Imagining New Careers in Public History

A working group

Archive for the month “March, 2012”

Digital Historians

Digital humanities projects have spread like wildfire over the past decade, with training programs and centers popping up in institutions across the country. Inclusions and exclusions of the past in the digital sphere happen every day, and public historians are ideal candidates to lead this revolution.

As public historians, we do not bring only our knowledge of research and writing to these efforts. Our public history training provides us with great familiarity with the history of preservation efforts and an understanding of the importance of funding, authority, audience and stakeholders in historical work. Finally, we bring our commitments to community engagement and shared authority which are particularly important in the new field of digital history which is fraught with questions of costs, expertise and access.


What specific jobs do I mean?

–Digital history project managers and staff who create, construct and maintain innovative work.

–Archives and special collections staff positions in digital preservation and web-based digital humanities projects.

–Digital humanities center staff jobs, as they are created in colleges and universities.

–Faculty jobs in which professors both teach digital history and engage in the theoretical issues that the new field raises.



P.S. The website is a great resource for us as we continue this conversation. While the website’s name focuses on the Ph.D., the site is in reality a clearinghouse of information for people with training in the humanities, easily encompassing historians who have strengths in public education, research and writing, and organizational skills. The site is now available to both individual members who can sign up for free, and to institutional college and university members.


Project Management

Many museums and historical not-for-profits suffer from poor management.  Therefore, I would argue that public historians are most needed as project managers.  Good public historians have highly refined skills of collaboration, communication, and teamwork.  They are also extremely well organized.  Coordinating an exhibition or other public historical project requires overseeing various moving parts, including assigning tasks to team members, setting deadlines, making budgets, and identifying clear objectives.

These skills are equally applicable to work in the not-for-profit and for-profit worlds. Here is part of the job description for a project management position at a for-profit corporation that is listed in the New York Times today:

Position Responsibilities:

-Manage multiple projects, with cross-functional impact or significant impact in a single functional area and/or business.

-Develop a thorough understanding of work processes, user needs and client needs for segments of the business impacted by assigned projects.

-Monitor and control projects so they remain aligned with strategic business initiatives, communicate project updates as necessary to sponsors/committees and ensures adequate resource requirements are available.

-Manage the overall project from inception to execution.

-Practice established project management protocols including the development of project plans/timelines, facilitation of project meetings, etc.

-Identify critical paths and contingency plans for large scale projects, including development of a work breakdown structure, identification of major milestones and changes in project scope, and sequencing of project activities.

-Partner with various key stakeholders, internal and external, to gather inputs and develop objectives, project scope, goals and deliverables for key business projects and initiatives.

-Create innovative and robust presentation documents in support of Recruiting efforts.

-Interface with leadership within the business.

-Research, develop and implement practices and procedures designed to eliminate bureaucracy and inefficiencies and improve service quality.

-Act as a subject matter expert and advise / consult with the Recruiting team or other key stakeholders; develop and cultivate business relationships vital to success of projects/business initiatives.

What are the essential skills highlighted here?  1) Organizing multiple projects with various moving parts from inception to execution; 2) Communicating effectively with stakeholders; 3) Interfacing with leadership (in the not-for-profit world that would be the director and board); and 4) Being an expert in a particular subject area.

Sounds like a public historian would be a perfect fit for this position!


Third Question

Where today do we need public historians the most?

[Seth: If you’re like me, you can probably see a need for public historians in even the most unexpected places.  We’re curious, though, to know where you folks think public historians could make the biggest impact right now in today’s job market.  And please be as specific as you can.  For instance, I’d love to see more people with public history skill sets involved in national politics, but “politics” is too vague for our purpose.  “President” would be a more useful response, though perhaps not so probable.  In any event, you get my meaning.  A number of you have already offered some suggestion in your comments, but let’s shoot for each participant identifying at least 2-3 specific career paths that have thus far remained unexplored by public historians.

As always, please respond to this question in a “new post.”  Try to keep your responses brief (250-300 words max).  To make a post, go to the “Dashboard.”  Click on “Posts” and then “Add New.”  Please sign your post with “~Firstname” in the body text.  Click “Publish” and you’re done.  Thank you!]


Our working group is called “Imagining New Careers in History.”  I volunteered for the group because I have a strong belief in the ability of public historians to occupy positions not normally associated with historians, such as the document reviewer/classifier/declassifier position that I, a non-traditional historian (no history degree), currently occupy with the Department of the Air Force.  In fact, I submitted a proposal for such a talk at a previous NCPH annual meeting, but it was not accepted.

Our third question suggests what I consider a rather traditional view of what constitutes public history – to “create engaging history projects” for public consumption.  This, to me, does not speak to “new careers.”  In “imagining new careers,” I am focusing on new types of positions which historians heretofore may not have considered or applied for – positions in which public historians can thrive and on which they can have a substantial positive impact. 

