Transcript: Who Is the Historian? | Aug 29, 2016

Nam sits in the studio. She's in her thirties, with shoulder-length curly brown hair. She's wearing glasses, a black blazer over a pink blouse. A caption on screen reads "Nam Kiwanuka, @namshine." Then, it changes to "Who is the historian?"

Nam says The past is everywhere.
In books, in museums, in
universities, and more.
And bringing that history to
life is a historian.
But what exactly do they do that
makes them such a vital part of
And how exactly do they create a
better understanding of the
Nigel Raab tackles such
questions in his new book:
Who Is the Historian?

Nigel is in his fifties and is balding with gray temples. He wears glasses, a khaki blazer and blue shirt.

His book cover appears ‘Who is the Historian?’ by Nigel A. Raab.

Nam says He is an associate professor of
history at Loyola Marymount
And he joins us now for more.

Nigel says Thanks, Nam.
Thank you very much.

Nam says I really liked the book.
So, you actually dedicate this
book not to your mom or your

Nigel says Mm hmm, that's

Nam says or to your wife
or your children...

Nigel says Mm hmm.

Nam says but you dedicate it to
I thought that was really

The caption changes to "Nigel Raab. Author ‘Who is the historian.'"

Nigel says Well, I really just wanted to
express the idea that when
you're studying history, what
you're doing is you're opening
up avenues for exploration, and
you're opening up possibilities.
You're not sort of just
narrowing things down to one
answer, you really just gotta
open up your mind and--and

Nam says And you--the book is called
Who Is the Historian? In a previous life...

Nigel says Yes.

Nam says you used to be an engineer.

Nigel says This is correct.

Nam says So how did you make the shift?

Nigel says Well...

Nam says Or why did you make
the shift?

The caption changes to "A Three –Dimensional Figure."

Nigel says Well, I studied engineering and interestingly enough, I
just had my 25th reunion back
in--I studied at Queen's in
Kingston--and met all my
engineering friends which I was
brought right back to my
previous self, you know, my
first self.

Nam says Yeah.

Nigel says But when I was studying
engineering, I was like, the
math, the physics, it was
interesting, it was challenging,
but it wasn't--for me it wasn't
I wanted something, which was
more related to human
experience, more complicated in
terms of, you know, how do
people react in different
How has humanity changed over
Those those social, cultural,
political questions were
what--what really grabbed my
And so, I can only spend so much
time on a formula when I really
wanted to do more historical
So, I made the switch, and I
have not looked back.
I'm very happy.

Nam says Now, when we say historian...

Nigel says Mm hmm.

Nam says what images jump into mind?
Like what do we have--like the
stereotypes we have in our

The caption changes to "Nigel Raab Loyola Maramount University."

Nigel says Well, when I was an
undergraduate and you'd think of
historian, you would think of a
desk-bound professor in a
And you would think, especially
maybe in Canada, that the
library was a little bit too
humid 'cause, you know, the
summer and whatnot, and musty
books getting musty from the

Nam says Mm hmm.

Nigel says And maybe with a tweed jacket.
I suppose I'm wearing a
greyish-brown blazer.

Nam [laughing] says Kinda tweedish

Nigel says You know, no--no elbow pads or
anything like that.

Nam says Yeah.
But I think that would be an
older image of a--of a
Nam [laughing] says Or Harrison Ford
too, I guess, in Indiana Jones.

Nigel says Yes, in
Indiana Jones.
Yes, yes.

Nam says To what extent is history a
niche field?

Nigel says As a--I mean, in terms of
professional historians, in
terms of professors, it might be
But in terms of people who study
history and apply their
historical knowledge and the
methods of the historian,
I don't think it's really a
niche field because you find in
all sorts of different
environments people who
are actually trained in history.
They don't call themselves
historians, but they use many of
the same skills that we do.

Nam says Like what?

Nigel says What skill sets do they use?
I would say two skill sets.
One is just writing.
And people underestimate how
important writing is.
How important a concise--whether
you're writing a one-page
summary report for your company
or whether you're writing a
five-page article for a
magazine, writing and writing
concisely is very important
'cause you're expressing your
ideas to an audience that might
not know you.
They might not know who you are.
So, you've gotta really express
this clearly.
And the other one is searching.
Just how to search, whatever it

Nam says That you look for information.

