“History is all about interesting protagonists and a storyline,” quipped distinguished historian Robert Watson, Phd. Last Thursday the Friends of the Boca Raton Library hosted its first fundraiser featuring Dr Watson; attendees made merry over heavy hors d’oeuvres and wine, then settled in to hear the local professor discuss how the past is just as “unknowable” as the future.
On the top floor mezzanine at the Spanish River location, participants were led back to an unknowable past that in some cases has been exposed, like the nonsense about George Washington’s wooden teeth and the cherry tree cannot-tell-a-lie story. Yes, many know all about the nonsense, thanks in part to historians like Watson who possess an insatiable desire to unearth stories from long-settled graves.
Hundreds of years ago we wrote letters to set a scene, provide information, lament, express gratitude or love. Martha Washington’s remaining letters from her husband may have been “scrubbed clean” to save face. This is history leaking into the now, further evident in the way history is taught (many materials need a serious reboot). History also presents a “challenge for us [historians] not unlike that of a detective piecing together clues of the crime scene. But our work’s a lot harder because everyone in our crime scene has been dead for hundreds of years,” noted Dr Watson. That’s probably part of the fun. It’s part of why we investigate and learn. And it’s part of why we read.
The Friends donated over $50,000 to the Boca Raton Library last year to support programming. Classes can be taught, skills acquired and books reborn with funding. Kids have a place to discover stories and themselves. Fundraisers like this event help libraries keep history and stories alive.
And stories were abound at Thursday’s event. The talk opened with a frank reminder of history’s shame including the atrocities committed against native peoples, the continued implications of slavery and the horrors of the Holocaust. But with dark comes light, or vice versa. Young Ben Franklin was bright and cheeky, writing letters framed as stories about socialites and their Real Housewives mischief, audibly an audience favorite, as was Thomas Jefferson’s penchant for changing dates on letters to make himself look like a great visionary, although still revered as a brilliant writer.
Truth mixed with good-natured jokes made for entertaining time travel. Dr Watson ended with “rules for understanding history” which “requires forgetting what we think we know and unlearning what we learned in a lot of cases.” After a Q&A, raffle winners left with gift baskets that included signed copies of Watson’s latest books (The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn and The Nazi Titanic) and a combination of wine, a YMCA gift card, a Trader Joe’s gift bag, or tickets to the Festival of the Arts in March.
Because of the Friends board and their meticulous planning, generous local business donors and Dr Watson donating his time and expertise, the first fundraiser was a success. Aside from supporting the library it continued to cultivate a collective appreciation of stories however fictionalized or outrageous they can be, particularly from a historical lens. Said Watson, “History and stories haven’t changed. It’s just the names. Fact is always stranger than fiction.”
Do you agree? Find out by spending some time at your library. And if you’re willing, support the Friends by donating, becoming a member or attending a fundraiser--help preserve libraries and what they do for readers looking for those interesting protagonists and storylines.