Presidents Day 2010 marks the beginning of my blog, PublicHistorian.com, wherein I will muse upon the meaning and operation of history in our daily lives. Or just history for its own sake.
“Public history” is a term of art in the historical community that means to delineate “academic” history from history that is operational in people’s everyday lives, as opposed to in the classroom, and practiced by all sorts of people, from museum curators, to docents at your local historical site, to history consultants. The National Council on Public History, the leading membership organization in America for public historians, provides a useful definition here.
I’ve meant to open a history blog for many years, but as an Internet professional–I am editor of a public policy organization’s web site–I spend every working day with web content, HTML, CSS, etc. And so I never carved out new mental space for another web endeavor.
But history is always on my mind. After my family, history is what I’m most passionate about. I love to talk about history; I often find ways to work historical information into conversations about present politics and society. History is the search to comprehend the story of the past, to understand where we came from. Its knowledge is essential to understanding where we are and are going. But it also is, for me, the wonder of traveling into the past to imagine the joy, suffering, and accomplishments great and small of people who at times were like us, but also quite unlike us who yet contributed to building the world that we now inhabit and share.
American history is my foremost interest, but even that is rooted in a deeper passion for family history, or as some loosely call it, “genealogy.” Just as the story of American history writ large informs us as a nation, the study and understanding of my own family stories and histories contributes to my understanding of self, of my position in this world.
I appreciate academic history and the powerful tools that it brings to bear on interpreting the past. For, after all, we weren’t “there” so we can only know so much. For example, were the framers of our Constitution motivated mostly by Enlightenment impulses? Or economic considerations? Or religion? Or some combination of all? It depends on whom you ask (and when you asked them!).
The past is open to interpretation, to debate, and to argument. Frequently the past is misused to support a contemporary argument or position. Sometimes it is simply an undiscovered country. Whatever history means to you, I hope you find my perspective fair and worth considering, and my passion, at least, contagious.