Historians in Federal, State, and Local History

Overview of the Field

Many Americans will never visit the museums of the Smithsonian or the Civil War battlefields that dot the countryside of the South. Most will never travel the entire length of the Oregon Trail, or stand at the Alamo. In short, most Americans will never have the opportunity to visit major historical sites spread across our country. Rather, they will connect with history through the historical agencies in their own communities. It is up to historians employed by federal, state, or local governments to maintain many of these agencies, archives, and museums.

Local historical organizations have a unique focus on a particular town, county, or significant historical figure from the area. State historical societies often offer information of interest about the state and often hold significant archives for genealogical and historical research. Federal historians work in a variety of capacities that can range from providing research services for politicians to interpreting the stories behind our national parks.

Smaller historical organizations often lack the funding base of larger, better-known organizations. However, this does not mean that these organizations are unimportant or that the story they tell is insignificant; only that the staff of the organization needs to be especially ingenious in their fundraising and their efforts to attract visitors to their institution. In addition to a history degree, such jobs may also require a person devoted to the educational mission of the institution, skilled at fundraising, and adept at maintaining good relationships with the community and a board of trustees. Rarely can an administrator at a small historical organization burrow away in research and never make a public appearance. On the other hand, the job is practically guaranteed to be both challenging and full of variety.

Employment in this area often overlaps with the fields discussed above. Given the obvious links with the museum, archival, and preservation fields, you should also check out the relevant portions of those chapters for more information.

Scope of Training

The federal government offers a wide array of job opportunities. For jobs that require intensive research and writing ability, training at the master’s level is required, and further academic training will be necessary to advance to the level of senior historian. Since historians oversee work projects, skills more natural to the business world will be required of the agency historian. For example, historians may oversee a number of writers working on a number of projects, which will require them to develop leadership and supervisory skills. An eye for organization and budget analysis is often essential.
Historians are also employed in the realm of public policy development, working for agencies that formulate policy and develop legislation. Several public history programs in the nation offer an emphasis in public policy. Such degree work can be done in conjunction with political science and public administration departments, and may require students to take courses in policy formulation as well as history. The National Council on Public History’s A Guide to Graduate Programs in Public History will help you find schools that offer this option.

To get a sense of the wide variety of jobs available in state and local history, just take a glance at the most recent edition of the AHA’s Directory of History Departments, Historical Organizations, and Historians. As you will see from the staff listings, some jobs in these organizations do not require a master’s degree in history, which provides an opportunity for people with the baccalaureate in history to take their expertise to a more diverse public. However, those institutions that do require degrees often require a master’s degree in public history, museum studies, or an allied field, while smaller institutions may require only a bachelor’s degree in one of those fields. There are exceptions. Jobs in education, for example, may require training in education or teaching experience. Some museum studies programs offer specific degrees in museum education. Training in the area of public relations, marketing, or business may be appropriate for jobs that are crucial in helping the institution survive financially, rather than in managing the content of the museum. Higher-level administrative positions in larger institutions may require a Ph.D. in history, particularly if the institution is attached to a college or university.

In addition to the academic training, the strong candidate should ensure that the remainder of his or her résumé reflects a dedication to the field of state and local history. Therefore, a history of volunteering at local historical institutions may be important. State and local history organizations are located in even the smallest towns, and any institution will be grateful for an excited volunteer. Ideally, a volunteer would cross-train, working in various areas of the organization to get a good overview of all the facets of the museum, and to determine the most interesting positions. College students may be able to arrange an internship for credit through their college or university. When selecting a graduate school, choose one that requires actual experience (via graduate assistantship or internship) as well as course work. The actual “doing” of public history is just as important as learning from textbooks.

