Why do we do what we do? Many people struggle with the answer but I know. I think I’m a detective and I think what I do matters. Take a second and name a detective from literature or television. It’s easy because we know a lot of them. They entertain, inform, and leave us with a warm assurance that, in their hands at least, the good guys always win.
Every detective begins already knowing what happened. The detective’s job is to find out why it happened, who was involved, name the guilty, and exonerate the innocent. While many others may have already combed the scene, his job is to see it differently. The detective gathers clues that others may have missed or dismissed. The detective reads and then reads some more to become expert on whatever and whoever the case involves. The detective sifts evidence through the sieve of his reading and experience. He then writes up his conclusions which are based on his use the past to explain the present and will hopefully help people to avoid similar bad stuff and people in the future. But he’s not done. The court brings together other experts; some perhaps embarrassed by having missed what the detective found and eager to punch holes in his conclusions. Members of the public arrive who are fascinated with the event and eager to learn more. The detective’s work and conclusion are put to the test and the media weighs in with its opinion. Meanwhile, the detective has already moved on. The detective will happily discuss the case now holding the public and court’s interest but his mind is already on the next case.
Now here is the challenge. Please go back and re-read the last paragraph but substitute the word historian for detective. Don’t cheat – do it. Go ahead, I’ll wait for you ………………………………………………………………………………………………..done? Interesting isn’t it? That’s what I do.
I am working on a case right now. Everyone knows what happened but I arrived on the scene about a year ago. I have read everything I can find about the people and events of the era that I am investigating. I always know I’m done that stage when the books and articles start overlapping and repeating themselves. It’s then time to do the real work, the archival work; to stop going wide and go deep. Last month I did research at the archives in Ottawa. I then moved on to the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.
If a museum is a country’s front parlour then an archives is its attic. Its job is to hold and protect every document, book, record, and piece of music, foot of film, picture, painting, and photograph that tells our stories about ourselves. Like museums, libraries, monuments, and architecture, an archive represents, reflects, and explains us. Archives are a historian’s playground and workplace. Without archives historians are unable to solve cases, unable to write history.
So what, you may say. Well, history is never settled because the story is never completely told. History is the stories and myths that hold us together as a people. Without at least a cursory knowledge of history we are like Forrest Gump’s feather floating without purpose, understanding, or intention. Without history we are like amnesiacs; constantly surprised and confused and vulnerable to the next politician or pundit arguing without context and hoping you won’t ask the next question. But the historian is there, like the nosy detective who pokes around and sees things that may have been missed and urges a new look at things considered settled.
Journalism is history in a hurry and TV punditry is history on crack. Real history is a wise detective asking new questions and offering a new perspective. History is not nostalgia, that warm-bath sensation of gazing longingly back on misty memories of times gone by. No, history is a cold shower. It is not a balm but a challenge. It insists that we not be like those who after the tragedy of 9-11 asked like dewy-eyed school girls why they hate us. It will not allow us to grow angry at Native people’s anger. History is neither a weapon to attack another’s ideas or shield to protect one’s own. It is a spy glass, a detective’s spy glass, there to examine people, events, and ideas to determine the past to explain the present.
A good history book is a grand detective story. It is a mystery solved that you didn’t even think was a mystery in the first place. So I guess, sitting there alone, so far from home and opening another archival file I was Sherlock or maybe Murdoch. But I felt more like Columbo. I was a little dishevelled and ragged around the edges but doing my best to ask the right questions so that the story I will tell will be worth the telling.
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