Historians and the Public
David Bates asks what professional historians can do to satisfy the popular craving for history.
The evidence for history’s immense popularity scarcely needs to be described: the huge interest in family history and tracing ancestors, the massive viewing figures for certain historians on television, the celebrated crash in January 2002 of the Public Record Office’s 1901 Census website are all examples of a remarkable phenomenon. Some three-quarters of the public are believed to engage in historical activities every year. Yet there remains a significant gap between the specialist and the public: knowledge transfer is not a simple process (and the interested public frequently brings an enthusiasm, technical skill and depth of knowledge which, on certain subjects, can be significantly greater than that of the specialist). Beyond this, history can be distorted for propaganda and political purposes in unacceptable ways.