Finding History at Home

A couple months ago, my friend Rob sent me a link to a great piece in the Washington Post that I somehow forgot to post. “A Homer’s Odyssey” reports the efforts of Greenbelt, Maryland resident Mark Opasnick to preserve and extend local historical memory in the Washington, DC area. A Montgomery County Income Assistance Specialist (read “welfare officer”) by occupation, Opasnick is a collector of “miscellaneous and unknown” pieces of local history by preoccupation, especially moments of local color in pop culture history such as the story of Jim Morrison’s romantic escapades at Alexandria’s George Washington High School or that of the disturbed Cottage City boy who inspired The Exorcist books and movies. Described as an “archaeologist” of local history, Opasnick has a particular penchant for producing digests and catalogs, for example his Maryland Bigfoot Digest, an accounting of more than 300 reported Sasquatch sightings over Marlyand’s nearly 400 year history. But whether you call it “archaeology,” “collecting,” or something else, the Post article makes it clear that Opasnick’s work represents a tremendous amount of documentary research.

Many communities are fortunate to have local history enthusiasts like Mark Opasnick. I suspect the amount of research produced by these thousands of local historians vastly exceeds the amount of research done by professional historians, and though it certainly adheres to a different set of standards and asks and answers a different set of questions, it is regrettable for amateurs and professionals alike that this enormous body of work remains almost infinitely fragmented and almost totally inaccessible. I launched this blog in part to start some of the work of corralling this scattered corpus, but a couple of anecdotal and accidental posts a week won’t get us very far. Worse, my haphazard approach can only point to work that has already been exposed in one way or another: it can’t ferret out the research that’s sitting on kitchen tables and in home offices all around the world. We would all do well to devise some kind of mechanism, either social or technological (a Zotero hub?), to expose and circulate this untapped reservoir of amateur historical knowledge.

We pros would also do well simply to start talking to amateur local historians. As it stands, practitioners of “local” history in the academy are loath even to share a label with their amateur counterparts, preferring instead to call themselves “urban historians” or even “environmental historians.” In some ways, the American Association of State and Local History and its members occupy a middle ground between amateurs and academics, but they represent less a bridge between the other two than a third distinct community. This separation isn’t good for anyone. If we acknowledged our commonalities instead of highlighting our differences and came up with some way to communicate and share our results, we professionals could help amateurs ask and answer questions that are more, let’s say, productive. However, I’m not sure we really even know what questions amateurs ask. We suspect these questions to be narrow, self-serving, value-laden, etc., but surely in that vast body of research activity there exists some subtlety—probably some subtleties we haven’t even reached ourselves. These things are not unknowable, especially in this world of Web 2.0, and we should start seeking them out.

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