Bruce Dearstyne: Historians and the Public Good


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Every issue of History News, the publication of the American Association for State and Local History, is worth reading for its reports and insights into our field, but the latest “Emerging Professionals Takeover Issue” (Winter 2018) is particularly fascinating.

It was written and edited by emerging history professionals – people recently entering the field or holding their first professional or management positions. The issue touches on several topics of concern today and even more important for the future of the field.

For instance, an article by the “Diversity and Inclusion Task Force” discusses the need for more racial and other diversity in the field. “Investing in the Ecosystem” discusses how to get people interested in entering the field. “Emerging Labor: Work and the New Public Historian” goes into issues related to salaries and careers. “Do You Have Anything in Your Museum About Me?” gets at the issues of collecting and attracting broader audiences who want to see their own experiences reflected in museums’ programs. “Talking About Slavery When Your Museum Wants to Avoid It” explores the issue of including coverage of slavery by museums located in buildings built in whole or part by slaves or owned by slaveholders.

The lead column, “On Doing Local History,” is the most fascinating of all. Carole Kammen, Tompkins County Historian and a longtime and well-known advocate and leader in the local history community here in New York and nationally, has written this column in History News for years. The one in this issue, “Local Historians, Politics, and the Public Good,” is co-authored with one of the issue’s editors, Hope Shannon, a public history professional and historian. The column focuses on “the place of political narratives in local history and local history’s role in debates about public life in the present.” Carole notes that “the founders of a place and they way it was set up are celebrated in a way that leaves out diversity and controversy.” She continues that “When I started doing local history, I was disturbed by the people who weren’t there. My interest was in people. Over time, local history has changed but it is still promotional of place.”

Local historians are not clear and assertive enough about the role of local history in the community. We are not, Carole contends, “presenting local history in the community in a way that makes a statement about how important local history is. We should be advocating for the value of what we do.”

The column discusses ways for historians to be more visible and proactive. It gives examples of historical programs that are connecting with current issues. The Cambridge (MA) Historical Society held a symposium in 2016 called “Housing for All” which viewed housing issues through a historical lens. The Nashville Public Library opened a Civil Rights Room which relates the civil rights movement to current issues in the city.

The column concludes with “We need to be on the frontlines of today’s debates, and we need to advocate for our work, for each other, and for the public we serve.” The whole column is insightful.

This column, and in fact this entire issue of History News, are good examples of how historians are “putting history to work” – demonstrating its relevance to public issues today. That theme is playing out in other ways. For instance,

* Discussions of historical statues and monuments. What do they commemorate, why were they erected, and what do they mean today?

*Debates about immigration policy. We need more historical perspectives on the role of immigrants, refugees, and how sometimes historical perspectives in the past have altered public debates of the issue.

*Attention to the history of slavery and the Underground Railroad, including here in New York State.

* Discussions of what should be included in state social studies and history curricula, e.g., recently revised standards in California.

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books published in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH). He can bereached at dearstyne@verizon.net.

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