by Suzanne Guerra
As a Public Historian my job usually involves research and writing the story of specific events, people or places for individuals, organizations, educational institutions, governmental or tribal agencies. Public History usually refers to research and writing that is done outside of academic settings. While my clients may have their own biases about any subject, my job is to provide the most complete and accurate information even if it is uncomfortable or inconvenient.
It is important to remember that official interpretations of history are never free of bias. Every scholar is a product of their time-and reflects the values, culture, politics and scholarly interpretation of history that they have been taught, including those based on limited or deliberately omitted information. What some people call “Revisionist” history is not about changing history-no one can undo the past-but about revising what we understand about a particular subject.
All historians rely on original records, most often held in official archives, archival collections-the personal, family, business, and association records, and in personal testimonies or oral histories that tell the story of the important events in our lives. Community Archives, established without the traditional intervention of archivists, historians, and librarians, explicitly demonstrate community participation in knowledge creation and may challenge existing historical and political narratives that are the stuff of academic history. This is why I work with both formally organized archives as well as community archives, to preserve documentation that may have been left out of the official record.
In some cases, my job has been to document subjects that may not have been considered of significance by academic historians or researchers-more obscure, local, or marginalized subjects or places. For this reason, the work of public historians may not receive the same attention as the popular histories written by recognized academic scholars.
Over time, the official perspectives on any event, person or place may change. In order to take a critical look at history we sometimes need to read those official records “against the grain” in order to see what was missed by other historians. New directions in research, and new interpretations, are only possible when we recognize and overcome the biases and barriers that favored old interpretations.
As a Public Historians I believe that it is my responsibility to involve the community in the research process, to share some skills, and pass on the tools to rediscover, document, preserve and interpret our collective past. In this way, the work of engaged public historians, grassroots scholars, and community archives can help to counter marginalization and exclusion, and further social justice. No one’s history should remain “undocumented.”
Suzanne Guerra is a Public Historian and a principal of Guerra and McBane, LLC. http://guerraandmcbane.com/
She lives in Humboldt County, California