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How to Become a Historian
14 September 2007
Category: Viewer Mailbag
Dear Gwen, I am very interested in the work that you all do. How does one become an archivist, appraiser or historian? Do you know of things that I can do now to prepare for such careers?
It's great to see you interested in history. You're just the age I was when I visited an uncle near Boston and saw a Civil War museum that was radically different from similar museums in the South, where I'd grown up. Suddenly I realized there were many different kinds of objects and perspectives about any historical event.
I studied history and art history in college then, becoming increasingly interested in the way that buildings and spaces bring together many kinds of history, studied architecture and got a PhD. I've taught at Columbia University for many years, written a number of books, and spoken to all kinds of different groups --- each of which teaches me some new perspective, even if I don't necessarily agree.
The folks who were developing History Detectives came to me when they were thinking about American houses as well as stuff in the houses, and so began another parallel career. My main advice to you is simple: Ask a lot of questions, both of other people and of yourself. What was this person trying to accomplish with a certain law or invention? Is there maybe another story, less obvious, about why something happened? What did different kinds of people think at the time? (There's never an act with just one reason, of with just one response from 'the public'.) Think about all the places you might get information or clues, from different newspapers, diaries, pictures and maps, buildings and walls. What happens over time? How did a law or an idea or a place change, as well as people's attitudes about it?
After all, even concepts like family and democracy and nature change, despite the long-term historical continuities. Questions and complications always make history more fun. Moreover, asking questions and tracking different stories, even if they're confusing, let's us think about possible changes in the class-room, in your neighborhood, and in the world.
Best, Gwen Wright
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