F) Major Areas of Public History
There are many areas in the public history field one can choose to specialize in. Since public history is interdisciplinary it is common to educate oneself in more than just one public history arena.
1) Oral Histories
An oral historian provides a way or collecting information about a subject, individual or institution, through tape-recorded transcribed interviews.
Oral history opens new doors and provides new information and perspectives. It does this partly because oral historians get to more personalized information than just straight research. Donald A. Ritchie from the book Public History by Howe and Kemp writes, "Written records have become so voluminous that they can obstruct rather than promote historical research. They can be unrevealing, impersonal, and computer-generated. They can be inadequate, because so many significant interactions are never recorded on paper. They can be unclear or misleading -- sometimes deliberately so. Ernest May, in his presidential address to the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations, called for a better understanding of government documentation, and urged historians to learn the language of the bureaucracy, who the key players were, and what the documents were covering up. 'But mostly' May said, 'we have to ask questions of the humans who worked within these large organizations.' That is precisely where oral history enters the picture" (Howe and Kemp, Public History, p. 63).
Oral history provides a way to get the research and information that a public historian can share with the public. Ritchie argues, "If public history is defined as an organized effort to bring accurate meaningful history to a public audience, then oral history is a natural tool for obtaining that goal" (Ibid., p. 66).
One example of an oral history position is working for the Senate Historical Office. The Senate Historical Office oral history program has specialists who perform a diversity of tasks including planning of various reference material including bibliographies. This office helps Senate committees in preserving and managing records, preparing the information for the National Archives. Ritchie quotes a staff member for the Senate Historical Office, who says that the office "'advises senators' offices, the press, scholarly researchers, and the general public. It occasionally drafts speeches and prepares reports for historical celebrations. My specific projects include editing for publication the previously closed executive session transcripts of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and conducting an oral history program with retired members of the Senate staff'" (ibid., p. 59). The Senate Historical Office is only one of more than 20 federal agencies that offer oral history Programs.
Researchers evaluate and analyze documentary evidence. These people take on positions in public history as policy advisors -- who plan, evaluate and analyze policy perhaps working for the federal state or local governments, historic preservationists -- possibly working for an archive, museum or historical society or go for further training and go into cultural resources management.
3) Archival professions
Archives are where past information of significance is kept and opened for the public to research or experiment with. Archivists can work for the government, private institutional archives, historical societies and other organizations maintaining collections. These can be colleges, universities, churches, religious organizations or churches, labor unions, hospitals, social service organizations, scientific groups. Manuscript repositories are in a sense smaller archives but are geared towards a certain geographic location or subject concentration. These repositories acquire more personal information and organizational records from society. where as archives are kept more organized and neat and possibly more specific research, such as National archives. Most manuscript repositories are found in state and local historical societies.
Archives are used for many reasons but mostly for preservation. Archives are a primary source of research not only for public historians but anyone who can make use of raw data and collective materials.
The main responsibilities of archivists include preserving historically valuable materials and making them available for use. Frederick Miller describes the duties of an archivist, "The arrangement of records and the preparation of inventories are the bases for other internal operations. As records are arranged, those in need of repair, restoration or special storage (such as photographs) can be separated. Preservation is a vital operation in all repositories, whether or not they can afford specialized staff, space, and equipment. Basic descriptive work also generates further activity. Many repositories produce published guides based on their inventories and report their holdings as descried in the inventories to national data bases. These external "finding aids" are complemented by internal aids which supplement the inventories, such as special lists, card catalogs, and computerized indexes. Because manuscript repositories have many different collections with no organizational relationship to each other, it is especially important that they have some overall system to help provide users with access to information spread throughout their holdings" (Howe and Kemp, Public History, p. 43).
4) Museum Study
A historian employed in a museum may function as a director, curator, librarian, archivist, educator, docent, guide or all or the above. Since museums research and exhibit significant events, publications, collectibles and art, these displays provide a way of reaching out to the public in the hopes of "increase and diffusion of knowledge." Museums do not just hold exhibits but they serve a public audience through educational programs, tours, research programs, archives and libraries. Museums demand a professional to perform a combination of research and presentation in order to prepare an exhibit. The National Museum of American History underwent a major reinstallation entitled, "Engines of Change: The Industrial Revolution in America." Steven Lubar writes an article about the preparation of an museum exhibit in the book Public History by Howe and Kemp. He describes the budget they had to work with, the staff required and their responsibilities in the project. He stated that the annual budget for the museum in 1984 was almost ten million dollars. Three hundred and twenty seven staff members were present of whom fifty were curators. They carried the largest concentration of historians of science and technology in the country and also many social, cultural and political historians. These staff members perform a number of duties including the original research, collecting and evaluating museum collections, answering inquiries throughout the world and help with managerial aspects of museum. Assisting the curators are museum specialists and technicians. These people perform the same tasks as the curators but under their direction. These specialists and technicians take care of the daily care of the collection. Training in museum and material cultural studies are helpful preparation for these positions. Historians write the "script" (the labels that go on the wall) and work side by side with designers. The historical aspect is only one essential contribution to preparing an exhibit. Curators and historians work along with several other departments of the museum. These are people who concentrate on fundraising, exhibit design, exhibit construction, educational programs, public affairs, and performances. Historians and curators must be able to work with others in this interdisciplinary field. Lubar describes the theory and practice involved in "writing and exhibit."
If you're contemplating making a career in public history, you're sure to come across the AASLH, the American Association for State and Local History, which is about history in all its public aspects. The AASLH is opposed to the term and the concept of "public history," labeling it not intellectual or second rate; nonetheless, the work they do is "public history." .This Public History historical society does many things including, publishing many books -- G. Ellis Burcaw's Introduction to Museum Work, and Kenneth W. Duckett's Modern Manuscripts: A Practical Manual for Their Management, Care, and Use or Ordinary People and Everyday Life: Perspectives on the New Social History. AASLH also produces tapes and other materials for educational purposes. In class, one may come across a tape slide program on historic house conservation, a videotape, perhaps one entitled "Interpreting History Through Pictorial Documents" or a kit such as "School Programs and the Museum." This organization also provides technical leaflets and scores analysis tests, everything from accounting practices for historical societies to methods for detection and preventing wood deterioration. They also provide informational leaflets such as "Using Consultants Effectively" or "Methods of Research for the Amateur Historian." The AASLH also sends out a bi-monthly magazine for job opportunities called History News, stored at http://www.aaslh.org/historyn.htm.
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Prepared by Yvonne Tu, for HST 594--Independent Study--Public History, with assistance from Professor Catherine Lavender, Department of History, The College of Staten Island/CUNY. Last updated: Monday, 29 March 1999.