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The History Dictionary

Today is National Dictionary Day here in the U.S. and I thought it would be a fun time to look at some unusual words that pertain to history.  These aren't really dictionary definitions.  After all, what fun would that be?  They are more, definitions as they apply to historical research.

Life is our Dictionary.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson


Definition - the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc.

Origin -
early 15c., from Latin contextus "a joining together," originally past-participle of contexere "to weave together,"
from com- "together" + texere "to weave".

In history - 
When looking at a specific, small topic, like family history, establishing context can mean two things.  The first, is gathering information about outside events that might have affected the subject of your research.  For example, researching your ancestors living in Oklahoma in the 1930s, it could be very important to understand the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, so that you can understand what the sources you find mean within the context of those two events.  

The second form of context, can refer to bias.  Every piece of information is subject to bias.  You are bias, and the sources you choose to incorporate as well as the information you choose to wain from those sources and how you tell the story will be influenced by that bias.  Even your sources are bias, they were written by humans with opinions and objectives for specific reasons.  This establishes a context that can help you understand what further information you might need as well as how to interpret your sources. 


Definition - 
the evidence of the past, such as historical sites, buildings, 
and the unspoilt natural environment, considered collectively 
as the inheritance of present-day society

Origin -  c.1200, "that which may be inherited," from Old French iritage, eritage , heritage, from heriter "inherit," from Late Latin hereditare,
ultimately from Latin heres (genitive heredis) "heir."

In history - 
Heritage has earned itself a rather controversial position in the historical vocabulary.  According to historian David Loewenthal, "The purpose of 'heritage' is to domesticate the past for present causes."*  It is the idea of using history as a kind of propoganda with a specific end in mind.  Consider it the ultimate bias-- and one more often than not political in nature.  This simple term, while often used innocently, can have rather dark connotations in some instances.

[hi-stawr-ee-og-ruh-fee, -stohr-] 

Definition - 
the body of techniques, theories, and principles of historical
 research and presentation; 
methods of historical scholarship.

Origin -

1560s; see from history + -graphy. Related: Historiographer.

In History - 
Typically this refers to a method of doing research that we adhere to, in order to make our research valuable for future generations.  Historiography dictates that we should attempt to interpret history without bending it based on our personal biases or the biases of our sources.  It also tells us that to do this we should try to rely upon primary sources for our information where possible, rather than relying on the interpretation of another historian too heavily.  

*taken from John Fea's Why Study History? pp. 39-40.  

If you are interested in knowing more about the how and why behind genealogy and family history research, my book The Purposeful Family Historian delves into how to harness the bigger picture of historical context and research to find your purpose and propel your research. 

For 5 days only ( 10/16-10/20)  - starting today -  I'm giving it away for free on Amazon! 

It's normally $9.99, but to celebrate my birthday, I thought I'd give it away for a very short, limited time!

I am only asking one teeny, tiny favor: If you download the book and you love it, would you consider writing a review on Amazon? The more reviews the book gets the more potential others will find it and it will help them.  I really appreciate your help!

photo 4 (2).JPG

Hi, I'm Tara!  I am more than a huge fan of history, you might say I'm a little obsessed.  I would spend a Friday night in with a glass of local wine and a reference book any night of the week.   Learn more about me and my work here

What Will Historical Research Look Like In the Future?

We live in a time when change seems to surround us. Global lines of communication mean that information travels more quickly than ever and allow us to share ideas, hopes and more and more unite us in a common history that surpasses cultural or national boundaries. 

So, it begs the question: What will historical research look like in the future? I tried to answer the question, but it should be noted that what I came up with is based solely on my observations and is done in a spirit of fun rather than any kind of authoritative insight I have on the topic.  


There was an article this Summer on the Fast Co. Exist blog that discussed jobs that might appear by the year 2030.  Among these was one titled "Nostalgist" which is described to be like an interior designer, but who focuses on creating a decorative scheme reminiscent of another time.  As historians turn toward less traditional career trajectories in consulting and business, this seems like all to real a possibility.  

In fact, not just interior design, but other decidedly kitschy and commercialized facets for history could appear. 

Just as the automobile forever changed business in America, replacing catalog retail with shopping malls and facilitating the appearance of fancifully shaped rest stops.  So, too, has the computer and internet changed the face of historical research.  Unfortunately, just as the world never reverted to its pre-automobile condition, it is equally unlikely that the closing libraries, historical and genealogical societies will stop.  

I think that the future will bring the close of many more than we have already seen, and I am no happier about it than I'm certain any of you are, but I don't believe they will all close.  Some will survive, those who learn to harness the power of marketing and begin to look at their facility as a business with a service to provide as opposed to an organization with inherent value.  With the internet providing a more convenient, often less expensive means for getting information, it will be harder for the public at large to perceive the inherent value, rather, it will have to be clearly communicated. 

