Robert R. Weyeneth. What I’ve Learned Along the Way: A Public Historian's Intellectual Odyssey.

The Public Historian, Vol. 36, No. 2 (May 2014), pp. 9-25.

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Indeed, what are the lessons we have learnt in the 20 readings in this document? The local historian works much closer to the public, and as Weyeneth says, “the interpretive fluidity of history is a mystery to the general public”. In the final reading here, Weyeneth tells what the history experience is like for the volunteer or hobby-historian and what is for the professional public historian. In the middle of the reading, Weyeneth has a checklist for those anticipating becoming a full-time public historian. As well as preparing to face up to the ‘dark past’, Weyeneth tells the professional historian in training (re-worded here for our Queensland context), know:

Indeed, what are the lessons we have learnt in the 20 readings in this document? The local historian works much closer to the public, and as Weyeneth says, “the interpretive fluidity of history is a mystery to the general public”. In the final reading here, Weyeneth tells what the history experience is like for the volunteer or hobby-historian and what is for the professional public historian. In the middle of the reading, Weyeneth has a checklist for those anticipating becoming a full-time public historian. As well as preparing to face up to the ‘dark past’, Weyeneth tells the professional historian in training (re-worded here for our Queensland context), know:

  • that your work as a professional history will make a difference;

  • that you will reach a broad and interested audience;

  • that you will find linkages between history and modern issues like race relations, social justice, and environmental sustainability;

  • that upon the completion of your education (four year degree) and with a year’s practicum experience you could find a congenial professional home in the Professional Historians Association (Queensland).

  • that you would probably have some interesting ‘‘war stories’’ in the trenches of public history, and that it is important to network your research findings among like-minded colleagues; and, finally,

  • for yourself there are the opportunities to occasionally find some of the adventures interesting enough to publish as ‘‘reports from the field,’’ and the good news is that the profession is still healthy enough – having faced considerable stresses in the last twenty years – that it supports a number of public history journal publications.

Pierre Goubert. Local History.

Daedalus, Vol. 100, No. 1, Historical Studies Today (Winter, 1971), pp. 113-127.

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Pierre Goubert provided a very informative history of the local history discipline within the European experience. This is particularly important because of the great clash with the famous Annales School and the French historiographical trend in the longue duree. This was the work led by Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, and Fernand Braudel, and had taken a long-term approach identifying larger social structures, as opposed to local events. The Goubert reading does not go into this matter except to note early-on that local history was despised by “supporters of general history” in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. In the second half of the twentieth century the tables turned and the local became academically fashionable again, and the idea of general world history was despised. In 2014 Jo Guldi (Brown University) and David Armitage (Harvard University) made the call for a return to the longue duree, particularly as a movement away from narrow specialisations which have taken hold of the profession.i The good news is that local history does not have to suffer in the shift to take long-term and general perspectives. The best of local history is the ability to illuminate the local as a place in regional, national, and international schemas. It harks back to the lesson seen in the Fridley reading, “Think Globally, Act Locally”.

i See http://historymanifesto.cambridge.org/ , accessed 1 May 2015.

Philip Huang. County Archives and the Study of Local Social History: Report on a Year’s Research in China.

Modern China, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Jan., 1982), pp. 133-143.

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One of the biggest challenges for local history is to take seriously the idea of multiculturalism. Very few local history works in Queensland achieve much outside of an Anglo-Celtic perspective. The Philip Huang reading does not address the issue of multiculturalism in local history, but it demonstrates what local history research looks like well outside of the Anglo-Celtic or European perspective which tends to dominate the discourse in Queensland. It has further educative value in that Huang defines his study as “local social history”, rather than social local history. The reader can ponder on whether there is a difference. The study is highly technical in its research and provides an insight into the use by the local historian of social science techniques. Having made the argument from the Dew reading that the professional local historian needs to engage the hobby community, it is equally true that the professional historian needs to appreciate that his reading audience will also include fellow specialists. The successful practitioner will be the one who can turn out publications for both audiences. In writing specialist papers, the historian is not only contributing to the welfare of the profession, but is engaging in self-reflection for their local work. The benefits for the local community might seem as far away as Queensland is to China. However, communities mature intellectually when they are prepared to support specialisation in knowledge. One feels good that his neighbour is an expert in a field that a person might have little inclination to understand. We can feel glad that an art or science is not lost to the community as a whole even if its utilitarian value cannot be identified.

Patricia Mooney-Melvin. Urban History, Local History and Public History.

History News, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Spring 1996), pp. 18-23.

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The historian not only has to be aware of multi-disciplinary approaches, but also multi-historiographical approaches as well. By now the reader will get a sense that the latter half of the twentieth century was for history, as for many other humanities and scientific disciplines, a matter of integrating different established theoretical paradigms rather than taking singular methods of one school or another. “The combination of local history, urban history, and public history offers an excellent opportunity to learn about a sense of place and to trace that sense of place over time and space”, declared Mooney-Melvin. Once a practitioner explores the crossovers and intersections of the sub-genres it becomes clearer, in seeing the different emphasis on different values in community history – the passion for the local place, the treasures of the modern urban lifestyle, and public-private conflicts that localism and modernity creates.

Lucy Taksa. Like a Bicycle, Forever Teetering between Individualism and Collectivism: Considering Community in Relation to Labour History.

Labour History, No. 78 (May, 2000), pp. 7-32.

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The public-private conflict mentioned above has been for several centuries in sharp focus in the battle between “the right” and “the left” at various levels of politics. The latter finds solutions in modifications of the capitalist system, and the former in the socialist system. The twentieth century was a period of social experiments, attempting to find third pathways. Scholarship cannot resist the political dimension – ‘knowledge is power’, but it has a far better capacity to prevent the corruption of value than what is common for the polemist. ‘Community’ has been for the last fifty years the new modern value, although conservatives, who are oddly labelled ‘post-modernists’, such as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, have insightfully demonstrated the ancient ties in the modern usage of the concept. The Taksa reading cast forth to the recent ‘labour-community coalitions’ in the last two decades (since the date of the reading). Taksa challenges the ideas of consensus used by labour historians who have taken up the values and perspectives generally espoused in local history. Taksa utilises the work of another Macintyre, the Australian historian, Stuart Macintyre. The problem Taksa illuminates is well summed up in her quote of Macintyre:

[the] notion of community is used and abused in a seemingly endless variety of contexts. Often it serves as a cant word, conjuring up a nostalgic closeness and attachment where these qualities patently do not exist. As used in the social sciences, the term itself is so imprecise and so laden with unwarranted implications that some have cast doubt on the entire enterprise of community studies.

If the Dew reading was over-optimistic then the reader is invited to consider whether the Taksa reading is too pessimistic in the promise of community value.

Lee A. Dew. The "Professional" Historian and Local History.

Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring, 1971), pp. 167-175.

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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.