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What Is Public History?

How Do We Define Public History?

When it comes to defining public history, practicing public historians might be tempted to recall the United States Supreme Court justice who offered this provocative short-hand definition of obscenity and pornography back in 1964: “I know it when I see it.”  For veterans and new professionals in the field, this might be good enough.  But for those unfamiliar with the term, a little more elaboration is in order.

The name of the NCPH blog – History@Work – offers a handy distillation: public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world.  In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues. In fact, applied history was a term used synonymously and interchangeably with public history for a number of years.  Although public history has gained ascendance in recent years as the preferred nomenclature especially in the academic world, applied history probably remains the more intuitive and self-defining term.

Who Does Public History?

Public historians come in all shapes and sizes.  They call themselves historical consultants, museum professionals, government historians, archivists, oral historians, cultural resource managers, curators, film and media producers, historical interpreters, historic preservationists, policy advisers, local historians, and community activists, among many many other job descriptions.  All share an interest and commitment to making history relevant and useful in the public sphere.  The vast array of positions available can be seen on our Jobs page, updated weekly.

Where Can I Get Training On How To Be A Public Historian?

–The NCPH Guide to Public History Programs has a list of international undergraduate and graduate programs with descriptions and contact information
–Learn more about Best Practices for Public History Programs
–See what a Working Group has to say about Public Historians in Academia

How Is Public History Used?

Although public historians can sometimes be teachers, public history is usually defined as history beyond the walls of the traditional classroom.  It can include the myriad ways that history is consumed by the general public. Those who don’t always remember their high school and college history classes fondly are often the same people who spend holidays, vacations, and their spare time seeking out history by choice: making pilgrimages to battlefields and memorials, visiting museums, watching television documentaries, volunteering with historical societies, participating in a community history project, and researching family histories.

Less familiar are the ways that history can be created for – and utilized by – specialized audiences.   These forms of public history are not necessarily intended for public consumption, although they can sometimes affect the general public, as when a state park system undertakes a management plan to reinterpret an historic site or when a local non-profit organizes a community oral history project that provides the research for an historic walking tour.  It’s also important to remember that while public history can promote popular understanding of history, the goal of many projects may not be explicitly educational at all.  Thus, an institutional history written by an historical consultant for a business client might be used to help organize a corporate archive.  Another sort of “product” or “deliverable” might be an environmental and  land use history used by a court to decide an issue of western water rights.  A town that commissions an architectural survey is likely looking to encourage historic preservation and to enhance the quality of life, as well as perhaps to promote heritage tourism and economic development.

How Is Public History Different From “Regular” History?

In terms of intellectual approach, the theory and methodology of public history remain firmly in the discipline of history, and all good public history rests on sound scholarship.  Most university public history programs, for example, teach their students to be historians first and foremost, with additional training in the skills and perspectives useful in public history practice.  Over the years, some have argued that public historians are more self-consciously interdisciplinary than traditional historians, but this distinction seems to be disappearing as the discipline of history itself has become more broadly multi-disciplinary.  Unlike many historians in the academy, public historians routinely engage in collaborative work, with community members, stakeholders, and professional colleagues, and some contend that collaboration is a fundamental and defining characteristic of what public historians do.  The collaborative approach inspires regular debates about a role for “shared authority” and the proper place for the “professionalization” of local history.   As with public scholarship in general, digital technologies play an increasingly important role in the work of public historians, creating new spaces where they share their work and encounter fresh and varied audiences.

Where Did Public History Come From?

Historians have always engaged in public history work, inside and outside the academy, although by the 1960s and 1970s, in the midst of a woeful job crisis for PhD’s, the profession had largely forgotten its professional roots in historical societies, museums, archives, and government offices.  The public history “movement” emerged in the United States and Canada in the 1970s, gaining visibility and influence through the establishment of public and applied history programs at universities.  The founding of the National Council on Public History dates to this period, as does its scholarly journal, The Public Historian.  Today it is difficult to view public history as a movement, when it has been incorporated into the curricular offerings of hundreds of institutions of higher learning across the globe, in Canada and the United States, but also in Australia, China, Germany, India, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom (see our Guide to Public History Programs).  Some would argue, however, that it retains characteristics of a movement through the on-going commitments of many current practitioners to ideals of social justice, political activism, and community engagement.

How Can I Find Out What Issues Public Historians Are Currently Discussing?

Visit History@Work to see the vitality of the field

Read The Public Historian, the recognized academic journal for the field

Read free, digitized back issues of Public History News, the NCPH newsletter

Browse through session titles from upcoming and past conferences

Join NCPH and share in the benefits of membership!