Tuesday, April 29, 2014

7 Questions with Author Tim Butcher

(Born in 1967, Tim Butcher was on the staff of the Daily Telegraph from 1990 to 2009 serving as chief war correspondent, Africa bureau chief, and Middle East correspondent. His first book, Blood River, was a number one bestseller in the UK, a Richard & Judy Book Club selection and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. He is currently based in Cape Town with his family.)

How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
When I was a young child in middle England ( a tiny village called Hellidon that lies right in the middle of the British Isles) my parents would take me to church. Like generations of youngsters in churches the world over my mind wandered, but unlike those other generations, I was able to think about the sandstone arch in the portico to St John the Baptist Church, Hellidon.  Look closely at the arch and you see the coarse, sandy surface is etched with runnels. These were made my swordsmen sharpening their blades prior to battle in the English Civil War 300 years earlier. Swords? In a place of worship? That needed some explaining. I was hooked on history.

What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
Well, I studied it school and it broke my heart. I was aged 15 in the 1980s when I came second – failing to win - the school history project. Mine was on Kim Philby and the Cambridge Spy Ring, men who were then still alive but whose deeds were already worthy of historical study. I had done original research at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and found letters written by Philby. The teachers said nice things but the prize went to a more traditional subject: the First World War. It still hurts.

How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
I have been a foreign correspondent and am now a full time author. History has been my bedrock. As a reporter, knowing where an issue came from, its context, setting and background, always felt as important as the more immediate aspects of the story.  And as an author, I have been allowed to follow my dream of tackling what I might called Premier Historical Challenges; writing books about issues which are hugely important yet ofter overlooked because of their complexity. For example, the Congo in central Africa is today one of the most troubled places in the world. Yet, if you simply go there and describe the war, poverty, disease and lawlessness, I don’t think the reader gets a meaningful understanding. To achieve that, you need to both know the history and convey it in a way that is accessible.

Why is studying/knowing history important?
For the oldest reason in the book. How can we know who we are without knowing from where we came?

What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I do not have a favourite period but I do have a favourite theme: tackling historical issues that are so complex there is a danger of them being regarded as opaque.

How can today’s students benefit from studying history?
History is more exciting today for students because it is so much more live and real as a discipline. With an internet link, a keen mind and a half decent broadband speed, any student can find things out for themselves in a fraction of the time than ever before.  For example, ask a student to find a family link to the First World War a hundred years ago and see what they come up with. Previously, the most you could expect was a compendium of recollections about the war from a grandparent, a great uncle or some other family member. Today, those recollections can be brought to life; military records can be found, unit histories can be checked, letters reproduced, death certificates traced. And all with an immediacy and power that was not before possible. It is history at its most electrifying and intoxicating.

What projects are you currently working on and do they relate to history?
My latest book, The Trigger, has occupied me for more than three years, the story of the young man who sparked the First World War a hundred years ago, the student Gavrilo Princip who shot dead the Archduke on a street corner in Sarajevo. The book comes out in UK on May 1 2014 and the US a month later. It has been a wonderfully rewarding historical adventure. Much has been written on Princip but, as became clear in my research and during a two month hike I made along his life path through Bosnia and Serbia, the Princip story has been mangled over the years, misrepresented, even manipulated.  Straightening all this out has been a challenge helped by some fantastic archivists. With their help I found things connected to Princip missed by a century of historians: his school reports, his appearance on a Habsburg census form from 1910, some graffiti he left behind in 1909 and other material.  The picture that emerges of Princip is, I hope, more sound and reliable than ever before. Professor Saul David of Buckingham University had this to say of The Trigger, `A fabulous book that all WWI historians will now have to take account of. Your work on Princip's education and motivation is outstanding - and completely at odds with the history books. You have re-written history’.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Children's Book Chat: What was your favorite?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

7 Questions with Author and Archivist Valerie Frey

Valerie J. Frey is the former Manuscript Archivist for the Georgia Historical Society and former Education Coordinator for the Georgia Archives.  She is now a writer and has co-authored several regional books related to Georgia history.  In 2015, the University of Georgia Press will publish her first national title, Teacakes & Squirrel Mulligan:  Preserving Family Recipes.

How and/or when did you get you hooked on history? 
I got sucked into history one delicious story at a time.  My paternal grandparents hailed from a tiny cotton town in south-central Arkansas.  Both had roots there since before the Civil War and both loved to tell stories.  Driving around the county with them was like moving through a storybook as my grandparents spun tales about what happened in various locations.  Because I knew how our family was rooted in events such as the Civil War, boll weevil infestation, Great Depression, etc., it was easy and pleasurable to imagine life in the past as a whole, to care about history as a whole.

What role does history play or has it played in your personal life? 
I was always interested in history, but my passion for it increased greatly when my parents died towards the end of my college years.  Genealogy, local history, and personal history had much deeper meaning.  Your roots are your roots no matter what the present and future bring. 

How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career? 
My interest in genealogy and local history steered me towards a master’s thesis based on historic folk art during studies in Art Education.  That experience led me to fall in love with folklore, oral history, and historical research.  Soon I moved on to get a second master’s in Information Science so that I could become an archivist.  Later on, I turned back to my education background, tying together graduate school know-how to create archives-related educational programs for the public as well as to aid teachers with classroom needs for primary documents.

Why is studying/knowing history important? 
We can learn much from the past that will help us make informed choices in the present and the future.  As George Santayana put it, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”  Learning from civilization’s triumphs and mistakes is definitely important.  At the same time, however, history is also a pleasure in itself.  Knowing what lies behind you helps orient you on your current path in life.  The stories are just plain interesting too.

