Historical Outreach

by Thomas L Snyder

In my experience, the vast bulk of professional–by which I mean here “academic”–historians are content to remain cloistered within walls of Ivy, researching and writing for themselves and the relatively small circle of people who share their interests and specialty(s). Here in California, where I venture to say the majority of academics  (those who labor in the University of California, California State University and Community College systems) are taxpayer paid, it is a rare thing indeed to see any of them, as historians, speaking to those people who pay the bills. “Public” history, it seems, is left to historical societies, the ramparts of which are usually manned by elderly guardians of the local historic record–enthusiastic to be sure, well intentioned for certain, but amateurs and history buffs at best. Result:  the public is served a potentially faulty brew rife with inaccuracy, myth, legend and misinterpretation.

Yet the public want to know their history. For example, just within the past couple of weeks, I–absolutely an amateur and unabashed buff–spoke at a local museum to 30 stalwarts who came out on an NFL playoff day to learn a bit of their local history. Today I talked to hometown Rotarians and had a very young woman come up afterwards to thank me for giving her a view of a past she’d never even thought about before. The need is there. The desire is there. How can we fulfill the popular need and meet the popular desire with a quality product?

First, there’s the social media. Retired Rear Admiral Jay deLoach has brought the Naval History and Heritage Command into the 21st century big time:  you will see several Tweets and Facebook entries per day from his organization. Navy history has a big story to tell, and, apparently, plenty of resources to tell it! Not only will you see the text messages, but Jay’s people also post copious amounts of video (via You Tube) material. The same can be said for Navy Medicine, though postings from that quarter seem to be oriented more toward current events and / or PR, pure and simple.

Navy medicine’s Office of the Historian for four years produced and widely distributed a bimonthly electronic digest–The Grog Ration–of historical articles, oddities and announcements. This effort is currently undergoing revision, but it will, when it returns, serve a very useful role of getting the word out, in freely accessible textual form, about the history of U S Navy medicine.

These efforts are wonderful to be sure:  they get the history out from behind the Ivy walls.  But the historians are still left inside.  We need to get them outside the walls, too.  There they can interact with their public and find out just how they can best serve the history needs of the community, while at the same time be energized by the mostly positive reactions they will encounter.  To help accomplish this movement of historians to the street, today I floated to the 150 members of the Society for the History of Navy Medicine the idea that we establish a Speakers Bureau.  I am going to propose that each of our members work up a 30 to 60 minute talk on whatever subject presses their buttons, but oriented to a lay audience.  Then I’m going to ask that they promote the talk in their local communities in the name of the Society, and that they recommend a modest, voluntary honorarium to be given to the Society, the money to be applied to the Graduate Student Travel Grant Program that we established last year.  Everyone benefits:  the public, our historians (who get to talk about what they really love), and a new generation of scholars.  We’ll see how it goes…

Like the idea?  Hate it?  Post your comment or email me at tlsnyder@history-navy-med.org.

©2011 by Thomas L Snyder

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