My Air Force reviewer/classifier job is such a position.  Usually, the only prerequisite for such a job is a security clearance; previous experience as a reviewer is a plus but not always necessary.  Over the past eleven years I observed that trained historians can often do better in these reviewer positions than non-historians because of their knowledge of and interest in the subject, their grasp of historical context, their experience with historical records and archives, and their ability to develop and deliver training curricula.  My experience includes the statement of a Department of Energy reviewer/classifier who had the recommended physics degree but wished he had got a history degree instead; and the fact that one of the best reviewers in my current organization is our newest and youngest employee, who happens to have bachelors and masters degrees in history. ~ Michael

More to follow…

I just spent the small amount of time I could spare composing a response, and then when I pushed post, it was gone.  Just didn’t want the deadline to pass with it appearing I am not interested.  I have to run!  Thanks to all for posting!!

Make it a great day…


Monetizing skills

Apologies for my late submission.  I just came out of a work haze on several projects that, appropriate to this question, involved collaborating with individuals, groups, and stakeholders.

I am also contributing late because I struggled a lot with question #2. I kept asking myself why I was having so much trouble conceiving an answer or engaging in a conversation about it. As several people have already implied in their posts, the answer to question #2 seems contingent on one’s financial needs and personal obligations at various times in our lives. I can imagine we’ve all had projects on which we had to pass because they didn’t provide compensation enough to, as Nick says, pay the rent and bills.  As Nancy and others indicate, the demands of our personal and familial lives also shape these decisions.  I’ll also reiterate and add to the observations of those who brought up the complex issue of unpaid labor: beyond financial hardship, what are the professional costs of taking low-paid or unpaid positions on promising projects?  Can such a decision actually be perceived as a step back in one’s career?

But whether here on the blog or in person in April, I’d also like to shift the conversation slightly and ask the following: what professional skills can we develop that will on the one hand allow us to be better historians, public educators, and liaisons between the academy and the public, and on the other hand be valued by the market, which most of us don’t have the option of opting out of?  Put bluntly : what are some skills we can leverage for money while improving as professionals?  Further, how can we leverage those skills to improve the public history careers that already exist, and conceive new ones, especially those drawing on new technologies and social media?

Everyone’s goals for conference working groups are slightly different, of course, but these kinds of nitty gritty brainstorms were what I envisioned when I applied to join this group.

To the question I proposed above, I will start the list with a few skills ideas that I’d love to hear other people’s feedback on: (1) presentation and public speaking (2) web design and social media management and (3) the ability to write content – for websites, labels, any publicly consumed material – that blends clarity, pithiness, and scholarly rigor.


Historians and potential earnings

I think as historians we sometimes tend to think of our profession as being outside the ‘normal’ conduct of jobs and careers.

I interpret the most recent question as a problem everyone experiences in their professional careers, and is certainly not unique to historians; monetary compensation vs professional development opportunity. Is it worth working on this project or not? ‘I might not get paid, but I’m getting valuable experience.’

We can’t opt out of the market-based society we live in. Rent and bills must be paid. It strikes me that much of the ‘history job market’ operates on the fact that there is always a pool of cheap labour willing to work for next to nothing. Each year a new cohort replaces those who can no longer afford to take the low paid or non-paid voluntary opportunities that expand skill-sets.

It seems that when a historian reaches a certain level of competence and ability to collaborate imaginatively – skills that Will refers to in the question – many (most?) will find they have priced themselves out of the market. New grads and other willing volunteers not seeking a living wage, but now themselves seeking ‘experience’, can be used on projects at lower cost.

How to change the cycle? I don’t know. There’s a problem here that the market is screaming ‘don’t be a professional historian.’ But we all love history and hope to work as historians anyway. I know it’s my hope.


– Nick


I was puzzled by question #2 because I couldn’t fathom someone still looking to get established in the field declining to work on any kind of public history project, conventional or un-.  But, then, my path to public history has been a decidedly non-linear one.

When my career as an oil company geologist came to an abrupt end in the early 90s with yet another precipitous fall in oil prices, I fell back on my scientific education/work background and military history hobby, and began the transformation into a military history/environmental consultant with a specialization in the Cold War. 

Because I was born and raised in Los Angeles, I find myself heavily influenced by Hollywood, where the strategy for up-and-comers is to accumulate “credits” – credits for doing anything in show business.  As someone without a history degree of any kind, I had to establish some personal credibility by earning some “history credits.”  And I did that by volunteering to work on as many military history projects as I could find. 

Some turned out well, some not so well.  For two different projects, I got to go to Hawaii, which was interesting not because I was working in a resort area (working in a resort area where the other visitors are vacationing is downright frustrating!) but because I got to visit a couple of “backwater” military installations I wouldn’t have been able to visit otherwise.  By contrast, on a Base Closure and Realignment project, I tried to be honest and follow the tenets of Section 106 instead of giving the customer the answer he wanted, and was “rewarded” by being dumped from a follow-on project.

