History From Below Part Two

Gradually working my way through the various contributions on the ‘many-headed monster’ website on the subject of ‘History from Below’, I came across one from Brodie Waddell, ‘History from below: today and tomorrow,’ that deserves wider circulation.
Let me quote: “We need more people writing history, more people studying history, and more people reading history. We need, in other words, more people doing history. This is the only way we can hope to build more than a mere ‘history of below’ and instead create ‘histories from below’ and indeed ‘histories for below’.
He lists the wide range of activities going on out in the (non-academic) world in the fields of local history and family history, noting how these, with some faults and quality variations, are the bedrock on which a genuinely democratic history movement can be built. It is good to see similar arguments to those I made in ‘Absent Fathers, Present Histories’ in 2009 echoed from inside the university sector.
It is to be celebrated that many academic historians have gone past condescension towards local and family history. But there still remain difficulties for which, to be fair, individual academics are less to blame than the system within which they work. Brodie mentions two broad areas: accessible and affordable education courses, alongside open access to quality journals. Some have taken themselves on line to correct this and well done to them .
I would add a third: access to University libraries and their collections, particularly when local authority libraries have been squeezed almost to death. Here comes my personal whinge of the day!
Until today I was a graduate member of my local University’s library, paying an annual fee for the privilege. Pressure on University finances and rising numbers of students, alongside the cost of quality books, have gradually rendered the fee not worth paying.
1. You can borrow a book and then have somebody request it the same day and have no more than 24 hours to return it or pay a fine and/or lose your rights to borrow.
2. More and more books, especially the latest ones, are being classed as ‘Key texts’ on a 4 hour loan basis on campus only – fair enough, but external borrowers are not allowed to use them.
3. More and more journals are now being sourced as e-journals and external borrowers are denied access to these – again, the most recent scholarship.
4. On top of that, you get weekly emails demanding that you either return or renew any books on loan, even when the due date is two weeks away. If you ignore them you get another email the next day.
This is called ‘flexible lending’ – another example of 21st century ‘management speak’ in which words mean their opposite. The same university is keen to solicit donations of cash from its ‘alumni’ like me and only too happy when we donate books to their collections.
This combination of restrictions and harassment reinforces the idea of the University as a selective élite in its ivory tower. Against this I am pleased to support Brodie Waddell’s call for ‘a more democratic way of doing history’ and agree with his comment that ‘we must do more’. In that he perhaps meant mainly other academics, but it is also up to the wider population of history activists to keep creating the pressure for free and open access to resources that are, in essence, already publicly funded. The question is: how do we organize to achieve this and how can the academic community help?
Perhaps one way would be for academics to use their access to resources to host gatherings after the pattern of Raphael Samuel’s former ‘History Workshops’, though perhaps on a rotating regional basis to improve access. They would need to be affordable – most of us can’t afford conference fees for two days, plus travel, plus hotels except on a rare basis.

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One thought on “History From Below Part Two

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Martin. It’s great to get some feedback from non-academics. I agree that the issue of access to library resources is incredibly important. Open access journal articles are a good start, but they can’t a proper university library. This is something that Nick (from Mercurius Politicus) raised too and I don’t know that there is an easy answer. At least in London there is the British Library and the Institute for Historical Research.

    I also wholeheartedly agree that ‘we must do more’ should include non-academics. I think only the combination of pressure both inside and outside ‘the ivory tower’ has any hope of building a more democratic way of doing history.

    The idea of academics hosting workshops across the country to improve access and circulate ideas sounds brilliant. There is already some of this going on, but there could be much more. It’s something I’ll be discussing with colleagues.

    Finally, thanks for mentioning your “Absent Fathers, Present Histories” piece: I’m looking forward to reading it.

    By the way, if you or your readers are interested, we’d love to have your comments on the History from Below symposium. The pieces are still regularly being read, so any additional comments there would be very welcome.

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