WHAT IS HISTORY? Dr Dawn Gould


After years of studying the subject one comes to understand that history is a complex subject – what else can it be seeing that it deals with the most difficult of creatures, human beings?

What does the word HISTORY mean?  To some people it refers to the past. Ask the question again and the answer might be: “it is about old men, war and politics.” Occasionally one old man will be referred to as “The Great Man.”  There is a certain truth in that statement but the reply does not indicate that history, in various ways,  refers to men and women, to the poor, the wealthy, the oppressed, the disenfranchised.

There is the academic study of history where the student learns to study and find information from both the lecturer and the set works. As the individuals progress they will learns to use, to understand the establishments where sources will be found: the libraries of the universities, the National Library of South Africa, the Archives, the Deeds Offices, various private libraries. Advanced studies may need the information from sources available from overseas institutions.

If one does not wish to undertake academic studies why not think of the history of hobbies. Growing of plants is enjoyable. Find information of the background of botany or horticulture, of the indigenous plants there are in South Africa and how their names came into being. Musicology is another fascinating subject.  The background of clothes – who the individual designers were, where their  creativity and  the material used came from.  One can go on and on.  There are so many topics available.

I am a professional historical researcher. Naturally I advertise and get some very interesting  work. I also get some that, to say the least, are unusual.  There are moments when one either smiles or tries not to growl.  An example via the phone was “could I give a young man “tips” on his grade 10 history. I was given to understand he was only doing it because it is an “easy” subject! “I mean, what’s to know, said mother?”   Another question was “how quick can you let me know if there were pirates in the Peninsula waters during the 17th century?”  When after listening to someone else wanting very complicated information, I explained that possibly this would take weeks with many overseas queries and the cost of research. The reply from this individual was “no, no I will not pay, just you check up the details in a book and send the answer by email.”

After a while one learns, as in any work, to listen carefully – after all there might be a gold crumb in there somewhere –   then mentally stay or walk away.