions for further reading can be especially helpful.
Although oriented to museums and historical-house societies rather then researchers and writers, the American Association of State and Local History has on its website more recent works on a variety of topics: http://www.aaslh.org/ .
3 The First Cowboy and Those Who Followed (1973) and The Trouble with Conservation (1970) for which see: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/charles-zurhorst/the-trouble-with-conservation/ (accessed 2017-07-12).
4 Information about the canoe included with the traveling exhibit; contained in the Putnam County Historians Office collections.
5 McDonald, Molly R., RPA (2010), Phase 1A Archaeological Survey, Proposed Watchtower Educational Center Amended Site Plan, Town of Patterson, Putnam County, New York, Chapter Four p3; prepared for: The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., 25 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn, NY 11201-2483; prepared by: AKRF, Inc., 440 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10016, May 2010.
6 American Historical Association (2017), Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct; https://www.historians.org/jobs-and-professional-development/statements-standards-and-guidelines-of-the-discipline/statement-on-standards-of-professional-conduct (accessed 2017-07-13).
7 Young, Alfred F (1999), The Shoemaker and the Tea Party; and the entertaining work by Armstrong, Christopher and H V Nelles (2010), The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company: Sunday Streetcars and Municipal Reform in Toronto, 1888-1897. For an overview of some of the new directions (during the last few decades) in professional history, and suggestions for works that exemplify them, see Burke, Peter (ed) (2001, 2nd ed), New Perspectives on Historical Writing.
Fig 1 photo by Judy Kelley-Moberg