What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about or teach about and why? 
As for time period, I love the entire nineteenth century but have a particular soft spot for the years after the Civil War.  My great grandparents were all born in the 1860s through 1880s.  Because my grandparents shared their parents’ stories, I feel that I can reach that far back in history with a chain of first-person narrative.  It certainly makes the past come alive.  As for an aspect of history, I love food history.  (Good thing since I’m finishing up a book about how to preserve family recipes, right?)  Nothing makes me grumpier than visiting a historic home only to discover the kitchen wasn’t included in the renovations or isn’t part of the tour!  Old recipes and foodways are a great way to learn about everyday life in the past and the sensual (and nostalgic) nature of food often triggers an emotional response that draws people in to history.

How do you think students in history classes, and their appreciation and understanding of history, today different from years past? 
During my studies in Information Science, we looked at how fast information is doubling.  There is so much to learn, so much to know.  At the same time, many of the traditional sources of student information (encyclopedias, reference books found via a librarian) are often spurned in favor of quick web searches.  Students have to be better consumers of information than they did in the past.  They have to learn the crucial skills involved with sorting information and making educated decisions about both importance and credibility.  That greatly impacts their approach to history.

If you were given the unlimited ability to redesign either k-12 social studies education or post-secondary history education, what would you change? 
I promise I’m not saying this to please my audience…  I truly think teacher salaries should be raised substantially and administrative support given to the teachers so that teaching garners the respect it deserves.  Teachers should feel safe in the classroom.  They should feel administration will stand behind them (within reason) should disputes arise with students and parents.  They should feel they have the breathing room in the curriculum to share specialized knowledge or do the special projects that fills the job with creativity and saves them from burnout.  In short, the job itself should be attractive enough that great minds are clamoring for the honor of teaching our kids.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

When Geography and History Collide at OAH

By Nina Kendall
I recently attended a session at the Organization of American Historians Meeting titled "Conceptualizing Black Life, Community, and Protest in the Borderland." This session began by redefining borderland and describing recent increased interest in borderland history. The featured historians went on to assert that what one might traditional think of a border states might better be described as an amorphous borderland region.
Developing an understanding of historical regions as a way to better understand events of the past is fascinating. What would define the "borderland region" between the North and South? How would it be described? What types of data would be used? Would this region be fixed? Does it change over time?
Both Historians who spoke made an effort to employ this understanding and define the region. Here are the details they offered:
Place in Region: Baltimore, Maryland
Date: 1930s-1940s
Characteristics: size at time 800,000, industrialized like the North, culturally Southern, 2nd busiest ports, large working class developed, edge of BOSNYWASH,
Profoundly segregationist
Transformations: Growth of NAACP to numbers, worked on integrating colleges, improved teacher pay, then worked with industrial unionism
Interesting trends: Movements in World War II collide as migration to cities made battlegrounds of the workplace and segregated neighborhoods.
Place: Cairo, Illinois
Characteristics:  It is seen as border cities. (Other Border Cities: Louisville, Cincinnati, Evansville)
Physical Geography: between Ohio River and Mississippi River. Border states more of borderland region.
Other Characteristics: practices slavery, no plantation agriculture,  20%-30% black population, culturally southern, political economy= political mindframe, segregation practiced by tradition less codified by law.
The goal of this description was to establish a context to help foster understanding how and why Black Life in these communities was different from other communities.  What do you think? Can you find similarities in their understanding of this region? Do you see the role of the region in a historical context?
This is certainly the type of thinking that could be replicated in the classroom. Students can identify and define regions. They can investigate how these contexts change the dynamics of political and social relationships. This is an activity that could be helpful in understanding developments in the Colonial America, violence during Reconstruction, expansion of suffrage in the West, or used to explore frontier opportunity.
What will you teach absolute location or relative location influenced region?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

7 Questions with Author Rick Ryckeley

Rick Ryckeley, who lives in Senoia Georgia, served as a firefighter for more than two decades and has been a weekly newspaper columnist for The Citizen – serving Fayette and Coweta Counties -since 2001. His books are available at www.RickRyckeley.com.

How/when did you get hooked on history?
When I got married to Becky. It’s amazing how much you can learn just being around someone so passionate about history.

What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

I’ve penned a newspaper column since 2001 every week. Mostly the stories are from our time spent growing up at our childhood home. I’ve also look back into history, pull facts and famous people, and use them in the stories. So, I guess, I write about history every week.

How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?

During my 27 years at the fire department, we always studied the history of fires so we would not make the same mistakes. With writing, I read and listen to other authors so I can learn from their style, word choice, and how they put together a story.

Why is studying/knowing history important?

If we don’t study history we are destined to repeat it. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. We just have to be smart enough to read what they have done.

What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?

The Roman Empire, and the Mayans. What was accomplished during this time was simply amazing. From buildings, to arts, and inventions of all kinds. Truly both were a amazing times in history to be alive.

How can today’s students benefit from studying history?

I truly believe learning history makes anyone a more rounded person. They will be able to draw from what they have learned and apply it to situations in their everyday lives.

You’re a storyteller. What’s the connection between history and storytelling?

Wow, what a question – one I could spend hours answering. My short answer: the history of a tribe was first told by passing it down in story form. It’s a way of not only telling the history of the tribe, but also keeping memories of those of who have gone before alive. I write a lot about childhood memories from our seven years spent growing up at 110 Flamingo Street. Guess, in a way, I’m doing the same thing. The stories I write seem to connect with folks and they see their childhood through the adventures and misadventures that my three brothers, sister and I experienced.