Imagining New Careers in Public History

A working group


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

Response to Question #2

Nancy, I’d like to thank you for your contributions to the conversation so far.  I hope that you are willing to stay in touch and also wonder if you would be willing to let Seth and me know privately by email exactly how you imagined the working group conversation was going to go.

Seth and I had hoped that the question we posed would be an expansive, inclusive one that encouraged the group to think about low/minimal compensation, moderate compensation, and high compensation.  We were attempting to ask about scale of earnings and about success in the same question, not saying one has to have high earnings to be successful.  In fact, we might have even intended to imply the opposite.  In our eyes, success in public history comes from being a participant in lots of collaborations, regardless of compensation.

As to conference attendance, I can only write about my own experience.  I started attending NCPH when I was a graduate student.  I received no (or very little) financial support for attending my first couple of years.  However, the network of contacts I made at those conferences has proven invaluable in my career.  Without sounding like an advertisement for the organization, I would not be the scholar or public history practitioner that I am without NCPH.  Although everyone must make their own determination regarding the cost-benefit of attending the conference, I can say that it has been an investment that has paid off for me.

So how to proceed?

Our inclination is to revise, but not abandon, Question #2.  To that end, Seth and I would like to solicit suggestions from the group for a modified version of this question.  We’ll wait a few days to give the group a chance to respond and then proceed.

I do hope that we can continue to build on a promising start.


Well now…

I just checked in to see Nancy Austin’s post, and I am left feeling deflated.  Like Nancy, I, too, have thought ‘how on earth are we to spend this amount as wage-earners, as the self-employed, as students (me!)?’  Wow, wow, wow.  I am struggling with the decision to make the trip after getting word from a state office that I applied to for help that there would be no financial assistance forthcoming…

So — this is where it is, and this is where we are.  What amount of earnings would it take to inspire active public historiography/preservation/archival motivation??  For starters, enough to make the trip to Milwaukee without going into debt, maybe?

Sorry.  I have no other words right now…


Metrics of Success in America, 2012

Yesterday, we were asked to consider this Second Question: “Many successful public history careers are built on the ability to collaborate or partner with various individuals/groups/stakeholders. What scale of potential earnings is necessary to motivate SERIOUS participation in unconventional collaboration?”

Dear Group: I found this second question for the group to be very clarifying, and answering it kept me awake much of the night. Here are my thoughts and conclusions:

This preliminary blogging has helped me recognize and “own” the choices I have made in my untraditional career. I am a 57-year old woman who chose to teach part-time while raising children, and in recent years has committed to projects out of passionate belief and regardless of financial compensation or the pragmatics of how it might leverage my career. Somehow, I believed it would all come together and I would find, as my father urged me to believe, that every plant would find the garden where it would flourish and be valued.  I see now what a mistake it was to not be more prepared for the economic downturn and other changes that have made it infinitely more difficult to retool oneself as an older and highly interdisciplinary academic.

As this back-story might suggest, I found our moderator’s question to be a gendered one. And one based on a career trajectory that implies specific metrics of success based on financial and institutional recognition. (It would be relevant to engage in a historically grounded discussion about the history of this idea of professional success.)

Regardless. In 2012, on every front, I need to align with critically-aware models of public engagement that actively contribute to reminding us of an America I want to believe in. That is, one governed by the rule of law and supportive of civil liberties. One with a compassionate understanding of the role of civil society. Of mothers and the many other uncompensated contributors to the greater good.

Everywhere, I see work to be done.

And yet, and also, I need to support myself into old age as the cash reserves I worked hard to build are depleted. I discover that other cheaper laborers have replaced me as an adjunct educator; grants are more and more competitive; while the labyrinth of specialist academic publishing to engage new audiences is in flux.

