History as a Public Activity – Brian Sarnacki

Upon learning that I study history, people frequently reply “I love history!” and quickly share an anecdote from their favorite era. History pervades our bookstores, dominates best sellers lists, and fills our television and movie theater screens. Genealogy has become a beloved hobby for many people looking to learn more about their personal history. Simply put, America loves history. And yet, academic history faces the same crisis as the rest of the humanities. Academic presses, journals, and departments are all facing immense challenges and reduced budgets, despite history’s popularity. Bridging the gap between academic and popular history is not a new issue, but UNL’s History Harvest presents a valuable opportunity to bring together lovers of history, both professional and amateur.

I have been fortunate enough to help with the History Harvest project and experience first-hand some of the historical artifacts hidden in my community. Seeing the enthusiasm in the eyes of people eager to share their history, I could not help but become excited myself. It is easy for the day to day obligations to overshadow the tremendous good fortune undergraduate and graduate students have in their ability to spend their time studying history.

This infectious love of history highlights one of the most valuable aspects of the History Harvest, engagement with the community. History, particularly local history, should be an inherently public activity, though too often students and professors alike are happy to sit in the so-called ivory tower of academia. Taking history outside of the classroom shows students the practical value of the subject. Students see first-hand the materials that historians might use as sources. While students may struggle differentiating between written primary and secondary sources, the concept of primary sources becomes very clear when presented with real, physical objects and some of the people behind them. Learning immigration and the settling of the Great Plains in a classroom reinforces the big picture ideas of American history, but seeing the documents of people from the past, their marriage certificates, Homestead Act land claims, citizenship papers, and other similar artifacts I saw at the Nebraska City History Harvest, underscores the personal nature of these larger trends. Immigration and migration are national stories, but they are also individual ones, each one unique and engaging.

The History Harvest also serves as a valuable reminder to students that history is a lifelong project. I witnessed streams of people bringing in a wide variety of artifacts at the History Harvest. These people are a testament to the ability to continue working with and discovering history. As most majors do not continue their historical studies into graduate school, the History Harvest can play a crucial role in showcasing the subject as more than simply a means to earn a first job, but a skill that will pay dividends for a lifetime. The History Harvest, particularly the organization, planning and public interaction, stands as a wonderful example of the ways in which a history major can benefit students beyond classroom knowledge. By bringing the classroom together with public, community histories, the History Harvest helps reinforce the value of history to students. With academic funding constantly under fire, demonstrating the public value of history to students is vital for the discipline’s future. The History Harvest takes the concepts and processes from the classroom and grounds them in a “real world” setting.

Brian Sarnacki is a PhD Candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has assisted with the North Omaha, Nebraska City, and Railroads History Harvests

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