Letters to the Editor: Practical Advice for Professional Regression?

Sharon Ann Holt, September 2006

Editor’s Note: Perspectives welcomes letters to the editor on issues discussed in its pages or which are relevant to the profession. Letters should ideally be brief and should be sent to the Editor (or mailed to Letters to the Editor, Perspectives, AHA, 400 A Street SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889) along with full contact information. Letters selected for publication may be edited for style, length, and content. Publication of letters does not signify endorsement by the AHA of the views expressed by the authors, who alone are responsible for ensuring accuracy of the letters’ contents.

To the Editor:

I was nearly in despair after reading Debbie Ann Doyle’s "Practical Advice on Getting a Public History Job" in the April 2006 Perspectives. I have great respect for Debbie Ann Doyle, having seen her at work with our Philadelphia Local Arrangements Committee in 2005–2006. But her approach to deciding between academic and public history could set the whole profession back a generation, and I can’t let it go by without objecting.

Doyle is correct in indicating that, faced with the hiring trough of the 1970s, academically trained historians turned to public history as a back-up option, a way of earning a living while searching for an academic appointment. Doyle is right to counsel against viewing public history in that light today. But she then proceeds as though public history and academic history remain the absolutely distinct fields that they were then.

Doyle portrays public history, still, as an alternative to academic history, emphasizing the different skills and training needed to pursue specific public history specialties. Likewise, she positions academic historians as unqualified for public history posts. She finishes by indicating that young scholars who take the time to acquire specific extra-academic professional skills could weaken their attractiveness to academic employers. Her message—choose one or forfeit both—couldn’t be clearer, or more wrong-headed.

Doyle misses entirely the ways in which, since the mid-1980s, public history and academic history have converged around a shared commitment to public and civic engagement and a powerful drive to expand audiences and revitalize communities. History and humanities institutions around the country are throwing themselves into community revitalization efforts, on the heels of arts organizations which started down this path a decade earlier. To do so, public history organizations turn to scholarship to modernize their interpretations, while scholars increasingly look to exhibits, broadcasting, and documentaries to carry the newest ideas to a general audience.

This convergence of mission and practice results directly from the years of professional proximity that developed from the academic hiring drought. Both "sides" of the profession have learned vastly from each other in ways that, ironically, bring the historical profession today much closer to the collective ethos of its early 20th-century originators. Back then, leadership at the AHA understood that scholarship depended on collections being skillfully tended by archivists and librarians, while those stewards served their collections best by encouraging study of them. And all of the activity, whether conservation, collecting, analysis, or presentation, was designed to serve the democracy by creating both informed policymakers and engaged citizens.

As a profession, we are far closer today to that ideal than we were in the 1970s. I would have wished for advice from AHA that helped aspiring professionals to build toward the shared mission that is developing before us. There are skills that all historians need and use, and crucial ways of understanding what different specialists contribute to the shared mission. Practicing historians have chosen this road out of a rich experience of collaboration that came upon us all more or less by accident. Professional advice that mapped out the road ahead of us would be far more "practical" than advice that points us back toward the internal divisions and general irrelevance historians experienced in the late 20th century.

—Sharon Ann Holt
Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities
Rutgers University at Camden