Public history is the practical use of historical understanding and methodological skills outside the academic world. Public history fosters a critical analysis of all facets of the past, lends itself to any endeavor that requires historical knowledge and seeks to create a useful history for all segments of the public.
Public historians are museum curators, educators and directors, archivists, historical society directors and collections managers, historians of public policy, documentary editors, preservationists, state and national park service staff, government historians, genealogy experts, corporate historians and archivists, historical consultants and media historians. The growth of historical societies, museums, archives and preservation organizations as well as the increasing awareness the value of the history in business and government have made public history a rapidly expanding field with numerous opportunities for employment. In the 1980s, the American Historical Association determined that over thirty percent of all jobs for historians were within the field of public history. The phenomenal growth of the institutions that employ public historians promises even more dramatic increases in the field during future years. In 1974, before "public history" became a recognizable term among historical scholars, the Wright State University History Department perceived this professional trend and created a Graduate Program in Historical and Archival Administration. Over one hundred thirty graduates of this program are now public historians throughout the United States.
What Does a Public Historian Do?
Public historians usually work in two general fields:
I. Historical Resources Management -- the collecton, preservation
and interpretation of historical materials in public and private
institutions such as museums, archives, historical societies,
historic houses, preservation agencies, parks and media
A. Museum professionals and historical interpreters develop
exhibitions and other educational programs for museums,
historical societies, parks and historic houses;
administer these institutions; collect and care for
historic artifacts; maintain historic sites; and engagein
historical research on the community, state and national
B. Archivists and records managers examine historical
documents, develop finding aids that make the records
accessible and meaningful to researchers, propose
research subjects and create document retention policies.
C. Historical editors edit historical documents, essays,
articles and books for publication.
D. Historic preservationists prepare inventories, surveys and
evaluations of historic properties, assist in the
development of environmental impact surveys, examine and
disseminate information on state and local statutes and
draft and evaluate national register nominations.
E. Media Historians conduct historical research for film,
electronic and print media presentations, edit and publish
print or video productions.
II. Applied Research the use of historical analysis in
client-initiated research such as problem solving, policy
evaluation and the preparation of institutional histories for
businesses, organizations and government agencies.
A. Private historical consultants work for a multitude of
employers in the private and public sectors on projects
that vary from a few hours of historical reference
investigation or genealogical research to months of
historical research in preparation for legal action in
replevin cases or the settlement of land claims.
B. Government historians prepare policy analysis histories,
record retention programs, and agency or institutional
histories that often evaluate effectiveness over the years.
The Census Bureau, the FBI and the U. S. House of
Representatives, for instance, are government agencies that
have recently employed historians.
C. Corporate historians (and archivists study the history of
corporate decisions, analyze corporate policy, prepare
retention schedules and write institutional histories that
alert businessmen to previous corporate actions and serve
as morale builders.
The historians ability to examine vast amounts and kinds of
material, assimilate its importance and develop a coherent
interpretation of the past is tremendously valuable in todays
fast-paced world of business and government that engages in' a
multitude of activities and generates tons of documents.
The goal of public history is to create a useable past for a broader
and increasingly more diverse audience.