What is Public History?

A few weeks ago, I was attending an optional Digital History class and someone there asked if a teacher was a public historian.  At the time, I said that teachers were not public historians.  I said this for two reasons.  First, in my Public History Seminar, pre-collegiate social studies teachers are not in the definition of the class.  If you look at all of the assigned books and readings, not one mentions the role of a pre-collegiate history teacher in a classroom setting.  Due to that, I then became determined to discover a reason that teachers are not public historians.  This mission of discovery led me to my second reason that excludes teachers, in which I mistakenly concluded that teachers don’t contribute anything “new” to the field.  I have since revised my thoughts on the matter, but I am now more in-tune with why teachers are different from public historians.

The difference, in essence, is derived not from the teacher’s contribution to the field, but from the audience.  Teachers most certainly do contribute to the field.  Each day, they present a wide range of primary resources, provide tools for analyzing them, and ultimately contributing to the memory of past events.  Just the act of creating memory and a narrative for an audience is an act of public history.  But the difference lies in the audience.  Typically, public historians either work for an agency or are hired as a freelance.  Regardless of where or when they work, the public historian is working for their audience.  They have to market either their skills or interpretations to attract clients.  For the social studies teacher, it is much different.  Aside from having to apply for the job and interview, the clientele is compulsory.  I bet there are many, if not all, directors of museums or historic houses who would love a compulsory crowd.

This does not mean that a social studies teacher does not use the same tools as a public historian.  Really, if you think about it a public historian and a social studies teacher are very similar.  They both are professionals whom wear many hats.  As a teacher, one has to be a researcher, administrator, editor, archivist, web designer, and much more.  Both positions also require and encourage team work and collaboration.  From my experience, the training of both focus on many similar concepts such as being inclusive, inventive, democratic, interdisciplinary, scholarly, informed, forward-thinking, and civic minded.  This is only a sample of the similarities.  Also, both professions are involved with educating, creating discussion, and promoting analysis.  So now the question becomes, what is public history?  And, who are public historians?

Defining public history is no easy task.  In fact, there is little consensus even among public historians themselves.  J. D. Bowers, of Northern Illinois University describes public historians as a “historian in the middle,” acting as a sort of mediator between academic historians and the public.  Denise Meringolo likens a public historian to a community organizer with the training of a historian.  Jane Becke, however, indicates that the profession is a “part of a broad range of humanities, scholarship and practice.”  The most difficult, and frustrating, part of selecting an appropriate definition for the field is that each of the three mentioned above are all right in their own way.  In my estimation, public history is a progressive field where historians utilize research to make insightful and accessible contributions to a public audience.

This was not my first definition of Public History.  My original definition was too narrow, focusing on employment and the human experience rather than accessibility to a public audience.  After developing my original definition, I searched for other definitions and came across the National Council of Public History (NCPH) website, which had a page describing the ongoing discussion surrounding the definition of Public History.  NCPH defines public history as “a movement, methodology, and approach that promotes the collaborative study and practice of history; its practitioners embrace a mission to make their special insights accessible and useful to the public.”  Along with this definition there are two responses expressing the ideas presented above.  Essentially, I was pleased to find that my description of public history was not that far off from what other professionals in the field have been discussing.

Another time, I will have to describe my reasoning  for my definition of public history, but now it is time to end this post.  Just remember, when you think about public history, it is a broad and developing field.  The evidence of such is in the many different definitions that exist.

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