Thursday, February 08, 2018

Working as a local historian

Fourth Street, Santa Ana, Decoration Day (Memorial Day), 1891.
A while ago, I got an email from a history student named Tim. He had a series of questions for me about "being a public historian," and I tried to answer them the best I new how. I thought I'd repost my response here in case anyone else is interested in such things.


Let me give your questions a shot. I will begin, however, with the caveat that all I can do is answer for myself. People approach this kind of work in many ways, and generally I can only speak for myself and speak from my own philosophy.

- What do public historians do?

I’m not particularly religious, but I think the easiest parallel to what *I* do (and what I think others in this field SHOULD do) is to act as a sort of “history evangelist,” generating and sharing accurate and interesting local history to a population that knows too little about the subject. I say “accurate” because there’s PLENTY of half-baked local history being foisted off on the public in the form of badly research newspaper articles, Wikipedia entries, etc, etc. And I say “interesting” because you have to do your evangelizing in a way that *reaches* people. The best research and most groundbreaking work will be utterly wasted if doesn’t capture the public’s interest. You have to identify the audiences where your work will make the most positive impact and then figure out how best to engage those audiences. When I really got started in earnest in this field in the late 1990s, websites were clearly the way to go, so I built one. Later, blogs were the thing, so I started one. Now social media is the thing, so I’m trying to figure out how best to generate content that will work well on FaceBook (maybe short videos?). Along the way, I’ve done tours, written articles for journals (another smaller audience) and magazines, I’ve lectured extensively (mostly to community groups with an expressed interest in local history, rather than just being cheap entertainment for the Rotary Club), and tried to raise public awareness of local history by working on the board of the Orange County Historical Society.

And when I’ve seen a need, I’ve started non-profit groups specifically with the idea of letting other people run them. Sometimes a community of people who care about preserving local history just haven’t figured out they’re a community yet, and you can do some good just by being the catalyst and bringing the right people together.

So half your goal is generating meaningful, interesting and accurate historical content (and hopefully covering some new ground from time to time), and half is getting it out there into the world where it will do some good. How you choose to accomplish those goals is up to each historian.

Of course, you’ll also need a job that provides you with at least enough money for food and shelter.  Unlike *religious* evangelists, you don’t get to pass around a collection plate. Ideally, the job that pays your bills will dovetail with and compliment your work as a public historian. Here’s where I think I lucked out. I got a job working at the County Archives, where, among other things, I get to help OTHER people use our records to uncover the histories of their families, homes, or communities. In a way, I’m being a bit of a “history enabler,” -- Teaching members of the general public to be their own public historians (albeit with a narrow focus) and also actively helping them with aspects of research that can’t be taught in the short period of time that’s often available for a particular project.

Other public historians find work in museums, libraries, archives, etc.  Others teach. Still others end up in seemingly unrelated fields and do their history work in their spare time.

I think some of our best local historians have been those with a strong background in (and gift for) writing. Journalists and PR people (who usually have training as journalists) often make good public historians. The good ones already know how to dig out the facts, conduct interviews, do research, “get the scoop,” and communicate well in writing. Of course, its not all journalists and PR folks in public history, but there’s certainly a connection or trend there that’s worth noting.

Just roughly, one of the things good public historians do that’s different from other historians is that we tend to focus on the individuals or families or communities rather than on the sort of big, sweeping stuff that’s already been rehashed a million times. The world won’t benefit much from yet ANOTHER historian milking the big picture of the Civil War to try to get something new out of it. The world will benefit even less from an academic historian who wants to revisit the Civil War simply as a means of grinding some modern-day political axe (either their own or their professor’s). But there is value, for instance, in researching and telling the story of a previously ignored person (Civil War vet or not) who changed their community or industry or world in some way.

For example,… I wrote an article about the man who built and ran a hotel that was the hub of Orange County social and business life during the 1960s and 1970s. I wrote about the former Parks Superintendent of Anaheim – a fascinating guy whose gift for hybridizing plants gave us the Boysenberry and who helped Anaheim retain its sense of community at a time when the city was growing by leaps and bounds. I wrote another article about a small group of Los Angelenos who fought to create an all-black beach club at a time when only white people were allowed on most  L.A. beaches. It’s not like writing about Sherman’s March through Georgia or like writing about the Emperors of the Ming Dynasty.  It’s more about acknowledging that the myriad “average Joes” alive in those time periods were ALSO shaping our world and that that understanding society and individuals of all classes and from all angles gives a better picture of reality than once again returning, without a larger context, to the rehashing of generals and emperors.

- What important contributions do they make to their communities?

