Friday, 7 February 2014

Yes, you heard me, an historian...

Every now and again, someone will ask "and what do you do?" I always have the same short answer: I'm an historian. Invariably, I only get one of two reactions: 1- "oh..." with a blank stare showing that the hamster in their head is frantically trying to figure out a way to understand what that means; or 2- "wait? I thought you worked for government?"

With reaction 1, the topic of conversation quickly moves off towards another topic and never do we speak of my work again. With reaction 2, things are a little different. I always have to say, yes, I do work for government and I'm the departmental historian. Said person will then always say "I didn't know there were any historians in government". Well, there are, not many, but there are some scattered through a few departments and we have next to no contact with each other.

While I know that that we're few and far between, I've never really understood the surprised reaction upon learning that there are historians in government. Do people really think that their only habitat is the university and the museum (they never realise that historians in national museums are historians too...)? Maybe it's because of the fact that I was raised in the world of Parks Canada where we toured national historic sites on a regular basis or that I would meet the historians working there whenever I'd stop by my father's office. To me, government historians were normal. When I was 12, I decided that I was going to be an historian for the government (ok, I admit that's a bit weird...but I am a nerd andi was never cut out for academic life).

I'm rather perplexed that many still question the need to have historians in government - especially here in Canada where we're all about commemorating our history and celebrating our achievements. There seems to be a sense that having an historian on staff is a luxury and that the skills that an historian brings to the work place can easily be done by any average policy analyst. 

Being a government historian isn't like being an academic or consulting historian. I dont get to be "just" an historian - I'm also a manager, and policy analyst, and programme officer, and fact checker, and copy editor - but I'm always an historian first. It is who and what I am. 

These pages aren't just to be some random collection of thoughts and musings but rather be my interpretation of what it means to be a "government historian" here in Canada.