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A memorabilia collector is not a 'historian'

In recent weeks, at least one local television station has referred to Barry H. Landau, the New York man arrested with an accomplice and charged with stealing documents from the Maryland Historical Society, as a "presidential historian." The TV station, WJZ-Channel 13, had it wrong. Mr. Landau is not a "historian"; he is a professional collector of presidential memorabilia, and has befriended several former chief executives in the process.

As a professional historian who was trained within the academic field and has taught history at the college level for 20 years, I can sadly say that the terms "historian" and "history" have been, particularly in recent years, distorted, unduly inflated, and diminished.

There are, specifically, two uses of the terms that are problematic: "presidential historian" and "history buff." First, the phrase "presidential historian," which in some ways is a creation of the media, which seeks to have authorities fill the screen during significant events — inaugurals, funerals, State of the Union messages, etc.

"Presidential historians" have written about presidents, often best-sellers, both from the world of academia (Douglas Brinkley, Robert Dallek, and perhaps the "first" presidential historian, the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.) and outside the academy (David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss and Robert Caro). While these men and women have written many distinguished works of history, they are not the only historians in specific fields practicing their craft. There are, of course, military historians and economic historians, church historians, political historians, urban historians, historians of the American South and West, African-American and women's historians, and so forth. But if you do not watch C-Span on weekends, you probably do not know who they are. At times, the implication is that "presidential historians" are the only ones who count.

The second problematic term, "history buff," might to a professionally trained historian be the most irritating of all. Somehow, the word "buff" indicates something less than a serious pursuit of history, perhaps only as a weekend hobby. Do you ever see the term "math buff," or "microbiology buff," or "theology buff" (which sounds better than "Bible buff")?

Could it be that these terms are used because only certain areas of history are considered "relevant," or that people do not value history as an important field of study? Yet history is one of the oldest of the creative arts. The study and writing of history goes back to the ancient Greeks — Herodotus and Thucydides, to name two important historians.

So, in some ways, it should offend every professionally trained historian, who wrote his or her thesis or dissertation under noted scholars, based on original research, to be lumped in the same category with a memorabilia collector and presidential hobnobber, even before his possible fall from grace.

But I'll leave the last word to my dear mother, who passed away two months ago. She was always my biggest booster, and always encouraged me in my teaching and writing as a historian. When talking to people, even those she just met, Mother would say about me: "My son Bill is a history teacher [emphasis hers]," or would stretch it a bit with "professor" (which I am not). But often, she would simply say, "Bill is a historian." That, coming from the person who will always mean the most in my life, is good enough for me.

William J. Thompson is a history instructor at Stevenson University. His email is wthompson@stevenson.edu.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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