Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Historian Wars

What a good title, but perhaps misleading.

I have vague ideas at times that I am an amateur historian. Nonsense of course, but if I find something that interests me, I enjoy the online research and writing about it. While I don't entirely trust Wikpedia, generally I find it to be quite accurate about what I do really know about. It certainly seems to have more reliable facts than our daily newspapers. While within our cities and countryside we have vandals, so too does Wikipedia. The real danger though is people with good intentions adding what they know which may not be accurate but comes across as quite plausible.

I was put back in my box by Lisa at Timespanner when I suggested that I like local knowledge to be part of history, that is oral history. Essentially she suggested it wasn't a good idea as people get things wrong, embellish and exaggerate. Point taken, however I stand my like of oral histories and their importance to our past. If you get someone who can tell a good yarn about what they remember, it is ever so entertaining.

Then Janine wrote about I guess the essence of being an historian. Right, much time spent pouring over old stuffs in libraries and other places that store records. Some, well more and more research can be done online, but to actually sight documents or original records in whatever form is the best you can hope for. Psst, find her travel blog to the US, Canada and the England for a good read.

Yet again Lisa called someone to account and very deservedly when they write a local history and supposed facts are just not. They may have put a lot of effort into their book and researched methodically, but why not run it past a local historian, for a fee of course. You want a professional opinion, then pay.

In the early days of my blog, I was pretty careless about statements and details. I have improved muchly, but I find myself checking spellings of place names, looking at maps, etc etc, which all adds to the time it takes to write a post. I can remember not publishing at least one post because the verifying became just too hard.

Then there has been a recent dispute at Walking Melbourne over a recollection by someone against a professional architect.

But, I know, because I have been personally told, that there are errors in my Sydney tram books written and compiled by the late David Keenan. They were a work of love and a fine one indeed. I would much rather have them with the few errors than not have them at all.

Hard call really, but it has made me think about what I write and gives me some appreciation of what a proper and professional historian does.

At some point I may have imagined being an historian had I have chosen a different career path when I was young, but really, it sounds like hard work and you are ever so accountable. I like to pass responsibility onto my superiors.


  1. Hello Andrew:
    Well, we are certainly not cut out to be historians. We are far too fond of the raconteur with the good story to tell, chance what the fine details may be.

  2. I would be terrible historian :) I will leave that to others..

  3. Re the oral history thing: Oral history has its place. I can't recall the exact details of the exchange I had with you Andrew, but I think I said something along the lines of -- take a piece of oral history, look at the facts it is telling you, and check them. Basically -- the same as you should do for any source. Even primary sources need to be looked at in the context in which they were created (If Aunt Rose hated Aunt Sally's guts, her less than complimentary comments in her 200 year old diary may be also less than factually accurate, and may also be heavily self-edited to make Aunt Rose look good).

    But you need to keep in mind that oral history -- and people's written memories, letters about what they remember when they were young -- is based on human memory; sometimes faulty, frequently overwritten in our headd as time goes on. At the moment in a journal I put together for my local society, there are wee disputes breaking out amongst those who lived and remembered in times gone by in letters they write, I publish, then someone else writes rebuttals. The facts, though, are there if you find them -- as are the misunderstood ones.

    What's a historian? Someone who gathers up all the facts, compares and accesses, then uses the picture the facts create to tell a story. How good the story is depends on the facts one gathers, whether from oral or written source.

  4. JayLa, we have an expression here 'tell a good yarn', that is 'He can tell a good yarn'. Great old expression.

    Marina, it is all that thinking you do. No time to be gathering facts.

    Understood TS. It is interesting about your local society and the disputes. As the police are known to say, two independent people can see the same car accident, yet give totally different accounts. And the good story, perhaps to add that the story should be written to be interesting rather than a dry presentation of facts. It really is quite a minefield and has removed any romantic thoughts I had.