Sunday, October 4, 2009

Public History - the elusive definition

Perhaps I should explain the title I've chosen for my blog.

Before I embarked on my dramatic and perilous immigration across the border about a month ago, I would frequently have to answer questions from curious family members and friends. The conversations would almost always go something like this:

- "So, what are you doing now that you've graduated, Sara?"
- "I'm spending a year at the University of Western Ontario!"
- "Where is that?"
- "It's in London"
- "You're moving to ENGLAND?!"
- "No, there's a London in southwestern Ontario..."
- "Oh."
- "So, what are you studying then?"
- "Oh, I'll be getting my MA in Public History"
- "PUBLIC history?! What on earth is that? Isn't ALL history public?"
- "Uhhh, let me get back to you on that next year."

Now, being forced into this dialogue quite literally dozens of times over the summer, I couldn't decide if I was more annoyed with my family and friends for being so predictable or with myself for simply not being able to answer their questions! But looking back on all these conversations has really got me thinking about this field that I'm studying.

What IS public history?

Now that I've been a "public historian" for nearly a month, I know there are several textbook definitions that one can apply to the term and I'm getting better at answering inquisitive friends, but honestly, the concept remains a bit elusive in my mind and the more I chase it, the more it flutters away.

"Isn't ALL history public?" is what they asked me, so condescendingly. I thought to myself, "well, I suppose it certainly should be." If the public doesn't have access to history, does it not lose its significance entirely? Sometimes academia tends to create a bit of a closed circut of historical information, where historians are only writing and researching for each other. Is it a wonder why we have trouble defending our decisions to study history in school? IS all history public, really?

How do we make it public? Should it be done? To what extent?

The wheels have started turning, to say the least.

As a closing note, I hope that this blog can serve as a tool for helping to explain the elusive and wonderful field of study that is PUBLIC HISTORY - and the title serves as a sort of thank you to those who forced me to take a much deeper look at what it is I'm doing here in London, ON (yes, CANADA!)

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