Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Word to Local Historians

While working on the Monrovia history books indexes mentioned in the previous post, the people involved have all had the same observations and frustrations. They make research go from difficult to impossible and cause confusion. So to all current and future historians, our gripes are as follows:

1.  Lack of full names - often we find only initials and not first names (E. L. Smith instead of Edward L. Smith). Or nicknames like Ed Smith with no further clues whether it's Edward Longstocking Smith or Edward Finklebein Smith. There are tantalizing clues with titles like Chief Smith (which Chief - fire or police?) and then we discover there were two such persons in town. So which one is it? Alarmingly, especially in the older histories, women are referred to as Mrs. Smith without clarifying WHICH Mrs. Smith of the four Smiths who live on a single street. Even worse, their given names are rarely used and even less frequently, their previous surnames.

2.  Two people with the same name - Take pity on those of us who do not time travel so we can sort out which one is which. If E. L. Smith was born in 1820 and died in 1893, and E. L. Smith the nephew was born in 1850 and died in 1928, please make every reference E. L. Smith (1820-1893) and E. L. Smith (1850-1928). It may very well interrupt the florid prose of your opus, but since it is a history book and not a novel, it's nice to keep the history straight for those of us from Fiji in 2052.

3.  Colloquial place/item names - The Green Blintz may have been the hottest way to travel in 1902, and certainly that should be mentioned as the customary way of talking about the Great Southern Pacific Atomic Pearl Railway, but don't forget to mention the Great Southern Pacific Atomic Pearl Railway. And don't just call it the Railroad when it isn't - it's a railway. Yes, there is a difference and yes, to the researcher, it matters. Likewise do mention a stately home is called The Pines, but don't assume everyone knows where it is - or was. If you're citing the local newspaper, make sure to give the full title of The SoCal Busybody Press instead of using the local nickname The Busybody. A good researcher will ultimately figure out you are writing about the newspaper and not the local town gossip, but why make it aggravatingly difficult?

4.  Vague dates - Sometimes, in spite of your best efforts to pinpoint the exact date of the grand opening of the Gilded Spa and Pancake Palace, the best you can do is give the intrepid researcher the month and year. That is FAR better than the vague, "sometime in the 20th Century," or narrowing down a bit, "in the 1920s...." Researchers want to know what specific day and date the new City Hall opened and failing that, at the very least, the exact year. Last but not least, make an attempt to date photographs. If you're not sure, use circa to indicate it's a best guess.

5.  Acronyms with no explanation - Acronyms are great IF everyone knows what they mean to the town's history. NRA in 21st Century America usually conjures up National Rifle Association. In early 20th Century Monrovia, however, it meant National Recovery Administration. Those two associations couldn't be further apart in purpose. It is very important to spell it out for those mortals who live in different times.

All of which is to say - historians, please think of your audience not as your near neighbor who knows all the people, places and events you are so happy to share with posterity, but the poor soul who has just moved to your town 100 years in the future.

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