Unnamed. The Uses of State and Local History.

July 24, 2015
History News, Vol. 23, No. 12 December, 1968), pp. 233-242. Back | Original Document At the very same time that Fridley was linking local history with global history, the American Association for State and Local History, in this reading, were looking for practical ends in the link between state and local history. The American model […]

History News, Vol. 23, No. 12 December, 1968), pp. 233-242.

Back | Original Document

At the very same time that Fridley was linking local history with global history, the American Association for State and Local History, in this reading, were looking for practical ends in the link between state and local history. The American model of local history is much more integrated in both state and national perspectives. Queensland history has for a century struggled to make its place known to a non-fiction reading public. This is not too dissimilar to the situation of other Australian states, but the problem is much worse for Queensland when amateur historians have ruled the roost. The archetype story for Queensland history was when the academic historians where largely sidelined by Sir Raphael Cilento, Clem Lack, and the Royal Historical Society of Queensland.i This was not a case in the failure of insular academics engaging the community, as is a common complaint, but rather an expression of the anti-intellectual prejudices from conservative and parochial historians of the era against internationally-renowned liberal historians, as seen in the Head of the History Department at the University of Queensland, Professor Gordon Greenwood (1913-1986).

In the last thirty years local and family history has developed as a cottage industry, for Queensland, as elsewhere in the world. The great difficulty for scholarly historians is that until recently amateur historians – those with no tertiary education in the discipline – controlled the field. Today, the industry – which includes wide ranging fields of, not only local and family history, but also heritage, museum curation, urban archaeology, and librarianship – is a strange mixture of voluntary and professional labour. Boundaries are much more fluid between amateur and professional roles, as well as between the roles of different professionals. If the educative value continues to means something significant in society, and if history is to continue as something substantive in scholarship, leadership in a history-orientated industry must be in the hands of those historians trained as scholars – at the very least, at the level of four-year (honours) university degree. This also requires such historians, or such apprenticed historians in the midst of their pre-accredited training, to gain work experience in the marketplace, one that is at once regulated and unregulated.

Traditionally, it has been an unregulated scholarly market organised by the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, as the peak body, with a few regional historical societies scattered across the state. University historians generally kept out of matters of local history, and struggled to make an impression in state history. The 1990s, in the wake of the Australian Bicentenary, changed market conditions. Unlike the Queensland centenary, academic historians – representing regulated, or accredited and peer-reviewed, scholarship – were much more to the fore in the commemorational events. Queensland academic historians, archetype by the two “Ross-es”, Ross Fitzgerald and Ross Johnston, led the charge into a resurgence of state history. Accompanying this regulated trend, was an unregulated explosion in the formation of local history groups.ii The production of books and paraphernalia in these groups became voluminous, but the quality of work was overall below the standard of regulated scholarship. A few exceptions were evident coming from those educated in the discipline.iii The self-justification in the way the new market operated was that local history groups had worked from community values where the requirements in scholarship were not relevant. However, the blind-sighted problem was that such production was not substantially history, but a production – more often a re-production – of urban myths and legend, built upon gossip, innuendo, and rumour. “History” which was substantially history required skilled judgement on primary source material, working in a framework of a knowledge-base in the discipline. If truth and accuracy are important conditions of social justice, local and state history needed to be written by educated and trained historians. Traditionally, amateur historians ignored issues of conflict and discrimination in their populist productions. The drivers of social reform and equity more often have been academic-based historians. Such an analysis does not equate knowledge and skills to ethical behaviour. Nevertheless, the desire to better one-self professionally can be the source in strengthening community values.

The reading of the American Association for State and Local History has the unnamed President doing what has been done in the previous paragraphs – reviewing the state of affairs for both professionals and amateurs. Written in that year of global upheaval in social expectations (1968), the President summed up well the different social agendas between amateur and professional historians, as it was at that time and expressed in the difference between older (usually amateurs) and younger (usually professional) generations:

We are witnessing a constant acceleration in the velocity of history. This has now reached a point where lives alter with startling rapidity; where inherited ideas and institutions are in constant jeopardy of becoming obsolete. For an older generation, change was something of a historical abstraction, occasionally breaking through the social fabric with spectacular innovations, like the telegraph, the locomotive, the automobile, or the airplane; it was not a daily threat to values and institutions. For our children, change is the vivid, continuous, overpowering fact of everyday life, saturating each moment with tension, intensifying the individual’s search for identity. New realities demand new values- or the reinterpretation of old ones- and when this change of assumptions takes place within a generation, children find their parents voicing one creed and often living by another. As Kenneth Keniston points out in a recent article published in the American Scholar, “no society ever fully lives up to its professed ideals.” But a rapid rate of social change reveals this age-old gap in all its naked hypocrisy. Those among the young who are sensitive and thoughtful react with scorn. There are other groups- like the agricultural workers of the South- who find themselves stranded, their skills superseded by technology and literally without a place to go…

We can see how the previous point is made from comments on the Fridley reading that the younger professional historians were much more aware of the social impact from technology. Digital technology in the early 21st century has added to that impact, and amateur local historians are metaphorically in the same position as the Old American South agricultural workers, or indeed, those workers in Queensland fifty years ago.

i Geoffrey Ginn. Cilento’s Centenary: The Triumph of His Topics, Queensland Review. Vol. 16, Issue 2, August 2009. pp. 57-85.

ii History Queensland was established on 15 July 1995 as the new peak body, representing Local and Family History Societies that operate throughout Queensland. See http://www.historyqueensland.org.au/, accessed 1 May 2015.

iii Professional historians have been moving in the field of local and family history in recent decades. Professional historians are professionals by the qualifications in the discipline and the work carried out in the manner proscribed by the academic-based discipline. Professional Historians Australia (formerly ACPHA) is the peak body for Professional Historians Associations (PHAs) state/territory organisations in Australia. Under the auspices of Professional Historians Australia, state and territory PHAs admit members in accordance with nationally recognised accreditation criteria and standards. Further information can be found at http://www.historians.org.au/ . Information on the Queensland organisation, Professional Historians Association (Queensland), can be found at http://qldhistorians.org.au/ , accessed 1 May 2015.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
The following two tabs change content below.
Neville Buch (Pronounced Book) Ph.D. is a certified member of the Professional Historians Association (Queensland). Since 2010 he has operated a sole trade business in history consultancy. He was a Q ANZAC 100 Fellow 2014-2015 at the State Library of Queensland. Dr Buch was the PHA (Qld) e-Bulletin, the monthly state association’s electronic publication, and was a member of its Management Committee. He is the Managing Director of the Brisbane Southside History Network.
Categories: Article
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments