I listened to a fascinating CAFE live conversation between historians Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman the other day. At minute 8 or so they begin to discuss the difference between journalists and historians.
Journalists, they point out, follow the story; they look for facts and find sources to deliver the story. Historians look for facts in primary sources–art, documents, records, newspapers–to find patterns in the past that created change, tracking a story but not always knowing what that story is going to turn out to be.
Journalists tell us what happened. Historians ask “who cares?” and “so what?”
When my dad declared me “Keeper of the Family Lore” I had no idea how deeply I would travel into the past. The facts led to questions and the questions led to course work and books, which led to more course work and more books. Some 15 years later, I am a citizen archivist and genealogical antiquarian; a history enthusiast and translator of the family lore.
I am drawn to historian folks like Drs. Richardson Cox and Freeman because they have been instrumental in helping me see patterns in the present BECAUSE of their study of patterns in the past. And they motivate me to apply the techniques and processing skills of the historian to find patterns in my genealogical stories.
This blog gives me a platform to connect with other history loving folks. Sometimes I am simply an antiquarian, posting names and dates and timelines for the sheer love of detail. But the posts I most enjoy writing are those with a rich narrative around the facts that answer the “who cares” and “so whats” about my family’s relationships and events.
In this moment I am striving to be a part of a larger conversation that historians are having about our Civil War and Reconstruction era, and how we can use what the nation learned then during this current backlash against expansive democracy. It is a process that is both intriguing and humbling, leading to an ever more liberating understanding of the history behind my family’s lore.