Attachment to place · Historical consciousness · Historical Research · Historical thinking · history

Academic snobbery: local historians need more support

St James Anglican Church Menangle a Horbury Hunt design build 1876 (I Willis)
St James Anglican Church Menangle a Horbury Hunt design build 1876 (I Willis)

Ian Willis, University of Wollongong

Local history is one of the most popular forms of history in Australia. Yet there is a yawning gap between the enthusiastic amateur and the academic historian.

While some academic historians engage with local history, sadly there is an entrenched snobbery from the academy. From the other side, the enthusiastic amateur is too wound up with a parochial approach to local history and often doesn’t see the bigger picture.

If both sides can engage with each other, the result would be a better type of history practise and a greater contribution to the story of Australia.

Democratic history

Local history is one of the democratic forms of history practice, drawing on a variety of disciplines. These include community history, family history, genealogy and oral history. It also incorporates local aspects of cultural and social history. Done well, local history also engages in both national and transnational themes.

There is a host of local history societies and local museums across the country. But academic historians are rarely involved with them.

For the enthusiastic amateur of local history, the academic historian is in a different world. Academics are often at a city-based university. Their journals are remote, guarded by a peer-review process. And their conferences beyond the resources of the amateur.

This world is not readily entered by the amateur who, unlike professional historians who receive a regular salary, are volunteers with limited means.

Expert history

One of the key issues the divides these two groups revolves around the idea of authority. The university-trained historian has expertise based on the rigour and discipline of thought and word. The local history enthusiast often has only the lived experience of the past.

Keen amateurs have their own historical sensibilities and history mindedness. This often means they are interested solely in the affairs of their community. Sometimes they are the custodian of the stories of a place. That is, they are the keepers of the community’s sacred knowledge. The collective memory and cultural traditions of a local community.

As a collector of stories, the amateur practises a form of antiquarianism often concerned with lists of facts. Unfortunately this provides no commentary on the past or present, no argument, and no analysis of sources and assessment of methods.

Dealing with the past without interpretation and context is a source of continuing frustration for academics.

Arrogance and cynicism

Some academic historians think they are the only ones with the keys to the past. This is a form of professional arrogance. It creates a perception of aloofness.

This creates a cynical attitude amongst enthusiastic amateurs. Many feel that the academic historian is remote and distant. Amateurs therefore have little time or enthusiasm for academics.

Yet it need not be so.

The academic historian has so much to offer. Successful and meaningful engagement is possible.

The academic historian is the discipline expert. They therefore have a responsibility to provide leadership. They should inspire amateur historians to increase their standards of scholarship. This needs understanding, trust and encouragement from academics. Not paternalism.

Academic and amateur alike need a nuanced understanding of the needs and aspirations of both sides. Academic historians can act as mentors in the practice of local history. Enthusiast amateurs are keen to learn how to do it better, if given sympathy and understanding.

Even the crudest attempt by the local history enthusiast provides in their own way an archive which the thoughtful, patient and persistent academic can mine. And likewise even the densest writing by academics offers something to the amateur.

A recipe for success

Successful engagement between academic historians and the enthusiastic amateur is a win-win situation for both sides.

Some examples include the ever popular annual Penrith Local History Conference, community history projects such as the Dictionary of Sydney and the recent Crime, Cameras Action! local history conference at the University of Wollongong.

There are many good examples of local history as written by academic historians, including Atkinson’s Camden, Ferry’s Colonial Armidale and McQuilton’s Rural Australian and the Great War.

A number of academic historians give popular public lectures and seminars in Sydney at History House, the Mechanics Institute, the State Library, Powerhouse Museum and other venues.

Some historical societies are even able to bridge the gap. They provide a stimulating environment that interests academic historians.

Joint projects and activities can strengthen community connections and social cohesion. The social connections created by local history increase the meaning, purpose and satisfaction in people’s lives.

Local history can build community resilience and break down social exclusion especially in communities under pressure. Some are found on the edges of our large cities, while others in remote and regional Australia.

The practice of local history has a lot to gain from the successful interaction between academic and amateur historians.

