Who is a historian?

Within the first year of getting my job, a Job In My Field (history), I learned that some people would not call me a historian. Apparently there has been a divide between historians who work in museums, for the Park Service, etc. and those who are professors in universities and colleges; put more succinctly, public historians and academic historians. Some (but not all!) academic historians do not think that public historians are “real” historians, either because we tend to work on one project or era for a discrete period of time and then move on, or because of some reason I have yet to divine.

At first I was offended, then philosophical. It does, after all, raise the question of who is a historian, of what work or effort earns one that title.

You see, I am a hobbyist reenactor. I’ve never done a juried show, but I love hanging out with my friends who do them on a regular basis. For those who are unaware, many historic reenactment shows which are open to the public, such as Military Through the Ages in James County, Virginia, have judges who come through and rate the various groups (at least, that’s my understanding). These groups are self-policing, with every item that the public can see vetted by members of the group who have done extensive research. My friends belong to these groups, but almost none of them have day jobs which give them the title “historian”. They’re editors, writers, programmers, project managers, and human resources directors. But are they not also historians?

There are also people who act as the voice of history for an area, an organization, a nation. My father has been involved in internet and networking since the 1970s, and he has met some of the most influential people in its history. He can tell the story of the trials and tribulations of academic computing, and he has preserved relics from those early days (albeit only as many as he has space to store). My Grandfather, who I wrote about in my last post, made a point to go and talk to teenagers and young people about his experiences in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, which for them was decidedly history.

There are archivists, special collections librarians, librarians of all kinds, elementary school teachers, neighborhood council members, all manner of people who engage in the activity of researching and interpreting history for themselves and others. At what point does one transition from a person who does history to a historian? Is there even a difference?

I don’t have an answer to those question – I’m not sure if I want one. I will likely revisit the question, at least to explore the work done by my friends who voluntarily wear layers of wool in the heat of Virginia summers to bring the distant past closer. But I welcome the comments of those who read, as long as you’re civil.

2 Replies to “Who is a historian?”

  1. Very interesting question indeed. I’m not sure I have an answer either, but it’s good food for thought.

    Similarly, as the only non-teacher in my family, I often wonder where we draw the lines about who is an educator. My teacher family members are educators, for sure, but some folks think that librarians are educators as well. I think it’s a little more obvious a connection for school librarians, or reference and instruction librarians in academic institutions, but I work in Technical Services. That seems to be more of stretch for me.

    Thanks for this good food for thought.

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