William J. Thompson: A Memorabilia Collector is Not a 'Historian'






William J. Thompson is a history instructor at Stevenson University. His email is wthompson@stevenson.edu.

In recent weeks, at least one local television station has referred to Barry H. Landau, the New York man arrested with an accomplice and charged with stealing documents from the Maryland Historical Society, as a "presidential historian." The TV station, WJZ-Channel 13, had it wrong. Mr. Landau is not a "historian"; he is a professional collector of presidential memorabilia, and has befriended several former chief executives in the process.

As a professional historian who was trained within the academic field and has taught history at the college level for 20 years, I can sadly say that the terms "historian" and "history" have been, particularly in recent years, distorted, unduly inflated, and diminished.

There are, specifically, two uses of the terms that are problematic: "presidential historian" and "history buff." First, the phrase "presidential historian," which in some ways is a creation of the media, which seeks to have authorities fill the screen during significant events — inaugurals, funerals, State of the Union messages, etc....



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