Nigel says That you look for information
and know how to sift.
There's so much information out
there today.
That you know what's the
important information for what
I'm doing what's maybe not so important
for what I'm doing.

Nam says Is there any value to having a
history degree or doctorate in
these days, in this time?

Nigel says Well, this is one of the big
It's a very, very big question.
And you're asking a historian.
You're asking somebody who
changed into history.

[Nam chuckles]

Nigel says So, I of course
think there's great value in
being a--in being a historian or
having that education.
It is continually discussed, and
it always has been.
'Cause nowadays for example,
there's such an emphasis on
And it's like, "Well, why--why
do we need to know history?"
And I think part of it is that
people have a false image of
what historians do, but it's
really important to understand,
I mean, today.
It's not as if politics is
settled; it's not as if social
issues are settled or cultural
issues are settled.
It's in fact more diverse and
more complicated than maybe 20
years ago.
And so, you need people who in
one way or another understand
these dynamics.

Nam says And what kind of dynamics do we
need to understand?

Nigel says So for example, if you
think--like, a big change in
studying history is
understanding ethnic diversity
in communities.
And in the past 'cause we would
have this model that, you know,
Poland is Polish, Canada is
Canadian, and we had a very
straightforward understanding of
what that meant.
And nowadays, it's become very,
very complex.
And in Canada which is
officially bilingual but now has
so many different ethnic groups
for whom, you know, French or
English might not be their one
dominant language, it brings out
more--more complicated
And, you know, you wanna look in
the past what it was like.

Nam says You also--I'm glad you brought
up language because you bring it
up in the book and how sometimes
you might lose history because
you--it's in a different
language, it's interpreted

Nigel says Mm hmm.

Nam says How important is it to have
more than one language as a
Well, it's critically important
for a historian.
And if you think of my own
research, for example, I study
Russia, so I go to Moscow, and
you go to--you go to all these
nifty little places, and you're
reading Russian documents and
talking to Russians.
And that's really important both
in terms of me accessing
documents but also in terms of
getting along with people, sort
of being able to sit down with a
Russian and have a conversation
on their terms.
And they--you get that rapport
which you otherwise wouldn't
So that's for me professionally.
But otherwise, if you think of
bilingualism in--in just
everyday life, I live in
Southern California now; there
is a--maybe not a majority
Spanish speaking population,
but certainly like 40 percent or 30 percent
which have Hispanic roots.
And so for them, if they know
Spanish-English, they're opening
up not just a discussion in Los
Angeles but a discussion in San
Diego and a discussion in Mexico
City and a discussion in Buenos
Aires in Argentina So, it really
takes them around the world.
So, that bilingualism is

Nam says And I guess too the
interpretation because sometimes
when you--when something goes
from one language to another
kind of changes the context of
it a little bit?

Nigel says Mm hmm.
Yeah, that's--I mean, those are
very difficult to trace even if
you're--if you're in the
But yeah, you certainly
need--you certainly need to
understand the home language to
understand the nuances, the
twists, the expressions, and not
so you just get a--maybe an
English translation that is
comfortable for the English

Nam says You also write about the places
that historians work like
archives, libraries.

Nigel says Mm hmm, mm hmm.

Nam says How important are these
institutions for a historian?

The caption changes to "Digging through the Archives."

Nigel says Oh, they're absolutely critical.
And it comes back to your--to
your first question about the
historian being a niche--a niche
Because actually historians
does not work alone.
There are all sorts of people
who help the historian in their
work in the same way that the
historian also helps all sorts
of other people.

Nam says Who are some of these other

Nigel says So like archivists, curators,
librarians, film
working in Los Angeles.
And I just--in the book, I wrote
about places where a historian
works because I wanted to show
that a historian--you might have
an image of a historian from a
college class or something like
that who's just sitting in the
classroom giving a lecture, and
then you visit their office, and
their office is a mess, and its
a tiny little thing.

Nam says Lots of books.

Nigel says Lots of books.
And that's--that's it.
Nam says Yeah.

