Saturday, June 4, 2011

Another example of the difference between an "historian" and an Historian

So, I'm in the process of writing a series of concise Oregon Encyclopedia articles on some U.S. Navy ships that had Oregon-based names. One of the entries is on the U.S.S. Oregon City (CA-122). This isn't brain surgery that I'm doing here -- writing informative and authoritative 250-500 word entries on U.S. Navy ships isn't all that complicated.[1] With this and other such entries, I have, of course, consulted the most essential sources[2], but I also wanted to include in my entries some truly Oregon-specific information.

Among other things I've done is to consult various articles in the Oregonian, as I've been able to find them. In this search for documentation to bring new and intriguing information to readers, I've experienced some frustration that speaks directly to the frustrations I've had with so-called "historians," and am now in a position to articulate the essence of this frustration.

What we have here is another example of the difference between amateur and professional -- or, the difference between someone who's not conscious of what she or his is doing and why he or she is doing it, and someone who is.

In this particular instance, it's one of those things that seems obvious in hindsight but makes all the difference in the world.

In writing my entry on the U.S.S. Oregon City, I've consulted the sources I've already referred to, but I've also run various iterations of Internet searches on this topic. I've often found that changing search terms slightly, and perusing the various pages that appear, can uncover invaluable references for further research. Such is the case with this topic.

I stumbled upon an entry on the page "U.S.S. Oregon City," and in the third paragraph read some information that was new to me. I was excited to consult the source(s) that the author(s) of this entry consulted, but was extremely frustrated to find that the author(s) did not cite any sources!

This is the difference between a professional and an amateur: The professional will provide sources for her or his information, in the interest of maintaining a dialogue with others, and in helping other people delve deeper into a given topic, while the amateur isn't thinking about anything other than him or her self. Or, the amateur is thinking that whatever he or she has written can be believed at face value, without any references, because, well, he or she has written it. Or, the amateur isn't thinking at all.

The extremely valuable -- but generally under-appreciated -- role that the responsible, conscious, and conscientious historian performs in society has at least five elements:
    1) spend time and energy to consult obscure archival materials, and then
    2) compare and contrast these obscure materials with what we think we already know, so as to
    3) help us understand ourselves and our place in the world just a bit better (ideally), all the while
    4) providing clear references to our sources so that other people and later generations can re-trace our steps to find a given set of sources so they can be free to
    5) compare and contrast their own set of sources to confirm, deny, debunk, qualify, and otherwise evaluate a given interpretation of history.
The vast majority of amateur "historians," in my experience, fail at step #2, and, therefore, fail at all the subsequent steps. Being aware of these steps is what differentiates a professional from an amateur.

To some readers this post may seem pedantic, but it's not. What frustrates me deeply about the dynamic I herein write about is that the damned "historian" has spent however many hours researching and writing something, but doesn't bother to document sources adequately, so all of us who read this "historian's" work are put in a position where we can't evaluate the veracity of the material in any way! It may as well been written in sand on the beach, or have been pure fiction, because there's no forthright way to correlate the material with objective reality.[3] With all due respect to novelists and poets[4], what the f$#k is the point, then?!?!?!?!

[1] I.e., when compared to trying to write a 70,000-word book that won't bore people to death.

[2] I.e., James L. Mooney, ed. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships [all volumes], Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office (for the U.S. Department of the Navy, Naval History Division), 1959-1991; Jane's Fighting Ships series; K. Jack Bauer and Stephen S. Roberts, Register of Ships of the U.S. Navy, 1775-1990: Major Combatants, New York: Greenwood Press, 1991; Robert L. Scheina, U.S. Coast Guard Cutters and Craft, 1946-1990. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1990.

[3] Yes, of course, I'm aware that there's no such thing as purely objective reality. I guess I haven't written a post about this yet, but for starters you can consult Peter Novick's book, That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, 1989). What I mean here is that the work of "historians," as critiqued in this post, don't allow us a clear correspondence with tangible materials that we ourselves can obtain and evaluate, for ourselves.

[4] Truly.


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