How the Public Understands the History

Unit 4: How the Public Understands the History

Rosenzweig and Thelen, The Presence of the Past

What do Americans know and think? Be it coin collecting, scrapbooking, or taking trips to the museum, many Americans want to know about the past in some form. While interviewing a cross section of Americans, the survey “illuminated a conclusion that underlies the entire book: people pursue the past actively and make make it part of everyday life.” (18) Reading books or watching films about the past are two of the top ways we use the past in everyday life and it seems like everyone pursues the past in some form. Many of the interviewed people wanted to understand where they come from or enjoy building their family tree. Others wanted to know about their family history to find medical information. Most of the people surveyed “made their families the starting places in their quests for identity.” (50) Ethnic heritage and culture were also legacies that people wanted to connect with. There were a lot of varied opinions about events in the past. While some people concluded that no progress has been achieved and we are just as barbaric today compared to the past, others mentioned how far we have come in terms of medicine and health practices.

Wars like Vietnam and the Gulf War of 1991 were a common fear that could disrupt a family legacy. One lady told of her personal experience protesting the Vietnam War and explained how “people can really effect change.” (77) Events in both larger society and personal lives like landing on the moon expanded one man’s mind. (76) Although people had different views about events that shaped their life, the surveyors found that most people reflected on turning points. The birth of a child, sudden tragedies, and marriages were the most common turning points.

Native Americans and African Americans seemed to be interested in their culture more than European Americans. One Sioux man from the Pine Ridge reservation explained that understanding family history allowed one to “move on to the history of your ethnic group.” (54) For many people, cultural identity can be stronger than family ties. Many people said that children should be taught black history from their families as well from school. Something that was startling to the surveyors was the fact that “black Americans constructed a story of of progress when they looked at the past- a rather traditional story that was hard to find among white Americans.” (159) The Oglala Sioux also had a very strong sense of group identity and when asked what most affected them, many answered with Native American history like the massacre at Wounded Knee. It is interesting but not surprising to learn that “not a single white respondant cited any of these events.” (164)

While reading the “Afterthoughts” chapter, it seemed like most people wanted to pass down traditions to their children. Historymaking, according to the surveyor, was intensely intimate, and basically, Americans might say they do not care for history but they do care, they just might not realize it.

Open Letter to the Curators of the Baron Von Munchausen House

After visiting the Baron Von Munchausen House, concern over historical “facts” turned into a “blistering reply” that was shocking to read. Oh My Von #$!. I realized I was reading her response with my hand covering my mouth and one eye closed. Since “slavery was at the heart of the Munchausen’s world,” then it should be at the heart of the tour.

I am embarrassed to say I really did think people were shorter during the colonial period.


Facebook, You’re Probably from Spokane if You Remember…

The Facebook page definitely confirms Rosenweig and Thelen’s study. With nearly 15,000 members, pictures of Wolffy’s hamburger joint and the World’s Fair seem to be fan favorites. Many of these fans may not be history buffs but the pictures bring a sense of identity; they engage Spokanites as active participants in their own history. Expo ‘74 is part of my family’s national past. My uncles recall it at every get together and the memories have become part of my past, even though I was not yet born. This is in line with Rosenweig and Thelan’s study that “among those who selected national events as the most memorable of their lives, two thirds talked about them as things they had experienced and engaged for themselves, on their terms.” (124)


Unit 3: Archives and Archivists

So I might want to be an archivist …

In the first week of readings, we learned that the basic tasks of an archivist are to establish and maintain control over “records of enduring value.” Archivists select, arrange, and describe records. They help to preserve paper, film, and electronic sources. According to the Society of American Archivists website, there are many different types of archives. These include college and university archives, corporate, government, historical societies, museums, and special collections archives.

The core values of an archivist “to promote open access and use when possible.” Access to records is essential and “records should be both welcomed and actively promoted.” Accountability as well as transparency are also important values to archivists as they are the “hallmark of democracy.” According to the website, other core values include advocacy, diversity, professionalism, preservation, and social responsibility.

Although archives are similar to libraries, they have many differences as well. Archives hold different material like manuscripts, letters, photographs, and rare objects.  Methods of evaluating whether or not an archive contains certain material consists of checking bibliographies, contacting experts in your field, and searching websites. My favorite website is the American Historical Association, which has links to archives all around the world. Contacting archival staff is another way to track down material in an archive, especially if they are not accessible from Interlibrary loan.  An archivist might help you scan or you can hire a research assistant. Archives also differ from libraries in terms of handling material. Many times there is no food or drink allowed, no pens allowed, and one usually submits identification.

One important lesson that I learned from Professor Zhu from Eastern Washington University is that if you need substantial help from an archivist, bring a substantial gift. Booze helps you schmooze. Is that appropriate?


In the article titled “’Dear Mary Jane’: Some Reflections on Being an Archivist” the archival intern, Mary Jane, is asking John, the archivist, for advice. John’s first job as an archivist was to gather records from a local settlement house. Mary Jane wants to know if his career was satisfying and John replies that archival work was “part science, part art, and when done properly, part showmanship” (24). He explains how archival work can help get justice for victims, like it has for Native Americans whose land was denied to them. An archivist has huge responsibilities and John explains to Mary Jane that, “the archival record serves all citizens as a check against a tyrannical government” (26).

Pretty heavy stuff.


In “Born Digital” the creation of the Washington State Digital Archives is examined. Astoundingly, 100,000 items are added each month. A movement to claim the building started in 2000, a time when less knowledge about digital archives existed. With a $14 million budget, the museum broke ground in December 2002 and opened two years later. It began housing marriage records from Chelan, Snohomish, and Spokane counties. And so began “America’s first state government digital archives facility,” right here in lil’ old Cheney, Washington.



Phlebitis or a Security Breach?

In Sandy Berger’s Theft of Classified Documents: Unanswered Questions, the findings of an executive summary are displayed as a piece of digital material. President Clinton’s former National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger,  was caught stealing documents from the National Archives. This is illegal, compromised national security, and was obviously a major core value broken by Berger, who pleaded guilty. The highly classified 9/11 documents were viewed by Berger on four separate occasions between 2002- 2003. There is no way to know what he took because the documents were not specifically numbered by page. He was sentenced to two yeas probation, 100 hours of community service, and a $50,000 fine due to “the seriousness of the offense.” This is a lesson that should teach archivists to babysit better … and number each page.