Nigel says But the--you know, you go to
I have a colleague who studies
the Atlantic World, and part of
his job is to go out on ships
So, he goes on to the--on to the
seas on these ships.
I go to Moscow.
You go to the funkiest, neatest,
weirdest places.
Archives for example in Kazan.
Kazan is half--half Tatar, so
half Muslim half Christian as in
And I mean they're wonderful

Nam says Because I think--what I liked
about the book too you also say
that historians don't just work
in those places that we think
they do historically.
You also talk about like open
spaces and, you know--can you
elaborate more on that?

Nigel says Oh yeah.
And I'm gonna be on a--I'm going
to Calgary in a bit to be on a
panel with some public
And these are historians--and
it's another thing I wanted to
emphasize in the book is that
they're not--they're not in a
university environment.
They're outside the university,
but they're no less historians.
And some of these historians are
park historians.
So for example, Canada has
national parks; these national
parks need historians.
And they put together stories
about these national parks.
And they work outdoors.
Open-air museums need
There are all sorts of different

Nam says Now with archives and libraries,
are they all open to the public?

Nigel says That's a very good question.
It depends where you are.
And again, that--I mean--like
for example, the Huntington
Library in--just outside of
Pasadena in Southern California
has certain requirements for its
And so, you need to come up with
a letter saying, you know,
"Please let me read."
Other--other institutions just
say, "Show up and we'll show you

Nam says Are you OK with that?
Do you think that that creates
like a deterrent for people who
are looking for information?

Nigel says It is definitely a deterrent.
The one thing I was thinking
about--when you think about the
Huntington, they do have a
Gutenberg Bible which is an
absolutely precious document.
So maybe they have to have a
higher standard.
But otherwise, I'm not--I'm not
good about it.
But I think another one, which is
a deterrent is sometimes it's the
neighborhood in which the
institution finds itself that is
the deterrent.

Nam says 'Cause you talk about the
neighborhood in LA, right?
Los Angeles?

Nigel says Yeah, it's the, um--it's the
Southern California Research
Library--I might be missing the
exact name but it is a less affluent part
of Los Angeles.
Whereas, if you go to the
Huntington Library,
the Huntington Library is
surrounded by estates and
And so typically in the American
experience, if you are not
familiar with this mansionesque
environment, it doesn't even
matter that they have
restrictions that they put;
you will be intimidated by the
physical environment in which
the library sits.
And so, there are these things
that have to be overcome.
And they have--and I know the
Huntington, they've been doing a
great job at overcoming these,
of course.
But traditionally if you look in
the '50s, the '60s, and '70s,
that was a--that was a--I don't
wanna say a problem.

Nam says It kinda like separated...

Nigel says But it did, yes.

Nam says It kinda...

Nigel says It caused separation,

Nam says I understand too if you do have
like you said The Bible,
you don't want everybody to be
touching it and, you know,
'cause there's only one.

Nigel says Yeah, yeah.

Nam says But I also think that it's kinda
nice to have libraries where
people can just go and kinda
find things on their own or, you

Nigel says Absolutely.
And even university
libraries--'cause like our
campus is a private campus, but
over the years, the library has
become more and more open.
So it used to be there was a
And you know, you had to swipe
your card.

Nam says Yes, I remember that.
My university had that, yeah.

Nigel says Yes, and then you go through the
And now that's gone.
You can just walk in.
If you wanna borrow a book, then
you have to get a card.
But even there the--whatever you
call the level for getting a
card or whatever, it's
just--they're lowering it.
It's like, "All right, you have
to live in the neighbourhood."
That's like the requirement or
something like that.

Nam says You also write about primary

Nigel says Mm hmm.

Nam says Define a primary source for us.

Nigel says A primary source.
A primary source always--it's
always difficult 'cause there
are nuances in this.
But a primary source would be
something such as the memoir of
a French revolutionary in 1789.
It's written at the time by
somebody who experienced the
events directly.
They might not have experienced
all the events directly,
but they're in that moment.
Similarly, if it's an object, a
photograph taken in 1889 would
be a primary source from that
time period.

Nam says Now, how would you--you know,
talking about single primary
sources, if you're looking at
something from a single lens
like the diary of a slave owner,
how can you approach that?

Nigel says Mm hmm.

Nam says How do you approach that as
a historian?

