Nigel Raab: Who is the Historian?

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Nigel Raab

“It’s true: I am a historian and so is everyone else in the History Department, but there are all sorts of other ways of being a historian as well.”

In one sentence, Nigel Raab, Associate Professor of History at Loyola Marymount University, summed up the heart of his new book, Who is the Historian? The book, recently published with the University of Toronto Press, explores the history profession and seeks to change the way we think of historians.

“I wrote the book because I had the impression that we think of historians working in a narrow profession rather than a broad profession,” Raab said.  “When people think of an historian, their mind immediately goes to a professor in an office, in a history department, at a university.”

Raab seeks to change this popular perception of historians. According to Raab, many other professionals “do history,” such as librarians, archivists, and museum curators. “Museum curators put on art shows for visitors to experience history visually,” said Raab. “You’re not reading a book but it’s every bit as important to our understanding of changes in the past.”

Raab also encourages students to expand their understanding of what constitutes historical work. Historians do more than read old books, he insists. In his own experience as a Russian historian, Raab has learned another language, traveled to Moscow, visited embassies and consulates, and met politicians, museum curators, and even a group of volunteer firefighters.

In a recent First Year Seminar called “A History of Walking,” Raab’s students did their own hands-on history work. To understand the history and evolution of urban design, they took walks in L.A. neighborhoods developed in different eras, including one walk from the LMU Chapel to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. “I think sometimes we forget where history and historians can play a role,” Raab said.

Raab is currently wrapping up a project on social and political responses to natural disasters in the Soviet Union. In the future, he would like to study the history of sound in Russia and Eastern Europe.

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Nigel Raab’s interview in Inside Higher Ed