Friday, January 11, 2013

Public Historians and "The Local"

As American public historians begin to think deeply about how to partner with their colleagues from outside the United States, Robert Weyeneth, the director of the Public History Program at the University of South Carolina and the president of the National Council on Public History, reminds us that local studies still matter. Studies that focus on small places--case studies, if you will--can teach us much about the human experience, especially when they tease out universal implications.

Here is a taste of Weyeneth's post at History@Work:

Thinking about what he saw in the High Sierra on one of his many rambles into the remote, the California naturalist John Muir famously remarked “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”  I’d urge that we apply this ecological observation to our work in the trenches of public history, by reflecting on how and why the case study is “hitched to everything else.”

It seems to me that we care about the local case study when: 

•  it transcends the parochial for the contextual
•  the specifics of place open up conversations about big issues and large debates
 •  it engages issues of social justice and the role of the past in the present
•  the story is framed analytically and answers the  question “so what?”

I like to tell my students that good public historians have the ability to cast down their buckets wherever they land and find interesting projects.  This advice has always been less about place (where they are studying as graduate students or working afterwards as professionals) and more about themselves (whether they can dig deeply into nearby history and discover broad patterns and meanings).

I may be over-stating the argument for the location-specific case study as the bedrock of public history, but if NCPH is perceived as too academic in its concerns and constituencies, I think this is an especially important message to practitioners. By seeking to internationalize, NCPH is not turning its back on practitioners – anywhere.  We value the case study, whether in Berlin or Berlin, New Hampshire, Colombia or Columbia, Monterrey or Monterey.

Everywhere I turn it seems that I am running into smart people promoting locality and place.  This past weekend I attended an AHA session devoted to the topic.  Five university press editors offered tips on how to publish a book about a particular place.  The University of Georgia Press has an entire book series on "Early American Places."  I chatted with a few editors this past weekend who seemed to be more open to my project on the Greenwich Tea Burning than they were a couple of years ago.  

I have long been fascinated by the tension between the local and the universal.  As many of my readers know, this was the driving theme of my first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).