Imagining New Careers in Public History

A working group




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


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