Nigel says Well, I think you need to know
the context.
And one of the things which
is--is always dangerous with a
diary is the idea he's telling
the story exactly as it
It's like, well, no that's
probably not what's happening.
He's telling the story from the
perspective of a slave owner.
That's what's happening.
As a slave owner in a certain
moment of time.
So, whether it's 1800 or 1840,
their economic position will
have changed.
So, the historian has to know
the context--the context behind

Nam says Like what was going on in that

Nigel says Yes, to see where that diary
actually fits.
That's why no single document
really stands alone.

Nam says You also write that once upon a
time novels were shunned by

Nigel says Yeah.

Nam says But now they're actually
becoming more acceptable.

Nigel says Yeah.

Nam says Why so?

The caption changes to "Primary Sources."

Nigel says Well, there was a big--part of
it is a big, you know, if you
think of the post-modern
movement in the '70s and the
'80s which flipped the story
around 'cause the historians
would say, "Oh, a novel, it's
not fact; its fiction."
[Nigel swooshes]
"I want facts.
And I'm gonna look at
bureaucratic documents."
or something like that.
And then the theorists came
along and said, "Well, you know,
if you actually read the work of
a historian, it's actually set
up like a novel."
The historian's monograph or the
historian's book starts with an
introduction that gets you
That's no different from a
And then it divides it into
chapters, which lead you into
like the--the culminating moment
of the French Revolution.
And then it's like, "Well,
novels do a little bit of a
structure like that."
And then there's a conclusion
where you wrap everything up,
and there's almost like a happy
ending type of thing.
And so, they flipped that around
a little bit.

Nam says And can films be approached the
same way?

Nigel says Yeah, films can be approached
the same way.
Certainly where you see that the
manner in which a film is
analyzed will change.
I like to think of the Godfather as an example where part of the
story was--and people will agree
or disagree here--is that
The Godfather portrayed Mafia
life in New York City.
But the reverse of that is a lot
of them Mafiosi--is that the

Nam says I think so.

Nigel says The Mafioso?

Nam says I think so.

Nigel says A lot of them actually watched
The Godfather to find out how
they should act.

Nam says Ah.

Nigel says So, there's this osmotic
relationship between, you know,
like you think that--I guess
it's Mario Puzo who did this
researched their lives.
And yet at some point it flips,
and they're reading him to find
out how they should act.
And so, there's this...

Nam says What's the difference between
fiction and fact when it comes
to that?

Nigel says Well, that's a
very--that's--that's one of the
most contested questions in
history--in historical analysis.
Because a lot of people say
there's so many different
perspectives from which to
analyze something who, you know,
why should they trust your word
over mine?
My word--even when it comes
down, it's like, "You know what,
but it's here in the document."

Nam says Mm hmm.

Nigel says And then you say, "Ah, but who
wrote the document?"

Nam says Right, right.

Nigel says And then--and a lot of
historians don't like that
because then you never get

Nam says Mm hmm, but that's...
There's always like a question
of what if.

Nigel says That's right, that's

Nam says I wanted to show you a clip from
a movie...

Nigel says OK.

Nam says from 1984 which seems
really--like a long time ago,

Nigel says OK, yeah, yeah.

Nam says The movie
Red Dawn, and then
we'll talk about it afterwards.

Nigel says OK.

The clip plays and shows Marlon Brando in the military.

Marlon Brando says The Russians need to take us in
one piece, and that's why
they're here now.
That's why they won't use nukes
anymore, and we won't either.
Not on our own soil.
The whole damn thing's pretty
conventional now.
Who knows, maybe next week will
be swords.

Man says What started it?

Marlon says I don't know.
Two toughest kids on the block,
I guess.
Sooner or later they're gonna

Man says That simple?

Marlon says Maybe somebody just forgot what
it was like.

Nam says Now, how might a historian
explain the historical
significance of that movie to a
student I guess in first-year
history class?

Nigel says So that little clip I would say
because it's set in 1984-So I think the larger question
would be popular perceptions of
the Soviet Union in 1984.
That would be one thing.
I don't think you would use the
clip to--for understanding
Soviet foreign policy, for
understanding American foreign

Nam says Why not?

Nigel says for understanding economics.

Nam says Sorry, why not?

