Public historians make careers outside of academia which call for the skills of a historian in research and writing and perhaps most important of all, the insights and attitudes historians could bring to bear on subjects with historical dimension. The earlier more traditional careers included professional positions in libraries, museums, historical societies, government service and with private corporations. When faculty positions in academia were in short supply, new opportunities for historians flourished, such as historic preservation. Public history is thought to mean applied as well as professional or even entrepreneurial history. It is considered a movement that has given rise to national organizations as well as a growing number of programs and courses, although many historians debate whether the topic is even considered history. However, public history provides opportunities and employment to students who pursue a degree in history and do not go towards teaching. It gives students focus and encourages students to strive for something more than just teaching in a classroom, but spreads historical knowledge to a bigger public. Author John Richard's book, Packaging the Past, has in it a document by Graeme Davidson called, 'Paradigms of Public History,' which defines the public historian as "an expert in popularizing, displaying or publishing knowledge of the past...Public History is history written in the service of the public or for the common good" (p. 6, Introduction). After all, history does run in cycles and if history repeats itself, what better way to learn and make decisions based on the past?
A good introduction to the issues in public history is the controversy over the Smithsonian Institution's Enola Gay exhibit. The Smithsonian has the controversy online at http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/technology_and_culture/v039/39.3pretzer.html.
A) History of Public History
Some say Public History may have gone back as far as the oral historical skills of Thucydides, a historian who reported the Peloponesian war. According to Leslie H. Fishel, Jr., "public history is an old timer" dating back to at least the mid-nineteenth century, to the first secretary of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, Lyman C. Draper, and his successor, Reuben Gold Thwaites, who built the Wisconsin SHS into a "scholars gold mine." Thwaites, a distinguished editor of two great works called Jesuit Relations and Early Western Travels, founded the Mississippi Valley Historical Society, which was the predecessor to the Organization of American Historians.
As Public History progressed into a known field, it became seen as a lesser or a second rate alternative to academic history. But many argued against this. The 1882 Guide to Historical Scholarship by Charles Kendall Adams argued that history was relevant to public policy. In 1884, The American Historical Organization was organized with historians participating in academic and public areas. Many specialty groups formed during the beginning of the 20th century.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, opportunities for historians in the academic arenas shrank. This was due to a growing number of graduate student historians. The idea that history could move beyond the academia and outside of the library area became more appealing and popular to those who sought history as a major. In 1977 Careers for Students of History was published. This was a pamphlet created by the American Historical Association for students looking for career alternatives in the field of history.
The first person to call these alternative history fields (public history) was Professor Robert Kelley of the University of California at Santa Barbara.
In the last few decades Public History has spurred interest in higher education. It provided more opportunities and employment to those pursuing history and for those who wanted to teach or work outside of the academic arena.
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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.