The societies and museums that will do it best will be those which aren't afraid of change, as we've seen recently, some genealogical societies have began to merge with historical societies.  These mergers could prove useful providing a greater audience for one united society, but combining collections and archives could be an infrastructural nightmare without the proper facility and manpower in place. 

Meanwhile, catalogs and collections will have to become more digitized and I think we will begin to see more online exhibitions.  I think that this could lead to an online research library where a research librarian will be available by chat or e-mail to answer questions and help locate or send along resources.  Maybe these resources will be available for check out like an ebook from a library with a paid membership to an online repository.  

Of course, my humble book-loving, paper-touching, opinion is that the digital experience could never ever measure up to the sensory experience of being in a library.  So, I hope that these innovations wouldn't make it impossible to do research in person, but the reality is, it might.  

All the more reason to dive in and start researching now! 

What are your predictions for the future of historical research? What do you think is likely to change? What do you think will stay the same? Let us know in the comments below!

Hi, I'm Tara!  I am more than a huge fan of history, you might say I'm a little obsessed.  I would spend a Friday night in with a glass of local wine and a reference book any night of the week.   Learn more about me and my work here

6 Ways to Celebrate Family History Month

With the launch right around the corner I'm hard at work!  But I didn't want to leave you in the lurch with nothing new to read so I'm pulling this article from 2010 out of the archives!  Hope you enjoy!

October just around the corner, leaves are changing and the cool, crisp air is whispering that summer is heading to the other side of the globe. What does this mean? Well, ghoulish goblins and an over-abundance of sweet sugary candy for one, but it also means something else: Family History Month.

Family History Month is a great opportunity to spend a little time exploring your roots or to encourage your kids to really connect to history. Here are some great ways to celebrate the occasion:

6. Start planning that big family reunion! What better way to celebrate your heritage than getting together with people you haven't seen in ages, and maybe even some cousins you've never met. You can hire an event planner, put together a family social network on Ning, or just start contacting relatives you know to get as many addresses together as possible so you can put together a great reunion next summer!

5. Encourage your kids to become a pen-pal with a cousin or second-cousin. What a cool way to learn about your family!

4. Make a family tree. You can explain the connection between your kid and their related-pen-pal, and help them understand where they fit into a tree using a kid-friendly family tree template. For smaller children you can use pictures of relatives and help them organize them into the tree.

3. Make a scrapbook. Explain to kids that someday, their story will be history to someone. They can help tell their story by making scrapbooks or keeping journals that tell the world about what they did during their October.

2. Put together a time capsule and bury it in the back yard. Pick out some things that will help someone figure out what your kids were like, maybe that spelling test they got an A on, or a picture of the family at Christmas time, and put it in a waterproof container (or just a couple of sealed Ziploc freezer bags and a Tupperware container with some weatherproof duct tape around the edges) and lower it down into the yard. Have the kids make a treasure map and some instructions explaining when the capsule should be dug up for a future generation.

1. Do you already know something about your family history? Maybe an ancestor went to California for the gold rush, or your family immigrated from Ireland during the potato famine? Incorporate that into an activity for a day. Find the nearest "Pan for Gemstones"location so they can get the experience, or go to the library and find a book about Irish folklore so they can connect to the stories kids from their family might have heard growing up in Ireland.

Ghost towns, historic sites, or even visiting family grave sites and making rubbings are all great ways to help your children discover the joys of history. If you don't know much about your family's roots, you may consider hiring someone to help you find out more, or starting the journey to discovering your heritage on your own. Whatever you do, find some way to enjoy this special time of year and celebrate Family History Month with your children.

Hi, I'm Tara!  I am more than a huge fan of history, you might say I'm a little obsessed.  I would spend a Friday night in with a glass of local wine and a reference book any night of the week.   Learn more about me and my work here

Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts

This week I have been busy volunteering at the Association for American State and Local History Conference which just so happens to be here in St. Paul, MN, this year.  It has been a ridiculously cool experience and I am enjoying learning from all the speakers and presenters!


I loved this quote from yesterday's keynote speaker, Garrison Keillor: 

"The discovery that unbeknownst to you amazing things were happening in your vicinity, and if you'd have known about them they'd have changed your life. This is history."

It is neat to see your stomping grounds from someone else's perspective.  Of course there is a lot to do, so I am going to keep this short and sweet!  If you are here,  be sure to say 'hi'!  

Tara Cajacob

Hi, I'm Tara!  I am more than a huge fan of history, you might say I'm a little obsessed.  I would spend a Friday night in with a glass of local wine and a reference book any night of the week.   Learn more about me and my work here

Mid-Week Inspiration

Who doesn't need a little more inspiration in their life? I've found myself feeling a little spread thin lately with the busy, busyness of fall, running a company and preparing for a big launch -- so I can sure take it wherever I can get it!  

I wanted to share with you this quote that spoke to my soul:

"A noble purpose inspires sacrifice, stimulates innovation and encourages perseverance."  --Gary Hamel

This is what sharing and working in history means to me, it is my noble purpose and yes, it does all those things.  I won't go into it again, because I know I have shared many times before why my love for history runs so deep and why I hope everyone can some day find joy in it.  

