Everybody is interested in history. Some more so than others, but everyone utilizes the past in some form or other. Though, as it turns out, semantics play a role in how popular opinion views public interest in history. As Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen point out in their book The Presence of the Past, “History is the word that scholars privilege to describe how they approach the past” (6). They go on to say that many people view history as something that is formal, far away, and unrelated to them. For those people, history is just that high school class reserved for a snooze. However, to declare this attitude of the American people as being representative of a general lack of interest and knowledge of all things historical is a mistake. The truth is, for the most part, Americans are deeply interested in history, though for many, history goes by a different name: the past. For this reason, it is the task of public historians to present history to the public in a way that is unique from the way history is presented academically.
Writing for a popular audience can be a challenge for any professionally trained historian who spent their academic career writing a billion research papers. Academic papers do not usually find their way to the top of someone’s reading list. They are too technical and do not usually provide a compelling narrative. Popular history books, biographies, and historical fictions, on the other hand, are driven by narrative and, as a result, pop up on many bestseller lists. These popular works, if done correctly, use the same sources and are just as well researched as their academic cousins, but what separates them is the style in which they are written. As Thomas Cauvin notes in Public History, “it is always very important for public historians to provide a style that does not deter public attention” (117).
Increasingly important for public history writers are the tools available in the digital realm. Blogs, especially, are a preferred method for reaching the public. By their nature, blogs are easily accessible with posts organized chronologically and word counts that are not too daunting. Blogs also allow for a degree of interaction with the audience. As Cauvin emphasizes, “especially relevant for public historians is the capacity to collect comments on their blog and to make their research more interactive” (124). Other valuable means of bringing history to the public are sites like Spokane Historical. Spokane Historical is a site that brings the history of local people, places, and events together in a way that is clear and informative. This sort of thing is especially important to a public that greatly values familial and local history.
If the survey employed by Rosenzweig and Thelen for their book is taken as being representative of the American population then Americans care deeply about the past and their relationship to it. For those surveyed, “intimate uses of the past mattered so much in every aspect of their lives.” (37). Family is the one thing that ties everyone to the past. “Almost every American deeply engages the past, and the past that engages them most deeply is that of their family” (22). History of the family, therefore, is something of a gateway to love and appreciation of history, the past, in general, and public historians should keep this in mind when writing for a popular audience.