Ask a public historian: Zach Hottel
13 October 2016 – editors
Zach Hottel is currently the archivist for the Shenandoah County Library System in Virginia. He graduated from Appalachian State University with an MA in public history in May 2015. There, he worked with the university library’s W.L. Eury Appalachian Collection. Zach has also worked as a program assistant at Belle Grove Plantation Inc. and at the Historic Shenandoah County Courthouse Museum. His undergraduate history degree is from Roanoke College.
Who is the “public” in your position? How do you engage them, or how do they shape your position?
I interact with two different types of “publics.” The first is a population of researchers and local historians, who are already interested in some aspect of the past. This group was traditionally the only group the archives had interacted with.
My second audience is local residents and visitors to the community. Connecting with these groups has proved to be a challenge, since few locals consider the library to be a historic institution and our space is not designed to engage non-researchers. In addition, the archives and other local history sites have not traditionally conducted community outreach programs.
To address this, I reshaped the archive’s mission in an attempt to engage the public and transcend our physical space. We are currently focusing on making our collection and the stories it represents an active part of the community. Some of the tools I use to do this are:
- Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram
- An online collections platform
- An outreach program that includes educational programs, school trips, and talks at local civic groups. These focus on previously understudied groups including minorities, women, and ordinary individuals.
- The “What Happened Here?” local history project/scavenger hunt
- A rotation of exhibits that are displayed in the community and online
- A newly launched tour website called “Shenandoah Stories,” that allows community members to interact with historic sites in their lives
We also dramatically expanded our partnerships with local history organizations. I recently organized the Shenandoah County History Council, that facilitates cooperation between our eight local museums and coordinates large-scale activities. We also work closely with Shenandoah County’s tourism department to access resources we need to produce and market our interpretative projects and educational programs.
These efforts reshaped the archives. We are no longer seen as simply a repository of information, but instead are viewed more as the leading history site in our county.
What is the relationship between your formal training and your professional work?
The relationship between my formal training and professional work is very complex. On a day-to-day basis, I do a lot of things that we never covered in graduate school. While it gave me experiences with theory and in archives, my program did not teach me how to process every donation, preserve old newspapers, be the flawless manager, or write the perfect label.
However, graduate school did teach me how to think, how to discover new tools, use my knowledge in the field, and overcome problems. Before you can go on the job and learn practical aspects of public history, you have to know the theories of the profession and how to apply them. Graduate school taught me this and without that experience, and other formal training, I would never be able to succeed as a public historian.
What are the pros and cons of this sort of job?
I am responsible for maintaining a large local history collection, staffing a research facility, crafting interpretation, conducting outreach efforts, and assisting nine volunteer-run history sites. Since my job description is so broad, and I am the only full-time historian in the local history community, there are only a few limitations on what projects I can pursue. Working alone at a site with such a wide array of responsibilities is the greatest pro and the greatest con of this type of job. On the one hand, I have the freedom to explore new and creative ideas. However, the lack of professionally trained staff limits what we can accomplish. Without different perspectives it is often difficult to vet ideas or to develop creative solutions that are outside my comfort zone. Lack of personnel also often prevents me from launching new projects and initiatives that require extensive amounts of time.
What advice do you have for people who want to do this sort of job?
My best advice to people looking for this type of job is to get as much experience as possible. I know that sounds like the same piece of advice everyone gives, but it is still the most important thing you can do. I do so many things on a regular basis, that no single internship or job could have provided the experiences I need. So go out and do things, and not just history-related things. Some of the skills I use came from a maintenance job I worked in high school. Others came from my social conversations with information technology people I knew at graduate school. Everything, and I mean everything, you can learn will someday benefit you in a job like this.
What was the hardest part about landing your first job?
The hardest part about landing my first job was finding it. I knew I did not want to have a job in which I would be focusing on one aspect of public history every day. Instead I wanted to try everything, from exhibits to fundraising, to learn what I enjoyed, what I disliked, and to build up my skills. I knew a small historic site would give me those opportunities.
Of course, small historic organizations do not have a lot of money so, consequently, there are not a lot of positions in this area of the field. Finding the places to look for those jobs, convincing people that you are the right candidate for such a challenge, and then waiting until you find one that will hire you were extremely difficult.
~ This post is part of our series “Ask a Public Historian,” brought to you by NCPH’s New Professional and Graduate Student Committee. Follow the committee on Twitter at @NCPHnewgrad. You can find more “Ask a Practitioner” posts here.