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History at Work and Play: Thoughts on the AA Archives Workshop

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Dig AA History in Montana this Weekend

Points readers interested in the history of Alcoholics Anonymous will be interested to know that this weekend (22-25 Sept.) is the 15th Annual National AA Archives Workshop— a get-together dedicated to collecting and preserving the history of that fellowship at the local, regional, and national levels.  Points readers who are not interested in AA history should still take note of this event: the National Archives Workshops are part of a robust movement within AA to create “citizen historians” (for lack of a better term) actively engaged in the process of doing history–an example of what Rob MacDougall (late of Old is the New New) a few years back called “history at play.”

MacDougall’s interests like predominately in the use of online history gaming as a form of historical thinking, but he is interested in larger questions as well.  In a post called “Playful Historical Thinking,”he challenged academic historians to drop their preconceptions and consider “How do we think about history? What are we doing in our heads, what cognitive moves are we making, when we think historically? Once you read people like [Sam] Wineburg (other good examples include Peter Seixas, Denis Shemilt, Keith Barton and Linda Levstik), you start to realize how sterile many of our debates over history standards and curricula and ‘what history is for’ are.”  This is– or should be– a vital issue for anyone who teaches or writes history professionally, since how we think about what we are doing shapes the way we structure our classes and our writing, and thus how we invite students and readers to join us in the pursuit of history.

Amateur Hour

The profoundly depressing insight that drives MacDougall’s hopeful fulminations comes from Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s 1998 book, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life.  In a word, “while the majority of survey respondents cared deeply about the past, and engaged with it daily in a variety of informal ways, apathy or even hostility to formal history as taught in school was almost universal.”  Oops.  What would a class, or the curriculum for a major, look like if its goal was not to train students to be like professional historians, but to instill in them the will to be playful historical thinkers?

This juxtapositioning of the “formal” and the “informal” realms of practice are a useful thought experiment, I think, but they also suggest that in the informal arena all is pleasure, play, and counter-hegemony.   That’s a mistake, and one of the things that is really interesting to observe is the ways in which certain forms, codes, and hierarchies come to structure the realms of vernacular or amateur history just as they do academic or professional history.  Doing history in AA, for example, may be “playful,” but it is also serious– even teleological.  As the National Archives Workshop’s Statement of Purpose notes, archival work is a form of service to the fellowship, and aims to “help the still suffering alcoholic by preserving the integrity of both the AA message and the history of the Fellowship for current and future members.”  Workshop participants will have the opportunity to learn about conservation, preservation techniques, using meta-data for digital preservation, etc. (full schedule here).  These “neutral” tools can, obviously, be deployed to any ends.  But the notion of “preserving integrity” has powerful connotations;  the preservationist impulse in AA that led to the annual Archives Workshops sprang up around the same time as the “Back to Basics movement,” which (though inflected in different ways in different parts of the world) is generally anti-therapeutic and pro-theistic.  The “playful” amateur can be as doctrinaire as the “formal” professional, and the contest for meaning is as alive in AA as it is in any academic journal or conference.

Come Home to History: Dr. Bob's House, Akron, Ohio

Next week in this space, Points will welcome historian Ernest Kurtz, who will discuss some of the varieties of AA history that have developed over the past decades– and anticipate those still to come.  Until then,  folks interested in AA history who can’t make it to Montana this weekend can get their fill at several of the online portals that offer an entry into that world: the Archives of the General Service Office in New York City; the complete run of “Markings: Your Archives Interchange,” the GSO’s newsletter for AA archivists; the museum at the former home of AA co-founder Dr. Bob Smith; and the historic site Stepping Stones, former home of AA co-founder Bill and Al-Anon co-founder Lois Wilson.



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