Nigel says Because I think it's just
too--it's too much set in that
fictional setting, whereas the
real important thing is sort of
how--like, what does a popular
audience wanna hear from a
Hollywood film?
The other one is in terms of
contextualizing it, and that's
always very important.
That you wouldn't--you wouldn't
look at that singular film but
you could compare it to
I think Rocky--Rocky—I don't
know which one but it's around
that time.

Nam says Rocky IV.

Nigel says And you would look at
representations of Russians or
representations of Russian--of
the Soviet Union in American
And you would try to understand
how did that--how has that
changed since maybe like--you
could look at Dr. Strangelove
which was done I guess, you
know, two/three decades before
that and compare it to a 1984
film to see how filmmakers
actually had a different vision
of the Soviet Union.

Nam says And what was the vision of
Dr. Strangelove?

Nigel says Dr. Strangelove
was just a
comedy about-well, a
comedy--it's a farce about
the about the, you know,
potential of nuclear disaster
and "How I learned to love the

Nam says Instead of showing
Red Dawn to
talk about what was happening in
Soviet Union-

Nigel says Yes.

Nam says What film--is there a film
that you would use?

Nigel says Yeah, that's a very good
Because if you look at--if you
look at Red Dawn,
part of the
Russian historian in me is,
"Well, this is an American
It's a Hollywood perspective.
It really only shows you one
little bit.
And another thing you could get
out of it is almost the violence
and antagonism of Americans
against the Soviets.
And like what about a Soviet
And the film that I always think
of is Irony of Fate
which was
1976 which is a Soviet comedy
about life in the Soviet Union
where they're making fun of

Nam says Really?

Nigel says And it gives you a sense
That you know, 'cause here you
think of Russians, they're
obviously coming across...

Nam says Big, bad, mean, yeah.

Nigel says Yes, big, bad, militaristic.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Nigel says Whereas, if you look at comedy
films in the '70s from the
Soviet Union, they make fun of
And so the one is, you know, a
lot of people visited the Soviet
Union or a lot of people have
seen images of the Soviet Union,
and it's all like, "Oh my gosh,
they live in all these grey
blockish apartment buildings."
"Ugh," you know?
But the film makes fun of it.
The Soviets are making fun of
their own living situation.
And so you get a sense that they
don't like it either.
And even though we think of it
as a censorship state, they were
allowed to make fun of their
living conditions.
So, the censorship, it was
there, but certain things you
could actually--I don't wanna
say talk freely about, but you
could comment on.

Nam says So, it's kind of like the--the
Hollywood film kind of has a

Nigel says Yeah, oh yeah.

Nam says Yeah.

Nigel says Absolutely.

Nam says Yeah.

Nigel says And especially it's done in, you
know, Reagan--it's done during
the Reagan years.
So, I mean that would also be
very important to it.

Nam says You also write about--there's
one line you say, "Historians
will no doubt examine
the role of Beyonce at
the inauguration of President
Barack Obama in 2013."

Nigel says Yeah.

Nam says Why?
Why do you think?

Nigel says Because you have a lot of--that
example is I think paired with
an earlier example about music
played for the king's ceremony
in early--early 18th century
England and how these sound
environments--like nowadays you
might look at Beyonce playing
and just go, "Oh, you know,
it's just a pop star playing
and whatnot" and go to
the next event on your TV.
And yet, it is actually
significant when you think of
the manner in which the
president portrays himself
versus what would Jimmy Carter
do--what or have done, what
would--what would Nixon have
What type of music did they play
at their events?

Nam says So, it's not about what was
popular at the time, it's about
the personal preference of the

Nigel says Or what the president and his
advisers believed, the message
they wanted to send when they
were having their inauguration
'cause historians study
coronation ceremonies, scenarios
in which leadership sort of the
way they choose to present
Like nowadays for example, it
used to be you always had to
wear a tie.
And now, you know, society is
shifting to I guess the
open--the open neck whatever.

Nam says Yeah.

Nigel says And it's those type of shifts.
And with the--you know, with the
inauguration of Obama, at some
level it's a different
perception of African-American
values, culture within the
American context.
So--and that people will look
back on I'm pretty sure in like
50 years or whenever it starts.

Nam says You also write about Muzak.

Nigel says Yeah.

Nam says That's the music that's always
on somewhere in the elevator or
at work.