The Conversation

Ian Willis, Honorary Fellow, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Heritage · Historical consciousness · Historical Research · Historical thinking · history · Local History · Uncategorized

History is nice but…

Camp Admin block Narellan Military Camp 1942 A Bailey
Camp Admin block Narellan Military Camp 1942 A Bailey

What is the value of history?

A group of American historians asked this question in 2012. They were concerned about the profile of history in the USA and its branding.

What resulted was the Value of History statement which is a statement of 7 principles on how history is essential to contemporary life. It provides a common language for making the argument that history should be part of contemporary life. They are seeking the support of US historical institutions and provide a tool kit for the implementation of the statement.

The American campaign is centred around this impact statement: “People will value history for its relevance to modern life and use historical thinking skills to actively engage with and address contemporary issues.”  They are convinced that history is relevant to contemporary communities.

I would argue that the 7 principles are just as relevant in Australia as they are in the USA. The principles are centred around 3 themes.

  1. To ourselves (a) identity (b) critical skills
  2. To our communities (a) vital places to live and work (b) economic development
  3. To our future (a) engaged citizens (b) leadership (c) legacy.

While the Value of History statement is written for an American audience it has just as much relevance in Australia.

The last day of the Camden Campbelltown train running in 1963. Keen fans watching the train climb Kenny Hill at Campbelltown. (ARHS)
The last day of the Camden Campbelltown train running in 1963. Keen fans watching the train climb Kenny Hill at Campbelltown. (ARHS)

The supporters of the US campaign want to change the perception that while history is nice is not essential.

There is certainly support for history in Australia as Dr Anna Clark has shown in her book Private Lives Public History that there is general support for history in Australia. But as American historians have found history is ‘nice but not essential’.

The Americans who are leading this campaign are seeking the development of a ‘set of metrics’ for assessing the impact of historical projects and thus prove their worth. It is their view that ‘funders ought to view history, historical thinking, and history organizations as critical to nearly all contemporary conversations’.

The US promoters of ‘Advancing the History Relevance Campaign’ maintain that the disparate nature of historical work means that there is the lack of a unified voice for the value of history.

Australian historians need to similarly speak with one voice from the many corners of the discipline. From local community history, to scholarly work in academia, to commissioned work, to work in archives, museums and galleries as well the heritage industry.

Australian historian could learn a thing or two from their American colleagues. The statement of 7 principles of the Value of History statement has as much relevance in Australia as the US. Similarly the US desire for a set of assessible metrics would be a useful part of the Australian toolkit for historians of all ilks and backgrounds.

History is consumed on a vast scale in Australia. The American Relevance of History project has much merit and would be very useful in Australia.

Camelot House early 1900s Camden Images
Camelot House early 1900s at Kirkham NSW (Camden Images)

 

 

Heritage · Historical Research · Uncategorized

Being a Historical Detective

A 1915 view of Commercial Banking Co building at corner of Argyle and John Street Camden
A 1915 view of Commercial Banking Co building at corner of Argyle and John Street Camden

Be a Historical Detective Conducting Historical Research

Overview

Steps involved in being a historical detective and conducting an investigation (historical research).

Like any good TV detective you should proceed through a number of steps while conducting your investigation (historical research). You will then be able to solve the historical mystery. These steps are:

1. What is a historical detective?
2. What is historical research?
3. What has to be done in historical research?
4. Plan of action
5. What time and resources will be needed to undertake the research (including costs)?
6. Conduct background research.
7. Gather evidence.
8. Evaluate the evidence.
9. Analyse the evidence.
10. Conduct periodic revue of the research process.
11. Present the evidence.
12. Acknowledge the sources of the evidence.
13. Conclusion.

These steps outline a journey ( a voyage of discovery) you can undertake while conducting an historical investigation.

These steps are only a guide and other detective (researchers) may take a different approach.

There are many paths to the ‘truth’ and ‘enlightenment’. Which one are you going to going to take?

Description of each stage of the historical investigation

1. What is a historical detective?

The proposition that I want you to imagine is that you are a detective and that you are going to go on a voyage of discovery.

