Wednesday, April 7, 2010

So What Makes a Historian a Historian?

Sometimes when I'm out promoting my books, or my living history programs, I'll run into folks who'll call me a historian. I never know quite how to take that. On one hand I'm flattered, but at the same time, not having a degree in history, (my degree is actually in art), I admit that I'm not all that comfortable with the title.

Having a college degree, and having spent a lot of time working with historical museums, means I've spent a lot of time in academia.  As far as those folks are concerned, unless you have the initials, "M.A." or "PhD." after your name, you're not a historian. In some instances, this makes sense. Those credentials probably would put you in a position of authority to, for example, verify the authenticity of a historic artifact. But I don't think it necessarily makes you any smarter, or a "better" historian, then a well-educated lay person.

A few years ago I was acquainted a man who had done extensive research on early motion picture exhibition equipment. He was certainly an expert and had done enough work to probably have his master's thesis done. I even once suggested that to him. He was flattered, but decided not to pursue it. It would have been an expensive undertaking and I'm not sure he had the funds. Besides, he wasn't exactly a young man anymore, and he probably figured he'd been doing what he'd been doing, which was a living history presentation as an early 20th century showman, just fine without his master's degree. He's one of many "lay historians" that I've come across over the years. And just because he's a lay historian certainly doesn't mean he can't publish a book or call himself an expert.

Then there are living historians, such as myself.  I too have put a lot of research into both of my historic personas, but I actually market myself as a speaker.  I've discovered that those who are outside of the museum or education environment simply have no clue whatsoever as to what a living historian is or does, and they sometimes find it a very confusing term. But they do understand what a professional speaker is, so I leave it at that.

So I suppose you can call me a historian if you want, but I prefer to call myself a published author.

My thought for the day.

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