What is History? by Geoff Keelan

by | Sep 29, 2011 | LCSC, War and Society | 0 comments

Often I go to Ottawa to research at Library Archives Canada (aptly turned into the acronym LAC, as in lack of organization, lack of lighting, lack of help, etc.) and I stay with my brother, Richard, who works there as a computer engineer.  We don’t talk about our jobs much.  It took one conversation to come to the unsettling realization of how similar our work was.  Both of us write large blocks of text, but I write about Canadian history and he writes code for life-saving hospital equipment.  The idea that Canadian history would save lives if more people understood the value of historians’ work was begrudgingly accepted. I agreed that he probably saved more lives than I did and he agreed that burning pages of historiography was a renewable solution to energy shortages, as long as historians kept writing books.

We rarely returned to the subject.

So I was surprised when, several weeks ago, Richard turned to me and asked “So what are history’s Two Things?”

“Eh?” I replied intelligently.

“You know, two things about history that define it.”

Apparently, there is an idea out there that you can boil down any profession or topic to two fundamental ideas.  After biting back my knee-jerk response of not sleeping and beer, I began to think seriously about the question. Perhaps this would cement my understanding of the topic.  After one undergraduate degree, one Master’s degree and a twelfth of a PhD, maybe I had found my golden path.   From this night on, I would be on easy street.

A few days later, in the wee hours of the morning after several bottles of Alexander Keith’s liquid cerebral enhancer, I had developed some key principles:

Two Things about Military History

  1. It’s more important than just guns, tanks and war.
  2. It’s always about guns, tanks, or war.

Two Things about Canadian History

  1. French and English Canadians are deeply divided by language, culture and their understanding of Canada, but they get along for the most part anyways.
  2. French and English Canadian historians are deeply divided by language, culture and their understanding of Canada, but they don’t talk to each other.

Two Things about Writing History

  1. Transition words are overused.
  2. However, they are good filler for word counts.

Two Things about a History Degree

  1. You get out of it what you put into it.
  2. Except money.

My lists, though important, did not seem to be enlightening me as much I had hoped.  It was time to pull out the big guns.  I needed the conclusions that would illuminate my path to success.  I needed the easy vision of the discipline that could guide me into finishing my doctoral degree.  How could I boil it down to its very essentials? What were Two Things about History?

For minutes, I flipped through Wikipedia pages and popular and academic histories alike.  Creighton, Innis, Stacey and Berton.  Somewhere I would find the key.  Then, as I was role-playing the 1891 election with my Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier political-action figures, it struck me.

Two Things about History

  1. A good historian will use the evidence to tell a story, not use the story to look for evidence.
  2. A good historian knows when to stop writing and wrap it up.

Geoff Keelan is a Research Associate at the LCMSDS and PhD Student at the University of Waterloo