To be a historical detective assumes that there is a historical mystery of some sort.

History is full of good mysteries.

What is a historical mystery? A historical mystery is a secret, hidden story or an inexplicable matter that happened in the past. For example, there have always been stories and mysteries about Grandad, Aunt Ethyl and cousin Gertrude.

Exercise:
Consider a historical mystery you might investigate.
What is your historical mystery?
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

2. What is historical research?

You will solve your historical mystery by conducting an investigation (historical research) and discovering what is involved in unravelling the mystery’s secrets.

During your investigation you will collect lots of information (eg, facts, statistics). This is the evidence. You will use the evidence to build a picture that will, hopefully, solve your mystery.

While undertaking your investigation you will be involved in finding out lots of stories.

Which story is the ‘truth’. Your version of the ‘truth’ may be different from someone else’s version of the ‘truth’.

3. What are you trying to find out?

Before you start your investigation you should know (at least have an idea about) the question you are trying to answer.

The starting point for your research will involve asking simple questions about the mystery:

• What is it (event)?
• When did it happen (time)?
• Where is it (location)?
• Who is involved (participants, suspects)?
• What are the circumstances (events)?

Then moving to more complex questions:

• Why did it happen (motivation)?
• How did it happen (modus operandi)?

Exercise:
What is the question you are trying to answer?
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

4. Plan of action

Before you start your investigation you should draw up a plan of attack.

You should make a time line with the steps involved in the investigation.

This is the modus operandi for your research.

This may involve questions like:

• Why am I undertaking this journey in the first place? (motivation)
• Where am I going to start?
• Where am I doing this research project?
• What resources do I need to undertake the research?
• How long will my journey of discovery take me (man-hours)?
• What am I going to do along the way?
• Where am I likely to finish up?

A well planned investigation will help you from retracing your steps or leaving something out. Do not leave any stone unturned in your investigation.

Exercise:
Where are you going to start your research?
…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

How long it your investigation going to take?
………………………………………………………………………………………….

Once you have estimated the time needed to complete the research. You might find it useful to set a number of small goals or mileposts. You can tick off each mileposts as you reach that particular point in your research.

Exercise:
What are your mileposts?
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Once you have estimated how long the research will take and the steps involved, you need to ensure that you stick to your timetable as much as possible.

5. What time and resources will be needed to undertake the research (including costs)?

You will need to make a list of the resources that are required for your investigation.

These resources could include:
• Administration and office expenses
• Research expenses
• Travel expenses
• Research fees
• Computer hardware and software

6. Conduct background research.

Before you start your investigation you should find out has anyone else been there before you. If there has been previous research you need to know:

• What did they find out?
• Are you re-inventing the wheel?
• Are you actually doing something new?
• Are you simply re-hashing old material? If so you might be wasting you time and energy. Find another historical mystery to solve. There are lots around.

A good historical detective could examine the physical scene of the mystery and obtain the ‘lay of the land’. This could involve a field trip to a site or local study area. You could make observations of the scene (location) and record your observations. It helps you ‘get the feel’ of the investigation.

7. Gather evidence

You should gather the evidence in a number of forms:

• Written evidence from a variety of sources,(eg, libraries, museums, archives, organisational records, newspapers); or making a field trip and recording your observations (eg, memorials, cemeteries, artefacts, objects)

• Oral evidence by interviewing the participants.

• Pictorial evidence, eg, photographs, illustrations, ‘mud maps’.

8. Evaluate the evidence

This part of your research involves deciding:

(a) Firstly, the type of evidence that you have gathered to solve the mystery.

This will be either primary or secondary evidence (sources)

(i) Primary evidence (sources)

This is evidence drawn from the time of the mystery.

This can include:

Diaries
Letters
Posters
Official records – government records (eg: birth certificates, death certificates)
Newspapers Memoirs Personal records
Maps Sketches Paintings
Photographs Artefacts Objects
Site Anecdotes Ephemera
Songs Poems Cartoons
Advertisements Human remains – skeletons Oral testimony – interviews

(ii) Secondary evidence (sources)

This is evidence that is reconstructed by others about the mystery.

