Who am I? Why am I here?

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Who am I? Why am I here?

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Jan 21, 2008, 7:55pm

The more I think about the term 'amateur historian' the less I think I know what it means? So what does it mean to you? What does an amateur historian do? Do you have any favorite topics?

I'll start -- As an amateur historian, I like to get a feel for an era, a space of time, or a historical figure. Though I'll slog through all sorts of detail, I'm not likely to retain much of the nitty gritty dates or figures, and I'm a mess at chronology, but I will do my best to try to remember a less-well sung hero, or respect the gravity of a particularly dark hour, or appreciate innovations, ingenuity, and charisma as they emerge. I like looking at how events are interconnected and often wind up reading multiple books on a given topic/theme in succession.

Over the last year or two, I have spent a lot of time reading early American history, including, pre-Columbian history of the Americas, Revolutionary War/Founding Fathers. I am currently on an exploration themed kick, which includes Undaunted Courage, 1421: the year china discovered america and recently I had read River of Doubt. I plan on reading longitude soon. Any other suggestions for exploration books?

Who would like to go next?

Edited: Jan 22, 2008, 4:31pm

Great question, bfertig.

To me an amateur historian exists in the middle ground between professional historian and history buff. An amateur might have been trained as a historian but they don't make their living doing it. Or an amateur might also just be more serious about their investigations than the buff, reading less top-down history books and more primary sources.

About a year ago I 'discovered' North American history and have been happily wallowing in it. (Previously I did medieval.) My focus has been on early explorers/settlers, and the Southwest.

Feb 9, 2008, 8:50pm

Why am I here? I can only speak for myself when I say I was born for Library Thing. My best friend started calling me a bookworm in the second grade. I have only gotten worse since then.
Why am I in this group? Bill Mauldin could be to blame. I found a book of his WWII cartoons when I was in school and started reading more about WWII. That is how I became a history buff. A book about D-Day, The Battle of the Bulge, North Africa, Alaska, Midway, Pearl Harbor, and Create. Soon I knew a little about the second world war.
Then I started reading contemporary accounts of the war. Ernie Pyle, accounts of the home front like John Roy Carlson’s account of the Nazi underground in the United States. Then I found myself reading multiple accounts of the same battle or campaign. That is when I realized I had gone over the line and I was an Amateur Historian.
Seriously, that is where I think the line is. Once you start looking at original documents and works written when the events unfolded you are closer to a historian than to a history buff. Currently I am working on another change in my status. I am back in collage as a history major. In a few years, I could turn professional.

Feb 13, 2008, 7:46pm

I guess I fit the category of Buff rather than Ameteur Historian - but we can all aspire to greatness can we not.

I am a wargamer and have a vast collection of books (generally not primary sources) about the various periods of ancient and medieval history that interest me at any given time.


Feb 14, 2008, 9:09am


You have pointed out a serious flaw in my definition. Since my interests only go back to the early years of the 19th century I did not consider the rarity of primary documentation the farther back in time you go. Language differences also affect the ability to study many primary documents. I doubt that every scholar studying Rome is fluent in Latin or the dozen or so other languages that surrounded the Empire. I am sure many Roman generals wrote memoirs but before Gutenberg and his movable type copies would have been rare. That rarity would have made them very vulnerable to to the ravages of time. A review of a work from that period could be the only way we know some documents ever existed and could be our only source of knowledge of the times and events covered.

My definition needs work. It does not work outside our linguistic comfort zones or the very current era.

Edited: Feb 14, 2008, 9:35am

Morning TLCrawford!

I don't think there's as big a problem as you think with your definitions as there are plenty of primary sources from both Roman and Medieval times that have been translated into English. I can't think, in fact, of much in the way of Roman literature that has not been made accessible at some point or another. And while this is less true for Medieval writings -- where church records, deeds, etc. remain part of the Monumenta in their original languages -- there is more than enough out there to fill decades of study.

I think in the case of someone like MacBeth who has a specialized interest such as Roman society and/or weapons, that you do have to look more towards the writings of archaeologists and less towards original sources for info. Caesar, for example, doesn't talk about the structure of his legions. He assumed such things were common knowledge, and his focus was more on politics in any case.

So in my opinion your points are still valid.

Feb 15, 2008, 10:19am


I agree with everything you said but I still think there is a problem with my definition. The problem might relate to my Euro-centric choice of Rome as the example. Look at the Inca's, they existed only 500 years ago but because we have not deciphered the knotted colored strings that they used for records even professional historians have to depend on the outside observations of Spanish priests and Conquistadors. Archeology has to be considered a secondary source, there is to much interpretation required to give it the weight of a primary source. Early archaeologists thought that all the weaving in Andean civilizations was done by women. They based this on drawings of weavers that survived but it was influenced by the European notion that long hair, flowing gowns and weaving were female traits. When they later found outer drawings, drawings that left no doubt about the gender of the subject they realized that in the Andies shoulder length hair and robes did not specifically mean female.

The last sixty years of North Korean history is a locked book. Mainland China has had a very poor record of admitting outside researchers, including archaeologists. What I am trying to say is that if even professional historians can have such problems getting access to primary sources we should not use that as a firm line between History Buff and Amateur Historian. Looking at the same event or person from more than one source is absolutely a requirement. But I have reservations about drawing a line in the sand over primary sources. I think that is what I did in my first post.

Mar 6, 2008, 9:09am

I will call myself an amateur because even though I have an M.A. in history I only taught for one year when I got out of school. I really wanted to go into museum studies, but those opportunities were limited. I absolutely hated teaching and my poor students were bored to death. I still read a lot of history and try to keep up with anything new. The best use I have been put to is answering questions when somebody is stuck with a crossword clue or whether anything in a "historic" movie is accurate. Most recently I got a lot of "what really happened at the battle of Thermopylae", this was after the movie 300. I am a font of useless knowledge.

Mar 31, 2008, 8:23am

I call myself an amateur historian because when I read history like bfertig (#1) I read a number of books on a topic. Sometimes I will read on a topic for a number of years. One book leads to another until I feel like I have some grasp of the subject matter. I look at it as a one person graduate seminar.
Over the years I have gone through ancient Greece and Rome, Imperial China, the study of political revolutions and Germany up to the end of WW II. For the last five years I have concentrated on American history from the early republic to the civil war.