The Mission Driven Consumer, er, Institution

May 18, 2009

When I was in school, the popular focus among many historians was “history from the bottom up.” This included micro-history where a historian would focus on some small, fairly obscure subject that had a thicket of details that could be analyzed to produce a very clear picture of that moment and place in time. It also included focusing on the history of the common man (species reference here, not gender), culture, public-history-whatever-that-is (that is the way many of those of us in the public history field say it,) etc. To a non-historian, it sounds very inclusive and equalitarian. In reality, it is just a different way of choosing and interpreting one’s subject. The historian is still in charge. Most historians I know do not pretend that they are in any way sharing their authority, (another popular term that was thrown around but in reality implemented poorly at best, in my opinion) but there are some sad souls that seem to believe that by focusing their attention on what they have decided is important to the common man (see note last time I used that expression) they are somehow being gracious and inclusive.

The truth of the matter is that most historians, archivists, what have you, have worked too hard at establishing themselves as the authorities or professionals to let the amateurs have any say in things. They will not relinquish one iota of their perceived authority. There must always be a line between the professor and student, the professional and amateur.

Yet there are those of us that see history as something that is truly part of everyone’s life, something that all have a claim on. Truly, not just in theory. We are those who grew up with history as part of our lives, reading books, discussing the past in our families, learning the old stories, discussing whether they are true or not and what effect they might have on the present. We went to cemeteries and museums, did genealogy and studied historical subjects for the pleasure of it. Those of us who entered the professional/academic world knew that there was a difference between popular history and “serious” history, but the lines were blurred. I have read too many well researched, scholarly works written by amateurs who are reenactors or do living history, as well as papers written by people with PhDs whose footnotes do not support their statements, not to believe that the line should be blurred. Formal education, or its lack, does not ensure good research and logical reasoning, or its lack. (I find it curious that few history programs I have found in university catalogs include any courses in logic or debate. Hmmm.)

In today’s world, the common man (there’s that phrase again) may be coming into his own as pertains to history. No longer does the history professional have a monopolistic control of the “stuff” of history. The world of technology has put people and organizations that have always distained capitalistic market forces in direct competition for users; the users will have a say in whether institutions get the resources that they need to survive. The users are now in the position of deciding whether or not to share their authority. There are more opportunities for participation in history than ever before and they are growing. The world of the participant, not the consumer, has arrived. If a student, researcher, visitor, user, patron, (dare I say “customer”?) doesn’t feel like participating in what he is offered, he can go somewhere else. And make no mistake about it, he wants to participate, have a say in the decisions, not have them made for him.

As a church historian and archivist, I think the analogy of the modern congregation of a Christian church serves well. The church wants to attract more people and cannot meet it’s sole reason for existing without doing so. It needs to consult its target group and determine what its constituents need and want. At the same time, there are values, ideals, beliefs and dogmas that may not be compromised, or at least not to any great extent. There are aspects of the church that are inherent in its identity. These may not be let go. The church must decide where changing will accomplish its mission and where change is an abandonment of that mission. Of course, it must first decide what its mission is.

Historians and archivists are in that same boat. They must have a clear mission and be driven by it. They will have to live with the consequences of their choices.

The Heretic

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One Response to “The Mission Driven Consumer, er, Institution”

  1. Jim said

    An anology: The kingdom of history is like unto this. The historians make and maintain horse and buggy outfits and along comes the techie world of the automobile. The cart and buggy folk try to figure out how to make their carts go faster, how to fit the cars into their fleet, how to use the auto to improve their cart manufacture, etc. The car makers decide how to make their cars faster and more powerful. The users want directions for a vacation or see ways that using a new means of transportation will help them increase the productivity of their widget business. The buggy and auto makers each think they are the logical people to consult about where to go on vacation, what to do once the vacationers arrive, what route to take, and the details as to the widget manufacturing business. For some reason the users disagree. They know what they want. they may have questions as to whether to go by buggy or car or what type of each they should use, maybe even where best to aquire them. But the users will make their own decisions regarding other matters. And they will keep their eyes and ears open to other possible forms of transportation as well. When the airplane comes along there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Let he who was ears to hear, listen.

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