J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

History as Snooping and Gossiping

The 1 August History Carnival clued me in to Timothy Burke's essay on HNN, "Historian as Snoop." It's about colonial history—though not the sort that took place in Boston before 1775. Rather, it's about African colonial administration of a hundred years ago. But that's just the case study, the example Burke draws from as he discusses his real topic.

Burke is really writing about what it's like for a historian to work through an archive, finding and assembling the interesting stories that those papers tell but weren't necessarily meant to tell. It's about the thrill of discovery or, to use Burke's term, snooping on people of the past.

I would add that another secret appeal of the historical craft is gossiping—passing on what you've learned about those people. Burke writes, "I’m never really going to do much with this slice of human experience except blog about it." Naturally, keeping the information to himself was out of the question.

Good history doesn't end with snooping and gossiping, I hasten to add. There's analysis, comparing one person's story to others, or aggregating many stories to see trends, or pulling back even further to spot long-term trends that few people of the time could notice. But I think snooping and gossiping are a couple of the basic human instincts that the avocation satisfies.

If historians aren't gossips, after all, then why do they spend so much time talking about other historians?

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