Professionalizing History 1: Why Study History?
As a child, I oftentimes found it difficult to grasp what the present actually was. I don’t know why, or how, but it was almost impossible to figure out how the present even existed if every previous moment bled into the past and ever future moment lay in uncertain shadows. People live in a world – the present – that they oftentimes ignore; most think of the past and worry of the future, but the actual state of the present is shoved to the back-burner of time.
It is important for everyone – not only historians – to realize that the present is the past, and the past is what shapes the future for good or bad. History interested me from a rather young age, around the same time I started thinking about just how infinite the past – and therefore our present – actually is.
Some longtime readers might recall my clam fossil story, perhaps the closest thing to an autobiography I’ve ever truly written during my 4 years of “blogging” and writing historical/political articles online. It’s funny how I haven’t really even thought of that hot summer day, the very one that started by passion for history, since I published that April 2016 recollection of it. That’s just how…blinding, I suppose…the past can certainly be. At one point in time, every moment we study in history books was part of someone’s present.
I’d like to talk about a different artifact of mine, in this introductory post to a brand new series on this site.
As I type these words, I sit in my office. Bookshelves line the far wall, each shelf starting to cave in slightly from the immense weight I’ve been forced to place atop them all. Behind me sit my line of Sir Winston Churchill – a first edition set of The Second World War resting besides his penned volumes depicting his father’s biography and countless paperbacks and vinyl records dating back to the late 1950’s concerning his personal speeches and statements. Besides my desk – a nice vintage hand-me-down a roommate’s sister had parted with – sits a bedside table that I received when a friend’s estranged relative passed away. And on that bedside table, in my immediate reach whenever I sit at this desk of mine, sits one of my prized possessions: an anatomy textbook.
What on Earth? An anatomy textbook? How on earth could I have typed that whole descriptive passage to have it boil down to a book that isn’t even in my field of study! I’m a historian, for God’s sake! I don’t perform surgery or conduct research on the human body! Well, my friends, that’s where the aspects of history come into play. The anatomy textbook I’m talking about is my prized possession not due to its subject, but due to its incredible history.
I found this copy of Cunningham’s Text-Book of Anatomy (edited by Arthur Robinson, published by the Oxford Medical Publication) from a flea-market in Southern Florida in the year 2012. Buried behind a set of literature books from the 1960’s that I also bought (and sold the following year) on the very bottom shelf, it was as if it had called out to me. The cold, clothy, green spine of the book with faint gold lettering encouraged me to reach deep – covering my khaki pants and dress shirt with dust and debris – until it was finally in my hands.
I bought the book for three dollars that day, and took it home with the three boxes of history and literature that I bought from the same stand – which to this day still stands as one of my favorite places to shop for old books. While the rest of the books were shoved into the trunk, the anatomy textbook rode up front with me. I don’t even know why I had so much…interest in the book at the time. I had hardly opened it up before paying for it. All I knew was that it was old, it was cool looking, and it was in pretty damn good shape. I waited until I got home before opening it up to see just how entertaining it would be.
The book – a sixth edition copy – was published in 1931 and printed in Edinburgh. The book had, at one point early in its life, shipped over to the United States to be bought by someone in New York. How do I know this? Well, a Mr. Harold Miller of 1924 East 24th Street in Brooklyn, New York was kind enough to write his personal information – including an ancient phone number (DEWEY 9-2637) – in the front cover of the book. Not only was he kind enough to leave this crucial information about himself – in his present perhaps to have the book returned to him had he lost it – he also left dozens of pages of hand-written and mint-condition notes about the content of the book.
The rest of the history? It’s blank. Somehow, Mr. Harold Miller’s anatomy textbook – printed in Edinburgh (in 1931) and sold in Brooklyn (Miller’s notes date this to around 1932) – found its way to a flea market Ft. Myers, Florida (in 2012). That’s eighty years of travel – from person to person – until I was gifted with the ability to have possession of it myself.
In my hands, for the price of three dollars, I hold a part of someone’s life. Someone, almost nine decades ago, wrote their personal information and thoughts in the forms of notes in a textbook that they held as near and dear to them. This anatomy textbook – one that I have kept besides my desk for nearly half a decade myself – was part of Mr. Harold Miller’s life; and he chose to write in it. Mr. Harold Miller is outlived by his pages of uniquely cursive writing – that he wrote in his own present, which is now in the past – that I, by chance, found buried at a flea-market! That is astounding to me!
THAT is why history is so important. Mr. Harold Miller’s present, despite it laying in the past, has severely impacted my own present in the future. That’s an interesting sentence…but it still remains true. Just like my clam fossil story, something from a different era managed to survive the tests of time to end up in my hands. And it can happen to anyone reading this introduction to the site’s newest series: Professionalizing History.
I described my office for a specific reason. I’d like to think that every object’s history is locked away behind the materialism of said object. My desk is a hand-me-down, as polished and vintage as it may be, and it carries the stories of what it had been through prior to ever being in my possession. I can imagine the ghosts of strewn paperwork still resting upon the desk as I write these very words. The same to the bedside table, which I’ve turned into a makeshift L-desk to rest my prized books upon, that came from a now deceased man. The very same to the hundreds and hundreds of books that I’ve acquired through my years of research, collecting, and – as my inner circle of friends would call it – hoarding.
I oftentimes wonder how my own possessions will be viewed nine or ten decades after I’m gone. My own books, my own additions to this mod podge of an office that I’ve acquired throughout the years. Or exactly how Mr. Harold Miller’s anatomy textbook’s next chapter will look like. Or how my 1948 copies of Sir Winston Churchill’s recollections of the Second World War will stand against the tests of time without being trapped upon the bookshelves behind my head.
We study history for several important reasons. To archive the past, to study society, and to learn from and prevent the dark ages from happening again. We study history to understand the world we live in, to benefit from political protocol and social norms. We study history to find comfort in dark times, to witness the ups and downs of the civilization we’ve created. We study history to understand not only the institutions around us, but to understand our individual aspects that created the institutions around us all.
History is more than hour-long lectures and ‘boring’ high school projects. History is an eternal subject – one that allows us to live on in any form besides human memory. History is the definition of mankind.
In this series, Professionalizing History, I’ll be recording my own history and mixing it with topical problems facing the historical community and how they can be applied to just about anything. I’ll be taking my own anecdotal memories (I can hear you sighing, already) along with the memories and records of countless historians, archivists, and publishers to implement them to the greater scheme of things.
You might be a history major wondering what the Hell your career will be once you graduate. You might be wondering why history is needed in a world dedicated to infinite information at every fingertip. You might be a future archivist, teacher, author, editor, or curator. You might be any of those things now! The important thing to remember throughout this series is that history is everywhere, and to understand history is to attempt to understand everything.