This can include:

• Books,
• TV programs,
• Reports.

(b) Secondly, evaluation involves the validation and verification of evidence.

(i) Validation is confirming the details of the evidence. Is it correct?

(ii) Verification will involve cross-checking evidence.

9. Analyse the evidence.

Now you have all the evidence, what are you going to do with it? You will have to:

Organise and arrange all of the evidence. To do this you will need to summarise the evidence. This could be achieved by:

• Completing a time line (date order of events), a table, maps, lists, tables, mind maps, charts, story boards.

• Completing a profile of suspects (participants) involved in the mystery.

• Reconstruct scenarios of the mystery and answer questions like:

  • Why were the participants involved, that is, what was their motivation?
  • Why did these events occur?
  • How did these things happen?

• Taking an empathetic approach to help gain an appreciation of what the situation was like in the past to assist solving the mystery.

10. Conduct periodic revue of research process.

Every now and then you need to pause and re-assess your progress. You need to ask yourself a number of questions. These could include:

• Are you sticking to your timetable?
• Are you staying to your budget?
• Are you getting side-tracked?
• Are you running up to many dead-ends?

You may be forced to take a step back and make some critical judgements about the progress of your research. If you are not achieving your goals, why not?

Be flexible. Take advantage of the unexpected. Adjust to dead ends. Follow unanticipated leads.

11. Presentation of the research.

Once you completed your investigation (gathered all your evidence and you have organised it, verified its authenticity and validated it) you will have to present it.

The results of your investigation could be presented in a number of ways:

(a) Written:

• Reports
• Essays
• Poems
• Newspaper articles

(b) Audio-visual

• Charts
• Graphics
• TV documentary
• Film
• Drawings
• Photographs
• Poster

(c ) Oral

• Speech
• Play

Within each of these types of presentation there are different alternatives. For example, you could consider presenting the written component of your research by using any number of different text types:

• Description – to describe a person, place, object or event.
• Recount – to retell past events, usually in date order.
• Explanation – tells how (process) and why (reason) something occurred.
• Exposition – present one side of an issue.
• Information Report – to present information in a general rather than specific subject.
• Discussion – to give both sides of the issue (for/against).

12. Acknowledge the sources of the evidence.

When you have used material and ideas that are not your own you must acknowledge them. If you do not this it is theft and is called plagiarism. Plagiarism is theft of another person’s ideas or intellectual property.

Acknowledgement of sources may involve using:

• Footnotes
• Endnotes
• Bibliography
• Reference List
• Further reading

Acknowledgement will involve using a referencing system of some type, for example:

• Oxford
• Cambridge
• Chicago
• Harvard
• MLA (Modern Language Association of America)

The referencing system you chose will depend on your audience and other considerations. Most publications will put their requirements in a style guide.

13. Conclusion.

Finally, at the end of your investigation (historical research): did you find out the ‘truth’?

References and further reading.

Anderson, Mark & Paul Ashton, Australian History and Citizenship, South Yarra: MacMillan Education, 2000.

Black, Jeremy and Donald M MacRaild, Studying History, 2nd Edition, Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000.

Carr, EH, What is History?The George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge, January-March 1961, Hammondsworth, Middlesex: Pelican, 1964.

Clanchy, John and Brigid Ballard, Essay Writing For Students, A Guide for Arts and Social Science Students, Melbourne: Longman and Cheshire, 1981.

Coupe Sheena, Robert Coupe and Mary Andrew, Their Ghosts May Be Heard, Australia to 1900 2nd Edition, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1994.

Eschuys, Joe Guest and Phelan, Discovering Australian History/Eschuys, Guest, Phelan, South Melbourne: MacMillan, 1996.

Mabbett, IW, Writing History Essays, A Student’s Guide, Houndsmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

McCullagh, C Behan, The Truth of History, London: Routledge, 1998.

Warren, John, History and Historians, in series Access to History, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1999.

Curthoys, Ann & John Docker, Is History Fiction? University of New South Wales: University of New South Wales Press, 2006.