I’m going to say something odd, but here it goes: “Let’s hear it for the local history writers!” Most of them explore and write their local history books with little more than a smattering of applause at local talks they give. However, they strive forward and do it for pure love!
As a writer of two history books, I know how important it is to explore the issues of where we’ve been and where we’ve come from. I wanted to go a bit deeper in this industry so I talked with the amazing History Press editor Whitney Tarella-Lambert (a kind and patient woman I worked with on The Goffle Road Murders of Passaic County). She took the time to talk with us about writing and how the history publishing industry is held together by, well, love – a love of history and a love of community.
QUESTION: First, thanks so much for being a part of this. Let’s jump right in, is history writing more popular now?
WHITNEY TARELLA-LAMBERT: I don’t think that history itself is more popular now than at other times, but I do think that history writing is. I know people like to point to technology as the great arbiter of all change, but in this case, it’s true.
First, people who want to write history have greater access to information and research: online articles, journals, and even books; as well as digitized archival collections and even searchable library databases make research easier.
Second, people who want to write have more outlets to do so: blogs, online newspapers and newsletters, websites – all these things make it easier (and more rewarding) for people to get their thoughts out to the public. So, people who have an inclination to write history but don’t have a PhD or work as professional writers can now do so much more easily, both on the research and writing ends.
QUESTION: Do you think books by “history super stars” such as David McCullough and the like have helped increase the popularity of history publishing?
WHITNEY TARELLA-LAMBERT: To be honest, no.
Usually, their books are mostly just condensed versions of academic historians’ arguments and writings. Because they have so much notoriety, they can pay research assistants to do most of their archival work, and thus rarely step foot in these research facilities. To a degree, I think popular history is important, but when it starts encroaching on academic topics, I don’t think that’s okay.
Remember that popular writers and publishers depend on sales – there has to be a forum for historians to say unpopular things. And too often, these “pop historians” – especially journalists – have their own agenda to push.
QUESTION: What makes local history so important as opposed to books on famous Americans like Washington, Franklin or Kennedy? (Not knocking those three)
WHITNEY TARELLA-LAMBERT: There are a couple of reasons:
First, as I indicated in my last answer, I think pop history writers often use big-name historical figures to push a current political agenda. It’s easier to do (“What would Washington do today?” kind of thing). But more importantly, I think that local history can tell us much more about ourselves.
For whatever binds the country together, there are many regional disparities that exist not only state to state, but also between smaller regions, too.
Reading local history can help us not only understand why certain towns, counties, regions, states, etc. look the way they do, but also why certain local governments have certain procedures, why something is important to one town, and even why people today think the way they do about some things.
QUESTION: What have been some of the most rewarding aspects of working with local historians?
WHITNEY TARELLA-LAMBERT: Most of our writers – while qualified and talented – are not professional authors (meaning that they don’t make their living off of writing). Hence, their book projects are labors of love – they do it because they are genuinely interested in their community’s past and want to share their love of history with their communities.
Often, we even see authors who donate their royalties to local historical societies and museums – organizations who are really suffering from fewer donations and less government funding during this economic recession.
Working with people who are motivated by a love for what they do is very rewarding.
QUESTION: Do you find there is a different feel of history to the different parts of the country? Like are people from NJ past different from people in VA past?
WHITNEY TARELLA-LAMBERT: I’m going to take the “cop out” answer here, which is yes and no. Regional disparities exist not only between north, south, east, and west, but also just from town to town. For example, farming is the story of some communities in New Jersey while in other parts of the state, immigration plays a much bigger role.
But also, you see some common threads in the histories of almost every community – establishment of schools and churches; forming a government that works for the people and their needs; expansion and sometimes destruction and rebuilding. These are common themes throughout the US, and I suspect, many other communities worldwide as well.
QUESTION: What can local people do to nurture an interest in local history?
WHITNEY TARELLA-LAMBERT: This is a really good question, and one that is widely discussed in local and national historical organizations and museums. I think, first and foremost, we need to support our museums and historical societies – without money, they can’t fulfill their missions to preserve artifacts, documents, maintain archives, etc.
But beyond that, there are things that they can do: many museums have begun using interactive exhibits and incorporating technology – modern audiences just aren’t as drawn to a bunch of “stuff” behind glass cases. Sometimes this works, but sometimes I think all the flash distracts from complicated historical issues.
As a lover of history, I’ve been to many museum exhibits and tours, and I’ve picked up on a few things that I think make or break one of these:
- “Sugar-coating” uncomfortable or controversial issues in history: Just because something might make people uncomfortable doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be said and doesn’t mean that you’ll chase away your business. For example, I went to two plantation tours when I was in South Carolina. The better, by far, was the one where the guide addressed the struggle that was daily life for the slaves who built, maintained, and supported the estate, rather than the woman in the hoop skirt who prattled on about fabulous parties.
- Tell a story: Walking through a museum and looking at endless glass cases with items behind them just doesn’t cut it. One of the best museums that I have ever been to is the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC – the main exhibit has very few artifacts, but is so powerful as you walk through – you leave with a real impact of the magnitude of human suffering and loss. It’s very emotional, but it’s because each aspect of the exhibit conveys an aspect of the overall message.
- Have something to appeal to people with varying interests: Not everyone likes the same era of history, or the same aspect. Some people are really into earlier stuff, and some love to see something on the 1950s. Some people like military history and some like sports. Having a little variety is always a good thing.
QUESTION: This was absolutely amazing! Thanks so much for taking the time to this! I really have appreciated this!
WHITNEY TARELLA-LAMBERT: Thank you! These questions really made me think!
Check out all the amazing books that History Press has to offer about their local communities here.