A link to the past

by Matt Jardin  |   

UAA history alumnus Dale Stirling, B.A. '80, is a historian and researcher at least three times over. In addition to his work as an environmental, natural resource and public health historian, Stirling is an accomplished bibliographer, having published a variety of works ranging from synth music to nanotechnology. (Photo courtesy of Dale Stirling)

If the History Channel is an accurate distillation of the highlights from our past, then history must be defined by its wars, conquerors and, somehow, UFO conspiracies, right?

Thankfully, UAA history alumnus Dale Stirling proves there's much more to history than what's covered on the cable network. Although, Stirling's interest in the subject was sparked by studying the Civil War. As the old idiom goes, you've got to start with a bang.

"I remember learning about it in high school and it was the most fascinating thing," Stirling recalls. "How does this happen? Why would people fight each other in their own country? Then I read every major book on the Civil War and just kept digging."

For those of you wondering what Stirling's specialization could possibly be if it's unrelated to any major wars, he estimates his focus is 80 percent natural resource and environmental history, 20 percent public health history, plus bibliographic work on just about any topic that piques his interest.

Don't bother correcting Stirling on his calculations. An aversion to math is one of the reasons he chose to study history in the first place.

Making up the bulk of Stirling's expertise is his work as a natural resource and environmental historian, which is a role he's occupied for as long as he's had a degree.

After earning his B.A. in 1980, Stirling was immediately offered a job with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as a staff historian. His first report was on the historical uses of the Nushagak River, a subject he was already familiar with due to a previous summer internship as a biological fish technician for the Department of Fish and Game. Since then, Stirling has written extensively on seemingly every aspect of Alaska history, from mining to navigability.

Perhaps desiring a change in subject matter, six years later Stirling and his wife - also a historian, but from the National Park Services' Cooperative Park Studies Unit at UAF - decided they had enough of the Alaska winter and moved to Seattle without any work lined up in the first of several attempts to "regroove" themselves.

Suffice it to say, things worked out. Shortly after arriving in Seattle in 1987, Stirling found an environmental historian position with an engineering firm. It certainly didn't hurt his chances that the hiring manager just so happened to also previously work for DNR as a contractor for its navigability program.

"I got in on the ground floor of the environmental assessment business. I became one of the first historians to do work called Phase 1 environmental site assessments and PRP [potentially responsible party] searches," he explains. "Basically, digging really deep to find out who used a piece of property over time, what they did there, how they did what they did, if they knew what they were doing was perhaps inappropriate for the environment, and finding out financial information about these companies."

Nine years later, following a downturn in Seattle's real estate market - the industry tied to the environmental assessment business - Stirling found himself in the familiar position of looking for a new job. Once again, it didn't take long for him to land on his feet. This time he relied on his skills as a researcher to secure a role as a senior information specialist and historian at a toxicology firm that analyzed the human health risk of exposure to various products, including chemicals, pesticides and mold.

Once again needing to regroove, Stirling struck out on his own in 2005. Unsurprisingly, things continue to work in his favor. He continues to do environmental and public health history work for government agencies, environmental organizations, law firms and the occasional private client under the banner Stirling Consulting.

"It's just been gangbusters - the best move I ever made," says Stirling.

In addition to his double-duty work as a historian, Stirling concentrates all of his skills - his passion for history, his dedication to thorough research and his talent for writing - into creating historical bibliographies. It's an avocation he's had longer than he's been a historian, and his work is only limited by the scope of his interests.

In 2018, Pan Stanford Publishing Ltd. published Stirling's bibliography titled The Nanotechnology Revolution: A Global Bibliographic Perspective. (Photo courtesy of Dale Stirling)

Over the years, Stirling has covered topics ranging from aviation, synth music, hazardous waste, American occupations and polychlorinated biphenyls. In 2018, Pan Stanford Publishing Ltd. published Stirling's bibliography titled The Nanotechnology Revolution: A Global Bibliographic Perspective.

"There's still a real need for well-researched reference works," explains Stirling. University libraries and people in these fields buy them and find them useful. And there are publishers out there who still publish bibliographic works, although there are fewer than there used to be, which isn't surprising due to the online environment.

"But there are vast amounts of information that's not online. I still spend a lot of time in libraries and archives. For instance, the National Archives has millions of pages of records that need digitizing, which will take years to accomplish. So the need still exists for people to dig deep and have those skills to do pre-internet research."

When asked about the reasons why he's passionate about history, Stirling answers with the "links to the past" and all the "lessons to be learned." For the best examples of those connections, one only needs to look at Stirling's own career.

Stirling got the idea for his nanoscience bibliography while studying nanoparticles as part of his toxicology job. Before that, he secured his environmental assessment position partly through a shared connection with his previous job at DNR, which was a job he was hired for because of his past summer internship.

Stirling takes the connection one step further, back to his time at UAA where he learned many of the skills that would prove invaluable as a historian and researcher.

"Some of the best things happened when I was going there," he recalls. "One was the creation of the Consortium Library. That was really key to helping me work and got me into doing archival stuff. Also, a shout out to Stephen Haycox. All the teachers were great and paid a lot of attention to the students, but he was the first teacher that really talked to me about critical thinking."

The rest, as they say, is history.

Written by Matt Jardin, UAA Office of University Advancement

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