What I'm Reading Now: Mary LarsonHistorians/History
Mary Larson is the Puterbaugh Professor of Library Service and Associate Dean for Special Collections at the Oklahoma State University Library.
Why did you choose history as your career?
I have been interested in history since I was young. My mother read me a lot of stories when I was little, and many of them had an historic bent, which captured my imagination. I remember one in particular about Pheidippides and the Battle of Marathon (which probably seems like an odd thing for a child to be interested in!), and it was the story – the narrative line – that always made it compelling for me. When I was older, I went to college and graduate school for degrees in anthropology. I started out in archaeology, but by the time I finished grad school my focus was on ethnohistory and oral history. As a friend of mine once said, “Everyone has a story if you listen closely,” and I wanted to hear all of those recollections. I’ve been lucky to have worked in oral history programs in Alaska, Nevada, and Oklahoma, and I have met some wonderful people in the process.
What was your favorite historic site trip?
Williamsburg. When I was a child, my family would take vacations that always included historic site visits, and almost everywhere we went, there were archaeologists working at these sites. When I was about twelve, I think, we went to the Williamsburg area. It was a history nerd’s paradise anyway, but on top of that, they were doing excavations out at Carter’s Grove, and that was the first time I’d seen a really large archaeological site. The whole thing just fascinated me!
If you could have dinner with any three historians (dead or alive), who would you choose and why?
William Cronon, Patricia Limerick, and Claire Potter. Cronon for a number of reasons, but in part because he wrote one of the books that had a huge impact on me as an undergraduate, and that was Changes in the Land. I also greatly admire the work he has been doing more recently with American Historical Association and on intellectual freedom. Patricia Limerick, because she’s marvelous in so many ways! She’s very funny, she’s a wonderful speaker, and her book Legacy of Conquest was absolutely groundbreaking when it came out (and it holds up equally well over time). Finally, Claire Potter. I greatly respect her work with the blog Tenured Radical, as well as the book she co-edited, Doing Recent History. You can tell I work in a library. All of my heroes are authors! (Luckily, they’re all still alive, too.)
What books are you reading now?
I recently finished reading Mary Jane Warde’s new book, When the Wolf Came: The Civil War and Indian Territory. It’s fabulous and very well researched. Not too long ago I also finished Debates in the Digital Humanities (Matthew Gold, editor), which ties in rather closely to some of the conversations we’ve been having in the oral history community, so I found that very interesting. And for fun, I just read Tom Robbins’ autobiographical essays, Tibetan Peach Pie, which was a nice break but also still ran along vaguely historical lines, because of its non-fiction, semi-autobiographical nature.
What is your favorite history book?
It’s really difficult to choose, but I think I would have to say Legacy of Conquest, because of the way it opened up how I think about history as a process.
What is your favorite library and bookstore when looking for history books?
No question – it’s definitely Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. It’s like nerdvana in there. I can spend days roaming around in fifteen different sections and still not get bored. They also have a wonderful online presence, which helps, since I live in Oklahoma now.
Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?
I have some rare books in my collection, including a few from the mid-1800s. Most of those are tied to my earlier research on the Alaskan Arctic, and I have some volumes with some of the old explorers’ reports. I don’t really collect artifacts related to history as much as I do books, and again, that probably gets back to the fact that I’ve spent most of my career in libraries and special collections, so I naturally gravitate to old books. I do love how they smell!
Which history museums are your favorites?
Any of the Smithsonian museums, just because they are iconic and are some of the first large museums I ever went to, and they impressed me immensely! I’m also quite fond of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa and the recently opened Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, Oklahoma. Both of them have done some really innovative things as far as portraying, representing, and translating history to the public. The Oklahoma Historical Society museum in Oklahoma City is also wonderful.
What would be your advice for history majors looking to make history as a career?
While most people going into history as a discipline might be planning their career around university teaching, there are so many other interesting opportunities for working in the field, including things like public history, oral history, and museum studies. (Mind you, all of those can be found in university settings, but there are also very public sides to those careers that can go in a different direction.) I’ve always loved interpretive work and museum work, for example, and with digital technologies, there are so many more ways that history can be brought to people in interesting formats. I think that prospective historians just need to keep an open mind about where their careers might take them. Don’t be stuck on having a “traditional” professional track.
Who was you favorite history teacher?
I had three of them (besides my parents, of course!) -- Mrs. Spargo (sixth grade), Mr. Sargent (eighth grade), and Mrs. Riley (high school). They all had a huge influence on me, and they were also genuinely wonderful people who really cared about their students.
Why is it essential to save history and libraries?
This could be a whole book in and of itself, but I’ll give just one brief thought on this. In order to truly understand where we are – as human beings, as a nation, or even as an academic field -- we need to have context. We need to know how we got to this place in time and what contributed to the different directions in which we could have gone. History and its various subspecialties are, to a large extent, a documentation of that context, and that documentation is preserved, curated, and made available by libraries in a wide array of formats, including print and digital. Whether we use libraries by visiting them in person or by accessing ebooks and online articles, we depend on them to care for these collections of facts and fiction, prose and poetry, science and symphonies, and make them available to us so that we can make sense of everything. That may seem like a bit of a reach, but I really believe that history and libraries are that important to what we do as a species.
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