What is your favorite quote?  Have you found inspiration somewhere unexpected this week? If so, share in the comments below!


Tara Cajacob

Hi, I'm Tara!  I am more than a huge fan of history, you might say I'm a little obsessed.  I would spend a Friday night in with a glass of local wine and a reference book any night of the week.   Learn more about me and my work here

Labor History for Labor Day

Labor history is very a interesting and controversial aspect of history. Did we do it right? Are things the best they could be now? The answers are varied and indelibly rely upon a mix of politics and personal perspectives.

My opinion? Have things been worse? Yes. Could they get better? Of course.

The most interesting stories about labor history come from America's transition to industrialization beginning shortly after Reconstruction (from the Civil War). The truth is, while industrialization changes the parameters for what is possible in a society (like the ability to mass produce weapons that allowed our successes in the World Wars) or the ability to move raw material quickly to plants and factories across the country, the process of becoming industrialized isn't without its shortcomings.

The plight of the factory worker, a pioneer in a new industry in which profit is king, was a serious one. Perhaps the most clear challenge was to craftsmen and skilled tradesmen who had spent lifetimes honing their art. The advent of Taylorism, which broke large complex projects into individualized, repetitive tasks (think assembly line) made the skilled worker practically obsolete if not replaceable entirely by machines. The men who could find their livelihood on the factory floorfaced grueling work hours, unsafe conditions and low wages implemented with strict oversight emphasizing productivity above all else.  Perhaps the most resilient group of workers were the unskilled laborers, whose work was largely unaffected by these transitions.  These men performed physical labor often moving from job to job in order to seek better conditions and wages. In order to overcome the obstacles that had arisen due to industrialization, workers organized and formed unions which would unite them in pursuit of a common goal.  Successful strikes encouraged more union involvement and the establishment of new unions. 

Change is always a struggle, but the fruit of this difficult time can be seen by analyzing the face of labor today. Unions, government oversight including a minimum wage, even the technology we use, all got their start here with Industrialization.

This Labor Day, let's be thankful for change and for having the ability to forge our own way.

Source: Steven Diner, “A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era,” 1998, pp. 37-65.

Tara Cajacob

Hi, I'm Tara!  I am more than a huge fan of history, you might say I'm a little obsessed.  I would spend a Friday night in with a glass of local wine and a reference book any night of the week.   Learn more about me and my work here

Why We Love History (And You Should, Too!)

It seems like almost a daily occurrence in adult life- running into someone you knew a while ago, or meeting someone new- the first question that they ask is: “What do you do?”

 Of course, my answer is what you’d expect.  “I’m a historical research consultant.”  Usually this is where it gets uncomfortable. 

There is a pause, a scratching the back of the neck and then, “I HATED history class in high school.”  Then they realize what they said and get awkward.  “I mean, but… how interesting!  Good for you!”

Usually, I smile politely and nod.  But here is what I would like to tell them, and what I’d like to tell you:

I am not surprised you hated high school history.  High school has to adhere to standards and so it teaches basic events like they are equations – cause and effect.  Real people become heroes, so high up on a pedestal that they are unapproachable and unrelateable.  More emphasis is placed on memorizing dates than understanding why things unfolded the way they did. 

It’s such a shame.  I wish that your teachers would have been able to put aside all of these national standardize requirements and figure out what part of history would resonate with you and make you passionate.  The truth is I know there is a subject somewhere in there that would evoke passion. 

Sure, maybe you thought the text book’s description about the invention of the steam engine was dull, but what if you found out that the only reason the town you live in exists at all was because of the people who moved there to build the track for it?  What if you knew that your great grandfather rode the rails from city to city taking pictures of people who were living in squalor during the Great Depression?  Would that change how you thought about history?

          All that said, here are five of the many things I love about history:

  1. I love the feeling I get when I realize that people who lived 100 years before me, were really not all that different. 
  2.  I love the idea that one little thing could have changed everything about the world we live in today. 
  3. I love that history touches everyone.  History shows that we are all tied together into this incredible context of the human experience that spans geographic bounds and time. 
  4. At its heart, history tells us a story.  Who doesn't love a good story?
  5. I love that history allows me to understand innumerable topics, I will never run out of subjects to research or places I know little or nothing about.  Even the greatest history “expert” cannot know everything, I find that humbling and challenging and it makes me rise to the occasion.

So, you don’t have to get awkward when you tell me you hated history in high school.  It’s okay! You have every right not to love the things I love.  But I wish for you the joy and the passion of knowing and loving something as complex and universal as history.  

Tara Cajacob

Hi, I'm Tara!  I am more than a huge fan of history, you might say I'm a little obsessed.  I would spend a Friday night in with a glass of local wine and a reference book any night of the week.   Learn more about me and my work here

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