Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring, 1971), pp. 167-175.
Lee A. Dew worked for forty years teaching history at Kentucky Wesleyan College until his retirement in 1994.i It is often commented that Queensland history has parallels socially and culturally with the history of the American Southern States, such as Kentucky and Louisiana. The paper takes up the problems that surround the volunteer-amateur and academic-professional relationship in local history. The focus here, however, is on the professional – to be able to engage those whose minds on the past have traditionally been shaped by folk history, rather than scholarship. The difficulty is the idea of hierarchy which cuts deeply against the egalitarian values that reside in traditional agrarian culture. In Australia it had been commonly referred to as the “tall poppy syndrome” – an attitude that a person should not be perceived any better for obtaining a higher education. Nevertheless, as Dew points out:
The pecking order in the history profession, whether we like it or not, depends upon where each individual falls in relation to an immutable standard by which we measure ourselves and our colleagues, by which we get or change jobs, and by which we acquire “status” not only in the profession but in the academic community generally. This standard is publication.
Dew’s point is not that the publication imperative is wrong but that it is misapplied when academic-based historians do not engage community history. Dew might be over-optimistic that “‘hobby-historians’ operate in a very efficient and professional manner”, but his argument is that the professional can find much in research production from folklore and local developments. This does not mean, of course, that the professional surrenders herself to folk ‘history’ and parochialism. At the heart of the reading are strategies to assist the professional historian to collaborate with local history group volunteers. In the context of the early twentieth-first century Queensland, the engagement may not be as optimistic as Dew expected in the 1970s, but neither will it be the stereotypical engagement with Tennessee-type hillbillies. The professional historian today will meet many local history volunteers with their own professional skill-sets. A few non-professional local historians are also well read in the literature, even if they have yet to formally train as history researchers or writers. It also must be remembered that, increasingly over time, retiree hobby-historians in historical societies will be formative researchers, and, in fact, might be older high-profile social scientists. Young professional historians need to be aware of the potential for their own ageism.
i Lee A. Dew. Kentucky Home Place. The University Press of Kentucky. 1999. p. 66.