Public History Journal Entry 1: Dust Off the Books

by tigermanifesto


Pictured: a grand library where I did not do any research.

Public History Journal chronicles my experiences researching, drafting, and editing a walking tour for a neighborhood in my local city. The introduction to the series is here.

My public library’s main municipal branch has an entire floor dedicated to genealogical research and local history archives. Most of the time, the rows of microfilm machines lie idle and all you can hear other than the rustling of the pages in front of you is some elder citizen looking for mementos. Occasionally, another researcher will be sit at the table across from you with a pile of papers and books sprawled out. But you don’t really care, at least not in the first few days of research.

In the initial stages of a historical project, your objectives tend to be vaguely defined, meaning that every lead you find has some potential. Even after a few basic themes have coalesced out of the empirical research and anecdotes you’ve accumulated, the excitement only wears off once you try to track down details about specific and obscure subjects and come up with nothing. Luckily, this has yet to happen in my case, but I’m certain it will.

For this first entry, I want to lay out some of the historians’ concerns when approaching a historical project designed for a popular audience. Actually, that leads us straight into the first topic at hand: who is the audience, and how do you try to understand it?

After some initial input from the city health department, which is coordinating the project with certain people at my alma mater, I had a few basic notions about the audience we were looking for:

  1. It would include both adults and children.
  2. It would include both locals and interested outsiders, local history buffs and people looking for an excuse to get up and walk a few blocks around their neighborhood.

With that established, it was obvious that I had to do some digging to learn about the locals, the ones who will have the closest relationship with the walk if I do my job correctly. I did some digging through mapping cites, census data, and area profiles compiled by the library, which led to some useful conclusions. First, a plurality of the residents in the neighborhood are proletarian Latinx, and indeed this was one of the most highly concentrated Latinx neighborhoods in the city, evidenced by the proliferation of Spanish-speaking churches––most of them Protestant. Many of the nearby enterprises are manufacturers of plastics, machine parts, and the like, which offer low rates of pay for floor workers. In the southeastern corner of the area, however, the demographic colour of the neighborhood whitens dramatically, though Euro-Americans make up only a quarter of the population or so. There are high rates of vacant housing, foreclosures, and users of public transportation.

More intangible parts of the neighborhood also present themselves. For instance, the presence of a relatively prominent neighborhood association, one that occupies a historically significant building near the centre of the area. At the centre of the entire area, however, was the park for which the neighborhood was named. Because of deep budget cuts in the parks department for the city, the park’s facilities had undergone some degeneration over the last decade, with two of its public pools closed because the city deemed the cost of repairs too high.

After developing an abstract but hopefully accurate picture of the neighborhood and its people, I realized that there would be some particular challenges in presenting the material. Luckily, the project already has a staff interpreter ready to translate the scripts we write into Spanish. I am wary, however, of making the mistake of producing a history that only Euro-Americans will recognize or appreciate. Avoiding this requires a self-critical attitude, paying close attention to the lines of research I am following and looking at the margins of the history to see if there are aspects of the area’s history that have been suppressed or neglected. Once the drafting stage begins, it will be doubly important to edit the script under the harsh light of suspicion. Material factors already militate against the success of this project for most of the locals. For instance, the Euro-American community, the Anglos if you will, will probably have, on average, more leisure time and more interest in the history that people have chosen to preserve for this neighborhood. Indeed, it would be easy for a historian to show up at the archives, write small biographies of wealthy notable who have lived in the area, and tie those stories to old buildings on the walking tour. Nothing would be less forceful or useful, however, than producing a Ken Burns documentary on a local scale.

Next time, we’ll look in some more detail at those old historical figures and why there is so much more to the neighborhood than that. In part three, meanwhile, we’ll take a look at the urban ecology of the neighborhood and how that can be moved into the walking tour.