In 2019, the American Historical Association published a fascinating study titled “History, the Past, and Public Culture: Results from a National Survey.” Broken up into ten different chapters, this study saw thousands of people respond to a 40-question survey about their relationship to history. Among other things, the study asked respondents to define what history means to them, what their experiences were like in history classes growing up, and what aspects of history they wanted to learn more about. One of the most fascinating chapters of the study asks respondents to explain what mediums they use to better understand history.
The first thought that came to my mind when seeing this chapter was that the internet had to be the number one source for obtaining information about history. Historians and lay audiences often spend a lot of time online, after all, and scholars of all different disciplines have been pre-occupied with promoting media literacy in recent years given the preponderance of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories online.
Much to my surprise, however, only 59 percent of respondents stated that they relied on a “non-Wikipedia” source online to learn about history and only 46 percent relied on Wikipedia as a source. In other words, only about six in ten people use the internet as a source for obtaining information history.
Instead, the survey found that the top three sources relied on by respondents were documentary films/TV series (69%), fictional movies/TV series (66%), and TV News (62% – yikes). As the study itself noted, “the top three choices were all video format . . . of note is that such sources are readily available, usually take minimal effort to engage, and may ask for little imagination on the part of the viewer.” For a variety of reasons, televised historical content does the best at reaching people where they are and meeting them on their own terms. Moreover, these results give the impression that casual viewers are more interested in watching content in a visual format rather than reading that content in a digital or print paper form.
I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the implications of this study, but my own TV watching habits led me to an unlikely source of enlightenment: Tony Soprano.
Tony Soprano is a history enthusiast. He cares greatly about his family’s history, his neighborhood’s history, and the history of the United States more broadly. He likes talking about history at the dinner table. He likes to watch old black-and-white movies and History Channel documentaries, particularly about World War II, in his free time. Very perceptively, Tony also distinguishes between history and nostalgia, arguing in one of my favorite lines of the series that “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.” Tony’s life is full of chaos, but those rare moments at the TV set provide watching the History Channel provide some sense of normalcy.
Importantly, other sources of information about history—the internet, history books (popular history or academic history), lectures, museums, historic sites, or a formal classroom–do not figure into Tony’s life. After all, he’s a busy guy in a face-to-face industry. There’s been a lot of change with the internet between 2007 and 2022, but I suspect that many people, particular baby boomers and older, still don’t spend a great deal of time online.
I think the point of my thoughts here is that while I am someone who prefers to read historical content with an academic flavor, I am constantly reminded that the vast majority of history enthusiasts do not consume history the same way I do. Public history, as I have said time and time again, is about meeting people where they are. In this case of Tony Soprano, that means working to ensure that historical documentaries convey good information to their audiences. After all, some people who watch these documentaries might “graduate” to learning more online, visiting a historic site, or reading a book, but many viewers like Tony Soprano might never go beyond watching that documentary. I totally get it. I love watching National Geographic documentaries about nature, but I don’t have many books about science in my library. My interest in science is to a large extent centered around the television and an occasional science museum visit. It’s not that I don’t care about science so much as that we all have busy lives that require us to choose what we want to be experts in.
Moving forward, I’m going to try and work on taking more time to study history documentaries and to think more critically about their format and content delivery. I found Brooks Simpson’s review of the History Channel’s 2020 documentary, Grant, to be quite enlightening on this front. I also applaud the work of my colleagues in the history department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who have designed an innovative course on documentary filmmaking for public history graduate students that teaches them the basics of historical interpretation, script writing, and video editing in Adobe Premiere Pro. Such a course could be valuable for public historians wanting to pursue their passion for history through film and television.