Recent Trends in the Job Market

Federal and State government

Historians can find a broader range of employment in the federal government. Many agencies (such as the Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) hire historians to write histories of significant moments or events within the agency. Historians who enjoy “traditional” fields such as military, political, or diplomatic history may find this work rewarding. Many of these publications are designed for in-house use by the agency or as a reference for other scholars. Because of specialized needs of certain agencies, such as NASA, historians may need to understand highly technical documents. The work of these historians is also subject to agency review, since it falls under the mission of the agency. A good example of this type of material is the Foreign Relations of the United States series produced by the Department of State’s historical office, which chronicles the links between our country and the rest of the world. Publications also illuminate the careers of ambassadors and the travels of the president and secretaries of state. More specialized projects, such as the Holocaust-Era Assets Records Project, address issues of both historical and contemporary importance. Most historians engaged in government research and writing also produce works for consumption by the general public. Perhaps the best example of this type of work is the National Park Service, where historians are employed to interpret park sites for visitors. The NPS is covered in more detail in the chapter on historic preservation.

Federal historians are called upon to do additional work besides research and writing. Many historians are required to do reference work, taking queries from their own agency, other government agencies, journalists, and the general public. In many cases, such as requests from journalists or members of Congress, reference requests may need immediate answers, requiring a good command of the workings of the agency. Historians may also need to prepare briefings for people about to testify for Congress, or may be asked to testify themselves. In each case, the ability to provide clear, cogent answers to difficult questions is the principal value of the historian.

Historians are also used in policy work. Again, historians are primarily valued for their ability to “get to the bottom of things” by determining the source of a problem and their ability to discern multiple viewpoints on a given issue. Sylvia Kraemer notes that historians have the ability to find the “center of gravity” of an issue, thanks to their historical perspective. Think of how you have analyzed primary sources to find the crux of a problem, one that may even have eluded the actual participants in the debate. In the arena of policy formulation, these skills will help you determine the right questions to ask and know when you have found useful answers.

Local History

The variety of jobs available are demonstrated by the American Association for State and Local History’s (AASLH) categories for employment listings: archival, curatorial, collections, conservation, development/membership, director/administration, education, interpretation, miscellaneous, preservation, publications, public relations/marketing, and registrars. Organizations may require a person to wear only one hat, a few of them, or, in very small agencies, even all of them. Despite the differences in size, these organizations do a variety of things: collect artifacts for display, provide access to manuscript archives, publish documentary editions of manuscripts, provide reference services to the community, assist schools with educational programs, act on behalf of the preservation of local landmarks, or maintain sites of historic interest. All of these functions take place primarily for the local community.

Therefore, knowing how to do local history can be more important than knowing specific local history—indeed, knowing the local history for the area in which you apply for a job may be impossible. A willingness to learn the history of the community and become actively involved in its preservation is crucial. See how the exploration of local history can lead to larger projects, for example, in Lee Formwalt’s biography, as he recounts how he used local materials on civil rights to build an interest in that topic in his area.

Local historians must devise ways to keep history in the public eye, such as working with schools for National History Day, providing a weekly column in the local newspaper, or writing booklets on aspects of the community’s history. These last suggestions point to another important part of the local historian’s tasks: research. Historians must research local history and find compelling ways to connect a particular place to other places and a particular story to other stories across the nation and around the world. Traditional sources such as newspapers, church records, and public records are useful, but local historians should not ignore the wealth of information that lives in the residents themselves. An active and productive oral history program can raise the profile of the local historian, provide a wealth of information, and serve as a positive way for community members to be involved in the organization.

Another critical role that local historians play is providing reference services for the community. Questions may range from the innocent to unreasonable, but the local historical society must be a trusted source of accurate information if it is to survive in a small community. This requires dedication and competence on the part of the local historian.
Finally, a local historian will usually be required to oversee and train a staff of volunteers. These dedicated amateurs can serve a range of functions, and the historian must insure that their efforts are both directed to the needs of the institution and are maintaining their own interest in history. Volunteers can be a tremendous resource, and understaffed societies cannot afford to be without their assistance.