I’m going to be honest. Our book this week, Beyond Preservation by Andrew Hurley, threw me for a loop. As many of you know, my main focus for the past few years has been academic history, and that comes with a collection of proficiencies and spots of ignorance. This post is about one of the latter.
As an academic historian, its hammered into you that your work will probably not be read by very many. Very few of us get read outside of the twenty other people who are interested in the same subjects we are. Unless you’re Robert Darnton or Eugene Genovese, the largest impact your books and articles will have is when Ken Burns asks you to help on a documentary or a pop historian like Eric Larson reads your book, takes a few facts out of context and propels you to the level of footnote in a book about a chicago-based serial killer during the Columbian Exposition. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s pretty normal for a lot of traditional and untraditional academics to never expect to really impact the world except indirectly.
But even if you do write The Great Cat Massacre (It’s a book by Robert Darnton. If you haven’t read it, do so now. Skip class. Get no sleep tonight. Just raed it!) your motivation is probably to see history in a new and complex light by drawing emphasis to a particular moment in history or just trying to see an old one differently. In terms of impact, however, academics hope to encourage a more complete understanding of their topic, which can lead to increased empathy, a better understanding of the community dealing with that history, or a thousand other things, but generally they fall into the categories of intellectual or cultural change, not social, economic or urban change, except subtly.
Sorry for the long-winded paragraphs, but I’m trying to get you to understand my position. I never considered that history could alter the world around me in any way, but changing the hearts and minds of those who studied it. Even the Art of Relevance and Silencing the Past felt like intellectual and cultural approaches to public history, engaging with and shaping a community’s understanding of itself. However, Hurley’s ideas feel tangible. Revitalizing inner cities, gentrification, raising land values and huge demographic shifts can all come from a public history project. That is not to say that there aren’t other forces at work here besides historical preservation, oral histories or public genealogical workshops, but public historians do impact the communities we work in and for and the decisions we make have consequences, ones that we might love to see like badly needed revenue or a stronger and more inclusive community identity, or some ones that might be a little hard to swallow such as rising land values driving lower-class minorities into other neighborhoods.
We have power and I’m still getting used to that.