What is History?/What is Gossip?

For as long as I can remember, I have had an interest in history; I have a BA degree in the subject from Brigham Young University.  My principal interest at the time of graduation was European medieval history.  I served a Mormon mission in Belgium and France and enjoyed visiting the many Romanesque and Gothic structures in that part of western Europe.

More recently, I’ve become enamoured with the engineering associated with historic water projects located around the globe (from man’s earliest days through 1500 AD).  And I’ve visited many historic water structures throughout the world.  But history has always been a distant subject for me (at least on a timeline).  An opportunity to discover the deep past.

This distant view of history was recently shattered when a colleague asked me to do an oral history interview related to Central Utah Project (CUP), a large Federally funded and directed water project that is nearing completion.

From 1979 to about 1990, I was a planning team leader on the Irrigation and Drainage System (one of six subsets of the Bonneville Unit, the major component of CUP).  These years were not a particularly pleasant time in my life.  During this period, the agency I work for was fairly dysfunctional, and lacked competent leadership.  This lead to a myriad of planning and decision-making problems, many of which had a direct impact on me and my professional career.  And I’m pretty sure that in one way or another, I contributed to my agency’s dysfunction.

As I went through the pre-interview phase for my oral interview, I found myself conjuring up past memories that I had suppressed for years.  I remembered particularly painful events that impacted both myself and the agency I work for.  In my mind, I tried to sort out what was important and what was irrelevant trivia.  Somehow, it is much more difficult when you lived the history, than when you are looking at it from a comfortable, timeline distance.

Many of the events that I remembered seemed more like gossip than history.  Yet several of these gossipy items had a direct impact on my agency and CUP.  For example, one of the major players in my melodrama had anger management issues, and his lack of self control had a negative impact on meetings and decisions.  And to make my concerns even more presciant, many of the people in this real-life drama are still alive.  Should I take this into consideration?

Eventually, the final planning and construction of CUP were taken away from my agency and given to the water conservancy district charged with repaying and operating CUP.  To my knowledge, this is the first time my agency had been relieved of its federally-mandated responsibilities.  So after 1991, I no longer worked on the Irrigation and Drainage System.

At first this hurt, but after I thought about it for awhile, I realized that the water conservancy district had stepped into a power vacuum and had done what was necessary to get the job done.  They should be commended.

So my question became:  How did my agency get into such a dysfunctional state?  This was the question I was interested in pursuing in my oral interview.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time or the interest to properly prepare for the interview.  So instead, I tried to remember specific events that lead to the water conservancy district’s take over of CUP.  Much of my oral history was going to be based on memory instead of detailed notes or records.

There was also another issue.  I’ve worked for my agency for 33 years, what do I owe it?  I love my current job and have enjoyed coming to work for the last 22 years.  Do I owe my agency some whitewashed version that makes it look good?  I decided against whitewashing, there was nothing to be gained by covering stuff up.

The issue for me then became, what is relevant?  This question was even more difficult.  I hope I made the right decisions.

This entry was posted in Organizational Dynamics, Personal Essays, Water. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What is History?/What is Gossip?

  1. Allen says:

    Thank you for an interesting post, although your post didn’t (for me, at least) directly address the questions posed in your title. Recalling from memory historical events does have value. But, those recollections might be gossip. Is gossip a part of history? How can we tell if recollections are history or gossip or both? I hope you will post more about the questions posed in your title.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      I’m not sure I have come to any definite conclusions. I did think about the question quite a bit before and just after I was interviewed. For example, I kept doing edits on my comments and answers. A friend suggested that I remove some names (and just use titles); and I did that is a couple of cases.

      I pretty much decided that for me, if the gossipy item affected decision-making, then it was fair game. For example, someone, who had a bad temper and literally destroyed meetings that led to poor decision-making, was fair game. When someone was having marital issues that lead to their difficulty in leading (or managing), that was a more problematic issue. Particularly if the person is still alive.

      A lot of the agency I work for was destroyed 22 years ago. It seems appropriate for someone to analyze what and why it happened. To do this, information is needed. But who should be sorting through the details? Probably not me, I was too involved. Perhaps that wasn’t my job. But I took it as my job, and probably did a half-assed job of it.

  2. Roger–I just ran across your blog. I am not sure how I missed it up until now. You are one of the few people on wordpress who, like me, are interested in water history. I have been trying to contact someone from waterhistory.org and all I get is silence. What happened to that website. In any case, if you are interested, check out my blogs: This Day in Water History and safedrinkingwaterdotcom. Google my name for more contact info.

    Michael J. McGuire

    • rogerdhansen says:

      Hi Michael, Sorry if I haven’t got back with you. waterhistory.org is my creation and I’m having a rough time trying to decide how to update its structure. It’s current format is cumbersome and I need a more user-friendly data entry system. I haven’t updated it for several years. And I have a ton of stuff I need to add. For example, I was recently in Lalibela, Ethiopia, and I very much need an entry for the rock churches and their water supply system and drainage channels. I will contact you by email. Roger

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