Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Darning history

The history that most people are familiar with--from school lessons on the Founding Fathers, college courses on the French Revolution, et cetera--is a history that’s already been worked out. To some extent, at least. And often more than once.

When you work with primary sources every day, and nearly every other day encounter primary sources that contradict one another, or leave obvious questions unanswered, or challenge long-held community assumptions, it can be a bit disconcerting. This can lead to a general sense of uncertainty: Is this accurate? Is he right? Didn’t I read something else about this the other day?

Left untreated, daily uncertainty can lead to paralyzing inaction, or, conversely, statements of certainty made on a basis of evidence that is very likely to be overturned. This results in a conundrum for the reference librarian (perhaps more than it does for the practicing historian, who's job is historical analysis and theorizing). Does every patron really want the mountain of sources pertaining to the selection and acquisition of Marquam Hill (Did the railroad know what they were buying? Did Mackenzie really mean to establish a Portlandic Acropolis?), or can we just say with a degree of certainty that the railroad wasn’t too interested in the land after all and Mackenzie happened to be the company surgeon with an idea for a new school building on some available piece of land in the general area?

Alas, we don’t have that personal letter from Mackenzie to the railroad owner saying, in effect, “Hey, I know you’ve got that hill you’re trying to unload; how about you give it to me for my ode to Grecian architecture and I give you some free surgery in return?” The rub is, we also don’t have a letter saying the opposite; we have very few letters at all. There’s a hole in history, right there.

When faced with these holes in history, how can we darn our way across to the other side? When someone asks, 120 years later, what was A.D. Bevan doing in Wardner, Idaho, in 1889—if indeed this is even the same A.D. Bevan as the noted surgeon who began his career at the University of Oregon Medical Department and ended it at Rush Medical College—what do we say? We see Bevan in 1888 and we see Bevan in 1901, he seems to be splitting his time between Oregon and Illinois, but we can’t say he was in Portland in 1889. We also can’t say he wasn’t. We have a hole there. So we take a stand (we don’t think he was living in Wardner), sternly intone Caveat emptor, and move on. On to tomorrow, when maybe we’ll get the minutes from an 1889 meeting of medical men in Portland where the notetaker writes in the margin, “Bevan, in from Wardner for tonight’s meeting.”

History is meant to be rewritten. So pardon our faulty, linty version, with thin spots remaining around the heel. When more evidence comes to light, the story will be retold. Maybe even by you.

(And you thought it was going to be a euphemism for damning history.)

1 comment:

kinodasu said...

History Detectives on OPB?