Nigel says Yeah.

Nam says And it's got a historical
What is that?

Nigel says Well, I guess the historical
significance is just the manner
in which sound environments came
to be controlled in the sense
that there--when you look
at--there are very important
books on bell ringing in France
in the 19th century, and how the
church would ring bells.
And ring bells would control the
time of the peasants.
And that was the scene of social
And so Muzak fits in with that
shifting--how we use sound I don't wanna say to
manipulate, but to change the
habits and, you know, daily
features of somebody's life.

Nam says Like trying to keep people
in the stores longer...

Nigel says That's right, that's right.

Nam says so they can spend more money.

Nigel says Exactly, exactly.

Nam says You also talk about oral

Nigel says Mm hmm.

Nam says Who are they?

Nigel says Oral historians--again, this
comes back to--it's related to
your question about novels.
There was a time when historians
would say, "Nah, oral history,
no, it's not serious."
And oral history being you have

Nam says Because they only--it was only
written history that was

The caption changes to "Oral History."

Nigel says That's right, that's
It's like, you know, "Can I
really trust that person when
they're speaking to me?"
"No, I can't use an oral
I can only use something that's
written down."
And that was a prejudice
Because it's written down, well, "It's
written down by somebody serious
'cause they can write."
"It's not written down from
somebody in the working class
who I can't trust because, well,
they're in the working class and
I'm not."
And that was a prejudice against
these--these sources.
And so, the best example are
trial records where in
previously--for example, if you
were a trial record in the 19th
century, your accent wouldn't be
in there.
They would edit what you said to
make it--like, if you had a
cockney accent, it would be
edited to make sure that it fit
proper English.
All your local expressions would
be lost out of this.
And so, a lot of the dynamic
would disappear.
But nowadays, oral history is
incredibly important.
There's the StoryCorps Project
in Washington.

Nam says Mm hmm, and what is that?

Nigel says The StoryCorps Project is
a--they have a booth in Grand
Central Station in New York
City, and you go with a pair,
so you go with your
friend, you go with your
mother, your father, your
teacher, somebody who you've
experienced something with and
you sit down in this booth and
you have--I think it's half an
hour--and you have a
The conversation will be
recorded and sent to the
Smithsonian or to the National
Archive in Washington DC,
and they keep a record of this.
And they do this on an ongoing
And it's--in terms of an oral
history, instead of having a
scientist expert ask you a
series of preplanned
questions what you get is, you know, a
daughter talking to her mother,
"How did you cross the border
from Mexico in the 1970s?
Like, what was that experience
And you hear these really warm
like heart-wrenching stories but
that are also significant.
Very significant.

Nam says That's fascinating.
In Canada, we have oral
historians who are going to
different places in indigenous

Nigel says Yeah.

Nam says --and recordings

Nigel says Yeah, yeah.

Nam says Because the languages are dying

Nigel says No, that's critical.

Nam says So we've had doctors,
journalists, and novelists on
this program before who have all
written works of history.

Nigel says Mm hmm.

Nam says Has the job of historian become
somewhat egalitarian?

Nigel says I don't know about...

Nam says In other words, can anyone
be a historian?

Nigel says Yeah, I would--I think the-from
the historian's perspective,
you'd wanna answer no.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Nigel says You'd wanna answer not anybody
can be a historian in the same
way can anybody be a baker or
can anybody be a carpenter or
can anybody be a doctor?
It's like no, you need some
And you need that skill set.
But anybody can get that skill

Nam says And what skill set?

Nigel says Well, I would say very important
in--as I mentioned at the
very--at the start is, you know,
you wanna be able to write.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Nigel says You need to be able to do
And there you see there's all
sorts of possibilities for that
So for example, if it's a doctor
and the doctor--maybe the
doctor's retired, and they're 65
and they now have time--or I
don't know, retirement may be
70, I don't know, but--and they
go back and they talk to their
older patients.
And they--they wanna write
experiences or history of maybe,
you know, the medical--the
medical profession or medical
care in Toronto in the 1970s.
That would--that would be yeah,

Nam says So, I guess the third component
would be curiosity.

Nigel says Yes, yes.

Nam says Like you mentioned, right?

Nigel says Yes, you're right.

Watch: Who Is the Historian?