Public History Journal Part 6: Working with What You Have

by tigermanifesto

I like the analogy of a toolbox because you realize that your options are limited by the size and type of box you have and the tools inside of it. If you don't have a hammer, you can't solve your nail problem very easily.

I like the analogy of a toolbox because you realize that your options are limited by the size and type of box you have and the tools inside of it. If you don’t have a hammer, you can’t solve your nail problem very easily.

Historians who follow the curves of the “postmodern turn” like to talk about the limitations of human knowledge. Critical awareness of the historical and limited character of our own knowledge is healthy, but often the epistemological discussion among historians and historical theorists ends up advocating a kind of surrender to “narrative” and subjectivism. I don’t want to describe these discussions in detail in this blog post, because the limits to my public history project are more immediate than some epistemological block.

To be frank, the entire construction of my project is limited by the availability of sources that can illuminate the core topics I want to address. In some cases, there are mountains of information on topics that are marginal to my focus, including a lot of biographical sources that would not be suitable to include in my work because they skew the project’s focus onto a single person. But a shortage choked off my ability to write well about one of the most important topics in my tour: the creation and evolution of the Hispanic community in the neighborhood.

On a positive note, census data and general present-day information was readily available, but colorful and popular history accounts do not typically include a deluge of statistical data. And exploring demographic minutiae gets me no closer to the relevant history of how this community formed and what its day-to-day struggles and joys might be. There are oral histories recorded in the library archives, but they tended to be so granular and personal––and often not connected to the neighborhood at all––that they proved little use in creating a general history.

Nevertheless, the account I have been able to craft has slowly taken shape into something that functions well within the structure of the walking tour.  After all, limited knowledge does not mean no knowledge, and it would be corrupt perfectionism to abandon a worthy endeavor because it was not flawless from conception to delivery. This is especially true in regard to people whose class position includes racial or sexual oppression. Nor are limitations an excuse to disregard intellectual rigor: indeed, it’s only because I was able to draw on tools and best practices that I learned in class or while writing that I was able to make the most of the information I had. The real lesson to draw from this is that our situation and historical/geographical placement creates a set of opportunities/limitations we have to recognize when writing or researching. Our goal remains unchanged: approximate the truth as closely as possible while refining our tools and frameworks progressively.

The project is now nearly complete, but these final days are all the more critical because of their brevity. Here the timeline crunches together, and many of the hardest editing choices are still in front of me. Nevertheless, I anticipate this series ending with the next installment, which will review the entire process and reflect on how historians can draw lessons from this project and its accomplishments/failures.