About 6% of all buildings in the United States were constructed before 1920.
Surprised? I know I was the first time I heard that number. I see history everywhere I go. I travel to a new city and immediately seek out the museums, libraries, and historic districts. But not everyone in the world is a geek like me. Not everyone shares my passion for the past. Because I do this for a living and am surrounded daily by people who share my passion, I can forget that history is only one very small piece of the world we live in.
One of my primary interests is how to make history interesting and accessible to non-historians. History has changed my life and I firmly believe it can change everyone’s life. However, articulating that belief can be difficult. I am constantly surrounded by insider language and insider ideas, making it difficult to write for a larger audience. If you wonder why none of your friends like history, maybe you need to assess how you are teaching it to them. Think about the best museum exhibit you’ve ever been to or the best history book you’ve ever read. Think about that one exhibit or book you still recommend to everyone you meet. What made it so good? The subject matter was probably important and relevant. But more important was how it was presented. The information was presented in a way that you got caught up in the drama of it. The story grabbed you because it was so engaging and relevant to your life experience. Good history takes you back in time and allows you, for just a moment, to experience what they experienced and feel what they felt. Good history is a story. It’s an amazing story that is much better than any work of fiction.
Everything created by historians has an audience. That audience may be your family, others in the scholarly community, or the general public. Identifying and constantly focusing on the needs of that audience is imperative. Much of the work I do in Mormon history is focused primarily on the general church membership or on missionaries serving at church historic sites. I’ve boiled down my audience to one individual that represents a lot of other audiences. My audience – the person I try to write for – is the sister missionary from Mongolia serving at a historic site. She’s excited about serving a mission, and is appreciative to be in a place where Joseph Smith lived, but she doesn’t know much about Church history. I want to stretch her and help her think about Church history in a new way, but I can take nothing for granted. Every historical event needs to be defined. She probably knows about the 1st Vision and the Nauvoo Temple but she probably hasn’t heard much about the Kirtland Safety Society or the Utah War. My job as a historian is to explain those things in enough detail that she can answer a question about them without feeling overwhelmed by information. Sometimes, I’ll look at my own work to check how I’m doing. Do I say I’m writing for a general audience while my research says I’m writing for my coworkers?
So how do I know if I’ve succeeded? I gauge my success by watching the missionaries give tours. I can tell pretty quickly what stories missionaries are confident in sharing and which ones they aren’t. If they know the material their heads are up, they are engaging their visitors, and using their hands when they speak. If they don’t know the material or the material is inadequate, heads go down, shoulders slump, and they start saying “um” a lot. If the information I’ve given them isn’t relevant to their experience or explained clearly, I know it. A missionary who is passionate about their subject helps the visitors gain that same passion. Good stories, good artifacts, and good buildings almost write about themselves. Poor stories and poor artifacts will sit and collect dust.
If you are engaged in the work of Mormon history, take a look at your audience and how you are sharing your scholarship. You may call yourself a scholar, but in the end, we are all interpreters of the past. And what is interpretation? “Interpretation is an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.” (Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 8.)