In the discipline of history, one entire field is devoted to the study of how the study of history has evolved over time. We refer to this field as “historiography.” But while we tend to devote a great of study to the evolution of historical theories and methods, not much attention is paid to the personal evolution of historians themselves. Historians, like many academics, can seem to be figures that are larger-than-life, intimidating, and aloof. However, the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. So, in this new series, “Historians’ Histories,” I’m going “behind the scenes” to talk with actual practicing historians about why they decided to devote their lives to history, their thoughts on the profession, and their work as historians. Think Stephen Colbert’s “Better Know a District,” without the biting political satire. 😉
My dear friend Peter Scales has kindly volunteered to be my first guinea pig in this new series. 😉 Peter is a family historian and lay chaplain with the Capital Unitarian Universalist Congregation, who currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Originally hailing from Salmon Arm, BC, he has degrees in both history and philosophy, and spent most of his career in the Canadian Forces Air Command (now known as the Royal Canadian Air Force). In his spare time, he likes to repair and refurbish old vehicles, especially Volkswagens, and sing in a number of local choirs, including the Linden Singers of Victoria. Peter and I first met in 2006 in graduate school at the University of Victoria.
What drew you to history in the first place?
Growing up, I always loved to hear stories of the origins of my family. Where did each grandparent come from? How did mom and dad meet, and what was their courtship like? What was my hometown of Salmon Arm like before the Trans-Canada Highway? I liked to make connections between the stories of one person or place and another. My teenage interview of my Ukrainian immigrant grandfather is the only source our family has about how he came to Canada and chose a village in southeast Saskatchewan. I have always felt deeply that similar stories need to be gathered and retold. So in some respects, I was an oral historian from the age of about 10.
During the early 1990s I took two full years of university at night school – five nights a week – while working full-time at a demanding military job. During these courses I was drawn especially to how the events in the readings and discussions had affected my colleagues. In a course about the U.S. Civil Rights era, a Kentucky-born classmate explained how the notorious events shaped him the man that he was today. Mid-way through a lecture series about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, a mature student who had been a soldier in Vietnam stood and made an impassioned speech detailing the errors of nuance that the instructor was making in order to spin the facts in an anti-war direction that offended the student’s memory of his own experience. If I did not already have the feeling then these surprises affirmed for me the importance of History as a tool of national and personal memory, as well as its power as a corrective force to combat untruths, biases and misperceptions. I was hooked on history.
What is your background (education, life experience, etc.)?
Religious Studies almost swept me away from History during my early 30s but I continually saw the historical aspects of religion as the most interesting. The celebration of Pesach/Passover was important to me because of the story of how Maimonides developed the rites while he lived in Islamic Spain. The Hajj was interesting to me not because of the photos of millions of worshippers circling the Ka’ba but because of the story of how Jerusalem and Mecca competed to be the centre of Muslim worship. Easter was important because of the history of its evolution from pagan rites to the Christian versions we see today. “Reli Stu” would have to find another candidate while I continued to follow History.
The MA program at UVic accepted me with my harebrained project idea of following the development of military recruitment and conscientious objection in B.C. during the World Wars. I was inspired by professors Baskerville, Sager, Blue, Wickwire, Rajala, Lutz, McLaren, and Cafferky to write stories accurately, formally and contextually. Eventually my thesis “Hydrogen bombs and hockey rinks: Domestic Effects of the Early Cold War in British Columbia” won no awards but was praised as good story-telling. I wanted nothing more and nothing less.
What kind of work do you do as a historian?
When I received my notice of eligibility to graduate, in September 2007, I was happy with my MA and was under no illusions about continuing with PhD. My MA colleagues who were proceeding into the PhD program were much smarter than me, and in any event I was a generation older than them and would likely have no luck eventually competing with them for academic jobs. Luckily, I was hired on contract the following month, on the strength of my MA work in Oral History. For the next 16 months I conducted interviews of long-serving staff of the B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs, for an internal ‘knowledge capture’ historical document. My BA and MA studies in History shaped my outlook and conduct in this project, and I was proud of the result. I never would have imagined that I’d be a historian of B.C. government! But bigger surprises lay ahead.
In 2009 I had no idea of the scope of the “Indian industry” that keeps thousands of lawyers, anthropologists, biologists, archaeologists and historians gainfully employed. Especially in B.C. but certainly throughout Canada, historians work on First Nations land claims and court cases. I had the good fortune to be hired on contract for a Victoria research firm that was helping a handful of First Nations in B.C. and the NWT, and my eyes were opened. During months of archival research and even a few oral interviews, I prepared the genealogy of the Chekonien people who had signed the 1850 Douglas Treaty at Cadboro Bay, a beach near UVic. I was proud to present a comprehensive family tree to the Songhees First Nation at their band office, and to explain to them how they were directly related to the treaty signatories. In a later contract, I prepared genealogies of the Deninu Ku’e people of Fort Resolution NWT based on my translations of French language parish records from the mists of time. This contract was related to the recent discovery of diamond-bearing kimberlite pipes in the caribou feeding grounds.
These days I do small and short contracts for families in Victoria, to collect the stories of an elderly person who has hundreds of stories to tell but nobody to formally record them. As it happens, my work tends to eventually contribute to obituary notices and memorial orations. I am proud of these labours, and I take pride and care to record each tale as though it was being told by my own grandparent.
Why do you think we, as a society, should study history?
As historians we realize the value of the past, and we recognize the necessity for footnotes, context, further inquiry, asking the right questions, and even for the grey toil in front of the microfiche machine. Our work is important for whomever is our client, and while our immediate contract might be for an individual, a company, a First Nation, a scholarly journal or a Wikipedia entry, I like to think that each of us serves a higher purpose of contributing to the sea of historical narratives in which we all swim. Someday someone is going to pick up your essay or article and use it to try and prove a point or win a case; we should all strive to produce results that can be reliably used by those who come after us.
How can we get in touch with you?
scalesp [at] telus [dot] net
A big thank you to Peter for agreeing to answer my questions! I hope you enjoyed this new series and getting to know a real-life historian (besides me!) Don’t forget to check back on Sunday for another new Canadian history roundup! And just a quick warning: I would normally be posting my monthly Best New Articles next Tuesday, but I’m going to delay it by one week and post something in honour of December 6th.
*Also, it turns out that Emily Leonie of Things I’m Fonds Of and I might be psychically connected, since we both posted interviews about our professions on the same day… hehehe