History: It’s not exactly what you think it is

by Katherine Burger Johnson

Although I work in a library, my training is in history not library science. I do not point that out because I think of history as a superior field of study. I love libraries and the librarians I know are some of the smartest people I have ever met. I bring this up because historians look at things in a different way than information specialists (which is what librarians are.)

The study of history gives one a way to find his or her place in the world. It puts people and events in context, and life is almost always about context. Many people will say that they hated history class or that there is no real reason to study all those old things. These people did not have good teachers; they missed out on the ones that know that history is the “story” of life. One can look up dates and names, but one cannot know what happened by just learning statistics. Real teaching of history facilitates the understanding of the long connective ribbon of human life and how much we are alike, yet different from, our ancestors.

Someone’s birthday or anniversary is actually an example of practicing historical method. Celebrating a specific special date every year is no different than commemorating the anniversary dates of the man’s first landing on the moon, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, or the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Looking through a family photo album is studying history and hearing the stories that accompany the photos is another form of sharing history. Traditions we follow on holidays are another form of studying history, as is memorizing player statistics from the World Series or the Super Bowl.

So this brings me to the subject of most of my reference requests, which involve genealogy. Usually the researcher had no interest in “history” until something happens – a grandparent dies, a long hidden scrapbook is found, a new story is told at a family reunion. This jars the person into awareness and they want to learn more of their – guess what – genealogy or “family history.” If there is a connection with medicine, nursing or dentistry in Louisville, they will contact me.

If they have already done some research they have learned that historical research is time consuming and can be difficult. The next reaction is why are there so many things missing that would enlighten us about the past. I explain that most people do not realize the significance of current information for future researchers, that important documents are not always preserved for future use; that natural disasters take a toll on those that are saved; and that lack of money and space affect what can and is preserved. This does not help a frustrated researcher.

Sometimes I can help the patron, as we have some resources that are not readily available elsewhere. Sometimes I cannot, but I keep digging to make sure that I have not missed some bit of data that could be valuable to them. But, no matter which is the outcome, the fun is in the process of searching, much like a reading a who dunnit or playing a board or card game which could go in a different direction at any moment. Genealogical and historical research is like a game and that’s reason #4529 why I love my job!


One Comment on “History: It’s not exactly what you think it is”

  1. Ellen says:

    🙂 I love books too 🙂 Preserve the hard copy! Electronic data is even More ephemeral than paper.


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