Values of History: Encyclopedia Edition

The Encyclopedia of Local History will issue its third edition in 2017.

The Encyclopedia of Local History will issue its third edition in 2017.

Carol Kammen and Amy Wilson are preparing the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History for publication in early 2017 and invited me to update my entry on “Historic House Museums in the 21st Century” as well as contribute a couple new entries, including “Values of History.”  Businesses and nonprofit organizations have been adopting values along with mission and vision statements for the past two decades but drafting this encyclopedia entry gave me a chance to step back to look at its evolving history as well as include the work of the History Relevance Campaign.  Here’s what I submitted (and remember, while books have been written about this topic, I have to condense it into a short summary):

Values of History. Values are beliefs shared by an individual or a community about what is important or valuable. Although values and ethics are terms used interchangeably at times, ethics are the action and manifestation of values. In addition to a mission and vision, some history organizations have adopted a statement of values or a code of ethics to clarify their identity and guide decisions. For example, Society for Historical Archaeology includes in its code of ethics that members “shall not sell, buy, trade, or barter items from archaeological contexts,” an action based in part from their belief that “historical and underwater cultural resources” are a “valued resource for knowledge exchange.” The importance of values was underscored nearly a generation ago in Museums for a New Century (1984): “An effective museum leader—whether scholar or M.B.A. or both—must first understand, believe in, and speak for the values of the institution.”

A common challenge for state and local history organizations is explaining the values of their institutions or history to the public. Too often the reason is internally focused or simply a variant of George Santayana’s quote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” which does little to adequately explain its impact or relevance in a manner that’s meaningful to non-historians. As professors Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen confirmed in a national survey on the popular uses of history, most Americans associate “history” with their most unpleasant experiences in school: the forced regurgitation of boring facts. The perception that history is merely the mindless memorization of meaningless myths has pushed history out of the classroom, reduced funding by foundations and government, and worn away at attendance and membership. Nevertheless, Rosenzweig and Thelen noted that Americans are “already quite involved with the past—through formal activities like going to museums as well as informal pursuits like talking with their families” and that “the most powerful meanings of the past come out of the dialogue between the past and the present, out of the ways the past can be used to answer pressing current-day questions about relationships, identity, immortality, and agency.” (The Presence of the Past, 1998) The public and historians both value history, but seem to define and use it differently.

To help national, state, and local history organizations speak more clearly and develop consensus about the relevance and meaning of history, the History Relevance Campaign, a grassroots effort formed by several leaders in the history field, produced “The Values of History: Seven Ways it is Essential.” Shaped by hundreds of organizations and individuals, both professional and amateur, in 2013-2014, these Values of History are:

  1. Identity. History nurtures personal identity in an intercultural world. History enables people to discover their own place in the stories of their families, communities, and nation. They learn the stories of the many individuals and groups that have come before them and shaped the world in which they live. There are stories of freedom and equality, injustice and struggle, loss and achievement, and courage and triumph. Through these varied stories, they create systems of personal values that guide their approach to life and relationships with others.
  1. Critical Skills. History teaches critical twenty-first century skills and independent thinking. The practice of history teaches research, judgment of the accuracy and reliability of sources, validation of facts, awareness of multiple perspectives and biases, analysis of conflicting evidence, sequencing to discern causes, synthesis to present a coherent interpretation, clear and persuasive written and oral communication, and other skills that have been identified as critical to a successful and productive life in the twenty-first century.
  1. Vital Places to Live and Work. History lays the groundwork for strong, resilient communities. No place really becomes a community until it is wrapped in human memory: family stories, tribal traditions, civic commemorations. No place is a community until it has awareness of its history. Our connections and commitment to one another are strengthened when we share stories and experiences.
  1. Economic Development. History is a catalyst for economic growth. People are drawn to communities that have preserved a strong sense of historical identity and character. *Cultural heritage is a demonstrated economic asset and an essential component of any vibrant local economy, providing an infrastructure that attracts talent and enhances business development.
  1. Engaged Citizens. History helps people craft better solutions. At the heart of democracy is the practice of individuals coming together to express views and take action. By bringing history into discussions about contemporary issues, we can better understand the origins of and multiple perspectives on the challenges facing our communities and nation. This can clarify misperceptions, reveal complexities, temper volatile viewpoints, open people to new possibilities, and lead to more effective solutions for today’s challenges.
  1. Leadership. History inspires local and global leaders. History provides leaders with inspiration and role models for meeting the complex challenges that face our communities, nation, and the world. It may be a parent, grandparent or distant ancestor, a local or national hero, or someone famous or someone little known. Their stories reveal how they met the challenges of their day, which can give new leaders the courage and wisdom to confront the challenges of our time.
  1. Legacy. History, saved and preserved, is the foundation for future generations. History is crucial to preserving democracy for the future by explaining our shared past. Through the preservation of authentic, meaningful places, documents, artifacts, images, and stories, we leave a foundation upon which future Americans can build. Without the preservation of our histories, future citizens will have no grounding in what it means to be an American.

History organizations rank these values differently, however, as a combination they have been endorsed by more than 130 diverse local, state, and national organizations, including the American Association for State and Local History, National Coalition for History, National Council on Public History, National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, National History Day, Society of American Archivists, and The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America.

For further reading, see American Association of Museums, Museums for a New Century (1984); History Relevance Campaign at; and Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past (1998).