As America becomes more homogeneous (with an Applebee’s and a Walmart in every town) local history gives people a sense of place, a sense of community, and a certain amount of pride. At one level, people are more desperate than ever to have real-world connections to the place they live. Just one example: When people know the history of their homes – both the architecture and past owners – they tend to take better care of those homes, put more effort into restoring them, and connect with others in the community who are doing the same. This leads to improved neighborhoods, more community involvement, civic pride, more taxes generated for the city because of increased property values, etc. And that’s just one of the more obvious and tangible benefits. Likewise, awareness and appreciated of community history (perpetrated by local historians) led to places like Downtown Orange becoming not only a central part of the community’s identity, but also a thriving economic engine, whereas LACK of awareness and appreciated of community history led to the destruction of Anaheim’s entire historic downtown in the 1980s, leading to vacant lots and a zone of economic malaise that is only recently has started to show signs of turning around. 

Sometimes the historian’s important contribution is simply to debunk earlier legends or poorly-executed history that has placed false narratives in the minds of the public. People can learn from the past to make better decisions for the future, but only if they REALLY understand the past. Sometimes the important thing is to set the record straight because truth is important and should ultimately win out over falsehoods. Not that any historian can be perfect or universally comprehensive, but the goal is always to strive toward a more accurate depiction of the truth.

- What are some ethical issues you face as a historian?

Sometimes it would be very expedient to grossly oversimplify a topic to better please an editor’s length requirements or to make your work more easily digestible. But one must be careful about that. If you can say the same thing in fewer words, that’s probably good. But beware the moment when you find that the only way to turn your 600 word article into a 300 word article is by leaving your readers with an inaccurate (not just incomplete) impression of  your subject.

Also, avoid the allure of getting lazy. It’s true that most people will know almost nothing about your topic and that you could get away with cutting corners, using a Wikipedia entries as though they were valid sources, repeating hearsay, or cribbing from secondary sources you’d don’t entirely trust. No one beyond a few local historians will ever know or notice. But by perpetuating old bad information, you ensure that the next generation will have one more bad source to muddy the water. All you have as a historian is your reputation for accuracy. Once that’s called into question, your entire body of work (sometimes a lifetime’s worth) is thrown into doubt and becomes less valuable.

Another ethical issue is the question of what *kind* of historian you want to be: A hoarder or a sharer. I find that in the long run sharing what I know and what I have access to (for instance, photos or materials in my own files at home) with fellow historians is a big plus. The local history community is a small one, and we all have to stick together and help each other whenever possible. Even if someone is writing on a subject that I ALSO want to write about someday, I prefer to share what I have and know with them. They will undoubtedly take a different angle that I would have, leaving plenty for me to write about. Moreover, they will have added to the current scholarship on the topic at hand, providing me with slightly wider shoulders to stand on when I get around to writing about the same topic. Basically, it’s like we learned in Kindergarten: “Sharing is nice.”

Oh, and whether you’re using photos or information from other sources, always give credit where credit is due.

- What are some professional issues you face as a historian?

Low pay is pretty endemic in the history world. You won’t get rich doing this sort of work, but it makes a difference in the world, you meet a lot of wonderful people, and it beats the hell out of spending your life in one of those “veal fattening pen” cubicles in an office tower somewhere.  You should be a historian only if it brings you a lot of satisfaction and /or joy. If it’s just a paycheck to you, I recommend getting a job at Costco or something instead. (I hear they treat their employees well.)

Another issue is that you’ll undoubtedly spend SOME time working for or with folks who don’t understand what you do. That can cause a certain amount of stress. Many folks in the history world have to *explain* what they do to people who should already know.

- What do you see the role of public historian being?

We’re researchers, educators, and (in our best moments) defenders of our heritage and the truth.

- What was one of the most fulfilling Public History projects you worked on and why?

For me, the most fulfilling parts of my work as an archivist are when I can help someone find the information they need, especially when that information ends up being an interesting story. As a local historian, I suppose I most enjoy tackling a subject that hasn’t been written about before and then watching the story unfold as I do more and more research. The “aha” moment is pretty rewarding, and you get a lot of those.

I’ve also found, much to my surprise, that I greatly enjoy teaching local history through public speaking appearances. Telling stories and getting immediate interactive feedback is, again, extremely rewarding.

- In doing public history, what have you learned about people and interacting with people?

People say they aren’t interested in history, but they lie. Almost everyone is interested in SOME kind of history. To borrow a line from Phil Brigandi: If someone says they don’t like history, ask them what they ARE interested in.  They’ll tell you something like “baseball” and then will begin to tell you about the history of baseball (or whatever their interest might be). The trick is to find out what PARTS of history they ARE interested in. And local history has the advantage of being relatable because it’s all about our own backyards. You may have hated history class is school, but learning stories about your own neighborhood is a whole different thing.