So, what scale of potential earnings was necessary to motivate my participation in unconventional collaborations?  ANY earnings at all.  ~ Michael

A little understanding…

For me, it’s more a matter of not quite understanding the question (#2).  If it’s about earning potential in the field of Public History, I confess I am just hoping to get a job.  When my daughter graduated in the same field a few years back, she created a bit of a low-key sensation when the whispered comment after her name was mentioned was “She got a job in the field of Public History!!”  Her being hired as archivist for a substantial city made the rounds as if she had been one of the Rocket Boys (i.e. movie: October Sky) who literally and figuratively been been propelled from the obscurity of her backward beginnings into an atmosphere full of potential.  She had secured a job as a Public Historian, and you couldn’t blast her out of it if you tried.  Now, wouldn’t I like to be in her shoes…




Thank you for your post. I agree that professional conferences can be a wonderful way to network, get inspiration, and recalibrate your goals. I, too, experienced the one NCPH conference I attended (last year in Pensacola) as well organized, innovative, and welcoming in its intimate scale. I have no doubt the upcoming conference in Milwaukee will be a success as well.

I agree that NCPH seems like a special group. I particularly liked the can-do energy and commitment of many of the people I spoke to, and the diversity of perspectives on how to bring history into the public domain that animated the projects I heard about at the conference. I loved being part of the Triangle Fire Anniversary session, which connected me to an amazing group of women in NYC ahead of the conference, and then in Pensacola. It was an inspiration to be part of this collaboration between a young Public History grad who organized the panel; an archivist committed to public access; myself; and an artist who had started a much-loved, crowd-sourced initiative (for free) because …. this is what you do. Think possibility.

As Moderators you asked: “how will public historians make a living in the years ahead? Conventional logic suggests that, while more and more public history programs churn out new job seekers…” 

But wait…

I wonder, how did the promise of imagining new careers based on the incredible asset of newly skilled public historians get channeled into the stream of “job seekers” and anxious tales of caution in a world of dwindling hires? Wasn’t resisting a similar situation one of the very conditions that gave birth to Public History as a field? I have to resist your formulation and insist that solutions going forward can as likely come from aligning with social entrepreneurship. Wouldn’t it be exciting to have a panel on how to make the best team to actualize a nontraditional project? What could we learn from including someone whose skill set was in micro financing, or having resources to educate a team about new opportunities to monetize a project or make this aspect of project planning a success using new social media? Think Kickstarter.  Think The Awesome Foundation. Think Trade School and OurGoods, my daughter’s alternative economy initiatives conceptualized in collaboration with a ZipCar founder.  I wanted our working group to do just that: to “Imagine”. In Wisconsin in 2012, in the winter lull of OWS, it seems uncontroversial to suggest that “Imagine” is a word that resonates.

You asked me, “What did I expect?” I did sit in as an observer on three Working Groups last year, and I am happy to share here how this shaped my expectations now. I would start by saying I think the Working Group is a wonderful forum for a professional group. (They are described by NCPH as: “Led by senior practitioners, these seminar-like conversations allow conferees to explore in depth a subject of shared concern before and during the annual meeting.”)  In my opinion, two of the groups I observed at the conference were very successful because of the diverse perspectives of the participants, the rigorous intellectual engagement with the ideas shaping the problem, and the connections forged by the sharing of the real-world challenges these public historians faced trying to shape public policy or otherwise affect change.

I will use the third working group I sat in on as a contrast. The topic in no way suggested that the participants would end up focused on an academic-oriented solution, like writing a syllabus.  I found there was a kind of self-reinforcing political correctness to their discussion of an important urban issue. Despite the uniformity of their race, age, and apparent class – I heard no critical self-awareness as they addressed the problem of “the other”. The Group reminded me of the old term “tenured radicals” – except these participants struck me as untenured faculty, doing time at a conference, with one eye on the academic career annual checklist. For me, this was a working group where the conclusion seemed written before it began.

As I noted when I withdrew from this year’s New Careers working group, we are living in a tough time of change and hard choices. I applied to and was admitted to this Working Group in October 2011, and our blog conversations fitfully started in February 2012 (with a batch of participants still MIA), in preparation for a two-hour in-person meeting in April. My experience of the trajectory of this particular working group is not a fit for me at this time. I find it likely the focus will be more on career pragmatics and not the vision, innovation, and collaborative possibility I need to align with now. These concerns, combined with the expense, caused me to withdraw.

As always, I regroup and continue on, pointing my compass ahead, gathering wind in my sail. I know why I get up every day and continue to practice history.

PS – If anyone will be in Philadelphia on Friday March 16, 2012, I will be speaking on 19th c. urban signage and public space at the Library Company of Philadelphia’s VCP/CHAViC conference on Advertising in Early America.



Nancy Austin, Ph.D. – scholar, artist, public history activist

Post Navigation