Publication Date

December 1, 1995

When I tell people what I do for a living, their reactions vary. Most express surprise. Even many historians remain unaware that consulting jobs for historians exist. Some people express interest when I describe the wide range of topics I research. Several wistful clients, including cultural resource personnel at government agencies, have confessed a desire to exchange places with me. Some academics, however, remain less than enthusiastic. When I told one of my former professors that I had turned down a one-year contract to teach at a local university so that I could devote more time and energy to consulting, he replied that he was sorry to learn that I had "given up history." Another academic asked whether I felt "guilty" about researching and writing for corporate clients.

I do not, because I see history consulting as a key component of public history. Broadly defined, public history involves an examination of the past that occurs, for the most part, outside the academy. It is history that engages the public in a variety of settings, including museums, historical societies, archives, and government agencies charged with the protection of cultural and natural resources. History consultants provide temporary services—such as research, report preparation, inventories of historical buildings and structures, and expert witness testimony—to public and private clients.

History consulting, it seems, is often either idealized or dismissed. Some professionals see only its enjoyable aspects and downplay or fail to recognize its responsibilities. Some academic historians, on the other hand, view consulting work as less valuable than "serious" scholarship.

For all the misconceptions and lack of awareness, options for careers in public history have broadened considerably during the last 20 years. Although consulting might not appeal to all historians, the profession offers a number of advantages. Foremost in my estimation is the diversity of projects and the varied opportunities for research and writing.

The firm that I work for has provided history consulting services to private and public clients in a number of areas since 1974. One of its specialties is cultural resources management, which includes surveys of historical buildings and structures as well as preparation and execution of maintenance plans. We also research water rights, public land issues, and Native American affairs, and our historians and anthropologists have served as expert witnesses in these areas. In addition, we conduct responsible party searches for hazardous waste sites, and we research and write administrative histories for natural resource agencies.

During the last four years, I have researched conservation laws, Native American treaty rights, hazardous waste sites, water resources development, protection of salmon and steelhead, architectural trends, and community history. While most of the research in our Seattle office is conducted in Washington state, the company has sent me to Washington, D.C.; California; and Alaska to work in repositories such as the National Archives, federal records centers, university and state libraries, county courthouses, and small historical societies.

In addition to archival research, my work has included conducting oral histories, interacting with a variety of clients, and participating in field surveys in diverse locations, ranging from downtown Seattle to small communities and remote wilderness areas. Our historians also devote a considerable amount of time to writing. During the last four years, I have assisted in the preparation of many reports, including two book-length histories. In general, the work is fast-paced, challenging, and exciting. This wide variety and rapid pace, however, can become exhausting. Most consulting projects require historians to work quickly under tight deadlines.

Another drawback to consulting is the lack of autonomy and independence, which some historians—particularly those with an academic orientation—might find disturbing. Even freelance consultants with few or no coworkers must be responsible to their clients. As Otis L. Graham, Jr., editor of The Public Historian, has pointed out, one defining characteristic of public history is that someone else asks the questions. While working on a project, most history consultants remain aware that a client has contracted their research and writing. Still, our integrity and credibility as historians—as well as that of our companies—must be retained, especially if we hope to continue working. In general, most of us recognize that our analysis and conclusions shouldnot vary depending on who has hired us.

Also, consultants might find fewer opportunities for recognition and visibility than other historians. The collaborative nature of this profession could increase the difficulty of delivering presentations at conferences or publishing the results of a project. In any case, most research conducted for litigation must remain confidential. Historians interested in consulting will find a variety of skills useful. The ability to write well—and quickly—is essential. Research, too, must be conducted in an efficient manner, but it has to be thorough and accurate. Owing to the variety of projects, some of which need to be completed simultaneously, and to the speed with which work must be performed, adaptability and flexibility are also desirable traits in a history consultant. Because this job involves interaction with clients, tact, poise, andthe ability to negotiate are especially valuable. For many consultants, a willingness to market and to develop clients is also needed.

Requirements for educational background and experience vary. The firm that I work for employs approximately 20 historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists, with degrees ranging from the B.A. to the Ph.D. Most positions in the company require an M.A. Some employees arrived with specialized training in areas such as cultural resources management and historic preservation, while others received very general training. Our consultants attend workshops and seminars to ensure that their knowledge and skills remain up-to-date.

In sum, historians who enjoy a variety of research and writing projects, who thrive on a fast pace, and who appreciate camaraderie and opportunities for teamwork might find consulting an appealing profession. A graduate degree, research and writing experience, and a cultivation of the skills outlined here should help historians prepare for a career in this field.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Public History News 14 (summer 1994): 5. It appears here with the permission of the National Council on Public History.

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