Historians and the Public(s)
Professional Issues beyond the Classroom
Michael J. Devine, May 2000
Book Buff needed to direct city's public library. Must be amiable and well liked. Would prefer someone who has read a few books during his/her lifetime. No MLS degree or formal training of any kind is required (or even desirable).
Ever seen an ad like this? Probably not for a public library. However, such job notices could be written for numerous management positions in historical programs and institutions at the local, state, and even federal level.
While the smallest county library will insist on an MLS degree in hiring a head librarian, those with responsibility for selecting administrators of public historical institutions, even those with regional or national significance, often select a good ol' "history buff" with no training or background in history whatsoever. Why is this the case?
The answer is that, for many years, a major segment of our profession has been in denial, believing that developments outside the college classroom were not their concern. For decades, historians based in academe, along with their national organizations, have paid little or no attention to the qualifications and credentials of those who are running public history programs. College- and university-based historians scrutinize every detail in the resume of hopeful ABDs seeking a tenure-track position and carefully weigh the merits of each assistant professor anxious for promotion. But most historians in academe remain oblivious to the personnel decisions being made for filling key posts in historical programs that maintain invaluable collections, preserve important historical sites and memorials, and produce exhibits, films, and publications that reach a far larger public than the scholarly articles and classroom lectures of our profession's most distinguished scholars.
The unfortunate results of neglecting public history programs can be seen in the historical profession's lack of political clout and public support. The near demise of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the crippling funding cuts experienced by the endowment, the appointment of a nonhistorian to the position of Archivist of the United States, dwindling support for the Fulbright Program, and the curtailment of history PhD programs in many universities across the country are all evidence pointing to our profession's diminished standing with a public we historians, for far too long, have ignored and regarded as unworthy of precious time and energy.
For the most part, historians in academe have failed to realize that developments outside the campus classroom would eventually have an impact on their own work, and the history profession has suffered the consequences. In many instances the management of our nation's historical institutions has gone to individuals with little knowledge of or concern for the work of academic historians, and thus much of our profession is isolated from vast public audiences, as well as vast financial resources that are expended with little involvement of professional historians. The management of a local historical museum or archive, significant historic site, state historical preservation office, and government historical office are positions that must be filled with qualified individuals with graduate training in history, and the historical profession, through its national organizations, needs to strive relentlessly to achieve this objective.
Here are a few suggestions for my academic colleagues to consider:
- Put an abrupt end to intradepartmental bickering and recognize that all historians, no matter what their particular subject area, have common professional concerns, among them the filling of leadership positions in public history institutions and agencies with qualified historians.
- Take an active role in the governance and guidance of local, state, and regional historical organizations, institutions, and programs by becoming a member, contacting trustees, seeking an office on the governing body, and creating cooperative programs such as paid internship positions for students and public program opportunities for faculty on sabbatical.
- Support, with dollars, more aggressive advocacy for professionalism and appropriate public funding for our nation's museums, archives, and historic sites. The National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History is seriously underfunded, and in its good work over several decades has not yet even begun to look at local and state issues.
- History department chairs must inform all graduate students in every history department on day one that they need to start preparing themselves for careers other than classroom teaching; and department chairs need to assemble senior people who can actually prepare students for jobs outside the classroom.
- Invite (frequently) historians working in museums, historic sites, consulting firms, archives, and government programs on campus to meet with students and faculty.
- End departmental snobbishness toward the teaching of public history.
The history profession is in serious trouble because of its isolation from public historical institutions and its long disconnection with the public. The way to create the connection is through the numerous public historical institutions, organizations, agencies, consulting firms, archives, and libraries, and the connection will only come about if the profession as a whole becomes more watchful and vocal about how and by whom our public historical institutions are led.
History buffs and amateurs have their place, and they are fine folks and constitute an important part of the public professional historians need to address. However, the buff's place is not in the management of a public history program; and academic historians, as well as those employed outside academe, must make determined and persistent efforts to see that our nation's priceless historical collections are administered by our professional colleagues.
—Michael J. Devine received his PhD from Ohio State University in 1974 and is the director of the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming and president of the National Council on Public History. From 1985 to 1991 he was state historian and director of the Illinois State Historical Society, and from 1982 to 1985 served as deputy director of Historic St. Mary's City, Maryland. He has twice been named a Senior Fulbright Lecturer, to Argentina in 1983 and the Republic of Korea in 1995.