Friday, July 5, 2013

The Difference Between a Tour Guide and a Historian

It's becoming increasingly difficult to be a tour guide AND a historian.  Unfortunately many people who research and write about our history refer to books that people (often outsiders) wrote and use them as their sources. This is how facts and history get so distorted that we have to pry these myths from people's cold, dead fingers.  I tell visitors all the time that unless a "history" book has detailed notes, bibliographies and indices that give explicit source material then a book is not historical research. 
Of all the books out there, I think probably GUMBO YA-YA has done the most damage.  Published in 1945, the subtitle reads "Folk Tales Of Louisiana" - it never purports to be history, despite the fact that it reads like history.  And yet people latch on to this book (and others like it) and quote it as a source in their "research."  But a book - any book - is not research.
Research means documents.  Government records (laws, ordinances and resolutions); church records; records of health boards, colleges, notaries, conveyances, etc.; often journals, diaries, letters; newspapers and publications - all of these tell the story as it happened and not as an outsider heard it, read it or interpreted it.
Unfortunately, when one goes to a 250 year old document this is what one often finds:

It's easier to read someone's book, isn't it!
And this is how myth and misinformation begin.  Unfortunately, the tour guide classes available to up-and-comers in the city don't help either.  Their purpose, actually, is to prepare new tour guides for the 100-question test required for licensing.  They are not always taught by people who are qualified educators and often the knowledge they possess and pass along comes from - well....books.  And these new tour guides come up to me all bright and sunshiney and full of enthusiasm and start talking like they've been living in the Notarial Archives half their lives, studying away when what they are doing is repeating what they've learned in class.
When I give a tour I usually give a very different tour than people expect.  I don't give them the information they see on TV or read in a guide book or (amazingly) what they've heard from other tour guides.  And the myriad of misinformation makes it difficult, because people say "But that's not what I heard on my other tour" and I find myself saying "Well, that's not so - email me and I'll prove it."  (Or very often "But you're looking at it with your own eyes and seeing for yourself!")  Only when they see irrefutable proof do they realize that so much of the information in New Orleans is not only bogus but that the truth is often far more interesting.

3 comments:

  1. Sharing this post on my FB page...LOVE it.

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  2. Last week, I had the honor of "trailing" long time NOLA historian and tour guide Randy Bibb with Magic Tours (the *best* tour guide company in NOLA, IMO). All the myths and faux history I've been taught (by other tour guides) and learned about (in books) were dispelled. Randy personally knows - or knew - many the people buried in St. Louis Cemetery #1, making for a most unique tour. (As it turns out I have been reading his blog for quite some time without even knowing it was his blog!) Sharing this post because it differentiates between real research, real history, and entertainment and misinformation. (Very similar to real journalism vs. info-tainment, which does real damage.) I admire and respect Randy, and I'm so grateful to be schooled by him...tho' he thinks I will regret it. He's right about a lot, but I don't think he's right about *that*: http://nolamyths.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-difference-between-tour-guide-and.html

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