On the issue of interacting with people, I would also say that a healthy dose of extroversion is helpful in this field. You need to be able to cold call people who MIGHT be the descendants of people you’re studying and then engage them in conversations. You need to communicate with librarians and other historians, and students, and the public. If one doesn’t enjoy engaging with people, you might do better as doing something where having a public face isn’t so important.

- How are public historians and academic historians different?

I’m going to make some gross generalizations here because whole books could be written on this subject. And I’ll begin by pointing out that there are lots of exceptions to any rule and there are some EXCELLENT academic historians out there right now. In fact, I can think of a few right here in O.C. that I’m proud to know.

That said, I think academic historians GENERALLY are stuck catering to a comparatively narrow and homogeneous audience: Maybe a handful of professors or peers or perhaps the modest readership of an academic journal. And those academic audiences GENERALLY have certain fad topics or pet issues that must be checked off in order to meet with approval in that particular subculture.

I do try to review academic sources (theses and other academic publications) that pertain to the subjects I’m working on. But more and more I find that such papers from recent decades TEND to be composed of recycled already-known information combined with whatever social or political opinions the student feels the academic faculty is most likely to agree with. This usually makes for a pretty thin gruel. An exception to this is when I need to access data from scientific academic publications, which tend to be more about data and less about proving allegiance to a subculture.

But again, I am speaking here in  very broad generalities.

Another difference I can point out is that academic historians probably generally have better pay, benefits, retirement plans, and built-in prestige (in many circles) than do public historians. So whatever kind of historian you want to be, it probably doesn’t hurt to have a few more letters after your name if possible. (Assuming you can afford the investment.)

- Why did you want to become a public historian?

Like so many of us, I didn’t know I was becoming a public historian. It just sort of happened based on my interests, skill set, and where life led me.

My high school photography teacher gave us an assignment to photograph a series of related things and make a display or mini-exhibit out of the images. It dawned on me that photographing old buildings in Downtown Huntington Beach (my hometown) might be interesting. I was excited to get started and a bit surprised when people started coming out of those buildings, asking what I was doing, and then telling me stories about their homes or family businesses or whatnot. I met a lot of interesting people that way and one introduced me to the City Historian, which was a job I didn’t know existed. The City Historian, Alicia Wentworth, showed me a bunch of the cool stuff in the city’s photo collection, and then hired me as her photographer to go out and expand that collection. (My first paying job.)

Later, in college, I was drawn to an opening as a docent at what’s now the Heritage Museum of Orange County in Santa Ana. Giving tours and sharing history with groups of kids and adults was also very rewarding, but I didn’t ever think of it as a career path.

Later still, I found myself researching and documenting Orange County’s remaining Googie architecture in my free time – simply because the subject interested me. That led to working with Jane Newell at the Anaheim Heritage Center who wanted to build a record of Anaheim’s Googie for the benefit of future researchers. When I found out she’d learned about the subject based on the website I’d been assembling, it was quite a shock. It was the first time I realized that an ordinary guy with a camera, a willingness to do research and a way to communicate with the public could make a real difference! Here was a city project initiated because of something I’d been doing as a hobby! But again, I never saw this as a career – Just as something I did in my spare time.

But some years later, I found myself becoming less and less enamored of the career I HAD chosen – public relations and marketing. Although some clients I’d had were wonderful to work for and with, the lifestyle and the emotional rewards just weren’t there. Then, magically, the new County Archivist (and longtime public historian,) Phil Brigandi, called me out of the blue and offered me a job working for him. He knew I’d been doing this sort of work on my own for years and he needed an Assistant Archivist. Without asking about pay or much of anything else, I said yes! 

I guess if anything convinced me that this was my calling and my career, it was my five years of “apprenticeship” working for Phil. He was an amazing roll model and teacher. He showed me not only how local history works, but also why it’s important, what pitfalls to avoid, and how much can be accomplished. I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. And I don’t think I could have replicated that kind of education in school. Anyway, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that this was the kind of work I SHOULD have been focused on from the start. I dove in with both feet and never looked back. Or to put it another way, I renounced evil, took my vow of poverty, committed myself to study, and went forth to spread the good word of Orange County history.

I hope this helps, Tim. I’ve probably prattled on for way too long here, but hopefully somewhere amidst all this I’ve also answered your questions. Feel free to get in touch if you have more questions.

All the best,


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