Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Going a Bit Personal... "Why History?"

So I've got this class for my (second) master's degree (yeah, I'm a glutton for punishment. TWO master's degrees). For this class we are touring various types of libraries. One library we recently toured was a medical library. The other was a medical HISTORY library. And the difference was VAST.

For the record, I'm an archivist (no, not an archaeologist nor an anarchist). I virtually eat, sleep and breathe history. It's part of who and what I am. When I develop a new hobby I often find myself wanting to learn about the history of it. For example, when I started getting into comic books I didn't just read the comic books -- i read books about the history of comic books. I read stories about how and why comic books became what we know today. I've even read and collected hard cover and trade paperback reprints of older comics because all of it is interesting and fascinating.

So, yeah, I love history. But the fact of the matter is that, as I go through the world I meet so many people who DON'T. And, well, that's okay if it isn't your cup of tea. Diversity is what makes the world go 'round. What boils MY cup of tea, however, are the people who are not content to merely say they don't like history but the people who actually see history as a BURDEN. The people who actively state that they don't see what GOOD history is, they don't see the USE of it and anything old should simply be gotten rid of in order to make way for everything new.

One library talked about getting "stuck" with the archival material and seemed to begrudge it space in their facility and that they didn't know what to do with it. They were proud of the fact that they didn't keep anything "old" -- they were all "new" and "up to date" and there was even some bewilderment expressed when they did get requests for books or journal articles which were ten years old or more... as if they could not understand why anyone would want anything that old. In contrast, the other library reveled in it's old stuff. It joyed in showing people how far we've come and even teaching that sometimes we can underestimate what they knew and what they could do in the past. That sometimes we think we're so clever at inventing stuff when, in point of fact, all we're doing is updating an idea that is actually hundreds of years old.

The past is NOT something to be tossed aside for the "latest model". Nor paved over to make way for something that is more "up to date". To me, as the saying goes: "How do you know where you're going if you don't know where you've been?" What USE is history? Well, let me count some of the ways:

  • History gives you a sense of roots. You can understand and see the longevity of a place or a family and it reassures you that those things will continue to be there for it.
  • It can stop you from making a mistake. You can see what was done in the past and how it worked or did not work and therefore you can change your plans accordingly. Why recreate someone else's mistake?
  • It can help you understand situations. Knowing what a country, or a city, or a person went through in the past can help you understand how they got to where they are today. Do you think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sprung into being in the last 20 years? If you don't understand the background to the conflict you're not going to fully understand what's going on today. Houses are built from the ground up not the top down.
  • It can give you hope for the future. In any struggle there has been a past. Looking back, you can see how far you've come. No matter how much further you have to go you can ALWAYS look back and see the changes and gain heart for the continuing fight because you DO have proof that things have changed.
  • It can humble you. You might think you're hot stuff, coming up with a new idea but you might be surprised just what people in the past knew and could do. More and more people are learning and relearning knowledge of the past was not necessarily as "primitive" and they might think and the people of today may not be as clever as we think we are.
So history. Whether or not it is something that you enjoy it IS something to be respected. Our personal pasts make us who we are and we learn from them so how much more do the histories of our cities, states, country, continent, and world also shape who we are, what we do, and how we live?

Today and everyday I challenge you to go forth and SEE history all around you!

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