Thus, when I heard the second question, I thought I should start by considering a simple question; what did it cost me to attend the NCPH conference last year, a very positive networking experience but not one that led to anything tangible by the metrics asked. What was that conference experience worth, considered as an investment in procuring employment? I then pondered the almost $1,500 it will likely cost me to fly, register, and be housed this year in Milwaukee, a personal expense not off-set by institutional reimbursement. My answer became clear for me. (For me.) I recognized that I must step up and ask myself the hard question posed. Is my participation in this upcoming NCPH working group something I can afford to pay $1500 of uncompensated money for, with no clear career “benefit”? I recognize that it is not.

For this reason, I am formally withdrawing from this working group. I do not feel the discussion has progressed to the point where a new member couldn’t come on board and be up to speed by the planned April 20th morning session, 8-10am.

This blog question has helped me recognize that in the America of 2012, I do need to ask hard questions about how my voluntary contribution of time, energy, and money is going to help me craft a sustainable future. Rather than flying to Milwaukee for a 2 hour panel that does not seem to be heading in the direction I had imagined, I am going to instead contribute to a local historical initiative on 19th c. utopian communities. I think “local” is a better fit for me at this time.

With best wishes, Nancy Austin

Personal Risks

“Many successful public history careers are built on the ability to collaborate or partner with various individuals/groups/stakeholders. What scale of potential earnings is necessary to motivate SERIOUS participation in unconventional collaboration?”

I think that this question is very subjective and situational. I am uncertain how our individual answers  would produce helpful dialogue regarding new careers, but I will take a stab at it anyway and look forward to understanding later. I think that if I had a stable income with an acceptable employer (which I do now) that I would be highly unlikely to risk the loss of that income by undertaking a project that could possibly cause that loss – unless there were many open positions at a similar level in my desired geographic area to replace it. If I did not have anything to lose or was unhappy with my work environment, then I would be more open to taking on the risk of such a project. If I had a solid safety net, or was independently wealthy, then I would also be more apt to participate in an “unconventional” collaborative project. As an example, I have a stable income but am motivated to work towards a career change so I am undertaking the rather unrisky option of earning an MA one class at a time while keeping my full time job. This requires swapping some time that could be spent otherwise for studying time over several years.

Second question

Thank you for your thought-provoking responses to the first question.  Here is question #2, which will hopefully help us to explore perspectives beyond our own experience.

Many successful public history careers are built on the ability to collaborate or partner with various individuals/groups/stakeholders.  What scale of potential earnings is necessary to motivate SERIOUS participation in unconventional collaboration?

[As with question #1, 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.  If possible, we’d love to have all of the responses by March 9.]

The Case of Cresap’s Will

As a reporter for the Cumberland Times-News (Cumberland, Maryland), I was pretty sure I had chosen poorly when I took the job on as a staff writer with no journalism classes under my belt.  It was like having a term paper due every day, and I imagined it a pretty unsatifactory career choice – that is, until I uncovered in the course of covering another story the fact that the county’s vintage copy of Thomas Cresap’s will (of French & Indian era Cresap’s Fort fame) had gone missing from its storage place (the original was/is in the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis).  No one knew anyone who knew anything about who it was that saw it where they saw it last.  Preettty embarrassing for the Register of Wills office, to say the least.  That, however, wasn’t the satifactory part.  The fulfillment came when they revised public procedures, totally revamping their accession policies and tightening security on other valuable archives in response to my published story.  Public History was the ‘ink’ in my pen even then.  Who would have thought it?

Choosing History

Immediately after my undergraduate degree I worked as a trainee accountant. One of my best days at work was when I knew I would be leaving that job. I felt as though a weight had been lifted from me, that I was back in control of my future.

I was consciously choosing to give up one profession and resume my work with history. It was one of my best days because I was on course to pursue my passion once again.

I had left my studies because I was concerned that continuing would simply be the path of least resistance and going on to further study was just the easiest choice. That didn’t seem a good enough reason to start graduate work. I wasn’t sure if my passion was actually my fear in disguise.

My best day at work, then, was the completion my mini-journey of self-discovery. On that day I was not just certain of my passion for history (which had come earlier!), but I had followed-through and taken the steps necessary to pursue it.

(Sorry for the sentimentality!)

– Nick

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