Public Historian: Facilitator of Knowledge

Happy New Year my loyal reader(s?)!

It’s hard to believe that January is almost over.  My fellow public historians and I are well into the next term of our degree, which brings with it new classes, projects and experiences.  As our Digital History class is now over, my blog is no longer a course requirement.  I do hope to keep blogging, although I suspect my entries will be more irregular and infrequent than last term.

Today, I will tell you about my unexpected “A-HA” moment in my public history class yesterday.  We were learning about oral history and the seminar was lead, via video conference, by Dr. Steven High, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Public History at Concordia University.

As you can tell from some of my previous blog posts, I am struggling to fully understand and articulate what it means to be a Public Historian.  It’s a broad field with many different interpretations and definitions out there.  When explaining Public History to someone, I generally say that my degree is preparing me to interpret and present history to the public.  Yesterday, however,  Dr. High presented me with a definition that I would like to adopt, both in semantics and practice.

Dr. High has done fabulous work using oral history as a historical method.  He is currently involved in the “Life Stories” project, which is a huge oral history project to document the experiences of Montreal residents from Rwanda, Haiti, Cambodia, and Nazi Europe, who fled their homelands to escape violence and persecution.  I am still exploring the project (which I encourage you to do, as well), but it is extremely impressive and moving.  The research and interview process Dr. High described was highly collaborative and reflective, with the interviewees having a much larger role in the process than typical oral interviews.

Thus, for Dr. High, Public History isn’t history for the public.  It is history with the public.  It is learning with people and not just learning about people.

Sometimes I feel that I struggle with my field because I am so often overwhelmed and humbled by it.  Who am I to try to understand the effects of the Holocaust on its survivors or the experiences of Aboriginal children in residential schools? What qualifies me to interpret these events for other people? I will admit that these reservations have sometimes deterred me from working on such topics.  Ironically, these histories – ones that continue to impact our society and shape our relationships –  are most important to me.  History has a wonderful power to educate people, to make them think and feel and to create dialogue between different groups.

Thinking of Public History as history with the public and my role as more of a “facilitator of knowledge” than a historian has inspired me.  With this mindset, I’m encouraged to get even more involved with the public and to produce truly valuable work.