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Talking History: An Interview with Doug Kenck-Crispin

Welcome to the first in a series of interviews which I will be conducting with historians working in various areas, ranging from early America to maritime history.  In the first of these interviews I speak to Doug Kenck-Crispin from orhistory.com a website dedicated to bringing the history of the Oregon to the masses:

 

Let’s start at the beginning – what made you interested in history and, specifically, drew you to the history of Oregon?

 I always found myself drawn to non-fiction books. I thought that these odd, real stories were much more interesting than some fictional account that an author dreamed up. My grandfather was an American veteran of The Battle of the Bulge, and he didn’t talk too much about his experiences in WW2, so I found myself reading up on the subject to try to understand some of what he might have encountered in that experience. I discovered that by discussing a historian’s perspective on the battle, I could get him to open up a bit in a “Oh, he got that all wrong,” or “Wow! He really did his research” kind of way, inevitably leading to a slice of “Let me tell you what I saw.” History seemed tangible and real.

 

As far as Oregon goes, I became interested in the state’s history after hearing some of the old yarns the old timers would tell. They spoke of beaver trapping and the Hudson’s Bay Company, David Douglas’ foray into this country and his botanical discoveries. Again, it was very tangible – being in this area, I could visit these historic sites and try to imagine how everything went down. I guess it was mostly locational – if I lived near a Civil War site, I might have become more interested in that conflict.

 

When thinking of Oregon history it often creates quite a specific image in people’s minds, particularly with regards to the Oregon trail.  Do you find that this helps or holds back the history of the state in general? Does a focus on one specific area deflect interest in other, equally valid parts of the state’s history?

That’s a tough question. I think locally, Oregon Trail, Lewis & Clark and the Trappers all kind of get lumped in together (an odd combination of disparate eras that I jokingly call “The Beaver Days.”). I think in some ways, these troupes are familiar and accessible to the general public, so it is understandable that this happens. In addition, there are some fantastic stories to be found in these eras, so I can see why people are drawn to these histories.

 

Currently, I feel that these themes are less in favor with younger history enthusiasts, and certainly with professional historians. There seems to be a greater interest in racial issues and gender issues at the present.

 

Your website features a wide range of content, including podcasts – how have you found these as a method of speaking to those interested in the history of the state.  Would you consider them a success?
We release a new podcast every two weeks under our brand “Kick Ass Oregon History.” I think the podcast has certainly become a success. We are getting great feedback from our episodes (we just posted our 20th), and people do look forward to new releases. The format is a little different than people are used to, and we use ribald language and try to break the podcasts up with appropriate music. I think that this application makes them feel more like a radio show than a “history lesson,” which so many people seem to abhor.

 

What has really excited me lately is our moving into live events. We do some straight history presentations, but we have also started to get invited to do segments within variety shows. As examples, last month we were asked to join in a Portland Timbers Army show (our local MLS soccer club), and next week I will be presenting at one of our mayoral candidate’s fundraising variety show. I think it is a testament to our podcast’s popularity that we are breaking out of strictly history focused productions and into “the general public.”

 

AND we just completed our first diorama contest, and had a wonderful collection of dioramas that our listeners created and brought to our most recent history show at The Jack London Bar in Portland, Oregon. That was a fantastic display of our outreach!

 

How, if at all, has Twitter impacted how you reach out to the general public?

That is a tough call… Not to brag at all, but we currently have 2,600+ followers on Twitter. But how many filled seats in chairs at events does this translate to? Less than 200. How many listens to the latest “Kick Ass Oregon History” podcast? A similar number. So I find it difficult to equate followers/ mentions/ retweets to a quantifiable number of attendees or downloads for our brand.

 

But I DO feel that Twitter is a great way to keep your most passionate “fans” aware of what is going on. But of course, this is a much, much smaller number than your total follower count.

 

Then let’s add in Facebook, YouTube, Google circles and all the other social media interfaces out there. I still don’t have a full grasp of how to get these folks to be active participants in your “real world” offerings.

 

Speaking of the general public, do you feel that historians are generally doing enough to spread their research?
I do and I don’t. If you feel that “spreading research” is publishing an article in an academic journal that 200 of their peers will read, than yes – they are doing a fine job. But how many people WITHOUT a higher ed degree read these missives (that cost $65US to subscribe to for 4 issues a year)? Do these PhD shorn historians ever interact with the general public (and paying students do not count in this case)? It is my humble opinion that these hallowed halls of academia have restricted access to history for far too long. It’s time for a revolution, to take access back. Call me a Guerrilla Historian if you will; indeed, I rather like that moniker…

 

For those who might be interested in learning about the history of Oregon, can you suggest where such a person might start their quest for knowledge?
Well I feel our podcasts, while not definitive, are a great, accessible introduction:
http://orhistory.com/orhistory.com/Kick__Ass__Oregon__History/Kick__Ass__Oregon__History.html
The Oregon Encyclopedia is superb:
http://oregonencyclopedia.org/
And the Oregon Historical Society has a pretty good web interface as well:
http://ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/

 

Finally, can you tell the people reading this a bit about what you are working on now and what they can look forward to from you in the future?
We are trying to play around with the podcast format a bit – see if we can do a conversational bit if the theme is conducive to that flow. And of course we will continue focusing on live events – we will be pairing with some local bloggers for a Portland Public Transportation show in March, and resurfacing a film about the May 1970 Park Blocks Riot in May of this year.

 

Much like our two part episode on the (in)famous skyjacker DB Cooper, we will be rolling out a two part podcast series in May on Bigfoot. We will recount the “history” of this mythical beast, steeped in the folkloric traditions of the Pacific Northwest, and then record and present an actual attempt to find this rather large and quite elusive primate. Cause the orhistory.com investigative team finds no hurdle too large to overcome when digging to the bottom of the history of the state of Oregon, especially if there is lots of beer involved!

 

For more on Doug and his website please visit www.orhistory.com



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