Publication Date

May 1, 1999

Perspectives Section

Career Paths


Public History

Incoming AHA president Robert Darnton surprised the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History during the 1999 AHA annual meeting by asking the question, "What do federal historians do?" I appreciated Professor Darnton's interest in the activities of historians outside academia since, as AHA president, he serves the interests of all members, whatever their professional affiliations. But the fact that he asked the question also indicated that federal and other historians who practice their skills in nonacademic settings need to communicate what they do more effectively to their academic colleagues. These colleagues, in turn, would then be able to describe more knowledgeably to their students the requirements for and activities associated with a public history career. As president of the Society for History in the Federal Government and a federal historian, I was therefore delighted to be asked to respond to Professor Darnton's question in this column.

Who Are Federal Historians?

This question is not as easy to answer as it may appear. The PhD historians who work for the federal government as official agency historians in the executive branch or historians for the Congress or the Supreme Court spring first to mind. Although this group makes up the largest number of individuals directly employed by the government with the "GS-170 Historian" job classification, they are certainly not the only "federal historians." Many other federal job categories, including curators, archivists, librarians, and records managers, are filled by people with MAs or PhDs in history who may have taken additional training in museum studies or in library and archival science. In the private sector, there are also historians who contract with some federal agencies to undertake virtually all of the above activities. Some of these independent historians work as individual consultants; others work for consulting firms. A final category is composed of those historians working in the federal government in positions that are defined technically as nonhistory positions and classified instead as policy development and evaluation, public affairs, staff in congressional offices, and the like, but which benefit significantly from the incumbent's historical training.

Federal Historians Research and Write History

First and fundamentally, federal historians research and write history. Whether their offices are large or small, and whether they are civil servants, independent scholars, or military officers, federal historians use their training to dig into archival and secondary materials for information that can be used in writing scholarly books and articles, curating exhibits, preparing internal policy papers or public documents, and, most recently, utilizing historical materials on the Internet. Some federal historians write outstanding scholarly histories. Two examples of winners of the Richard W. Leopold Prize of the Organization of American Historians for "the best book on foreign policy, military affairs, the historical activities of the federal government or biography published by a government historian" are books by Donald Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office on the Washington press corps and by Jack Holl and Richard Hewlett of the Department of Energy's Historical Office on the history of the Atomic Energy Commission.1 Other federal historians, like their academic counterparts, may not win prizes but consistently turn out significant and useful scholarship.

The Variety of Federal Research and Writing Activities

Many fields of historical research training are represented in federal history activities. Expertise in history subspecialties such as foreign affairs, military history, and political history are in considerable demand, in some cases more so in government than in university settings. For example, historians in the Department of Defense produce books and articles about the history of every aspect of major conflicts, from military technology to military strategy to health and disease during wartime. Many of these are multivolume works that serve as unparalleled sources for references useful to other historians—whether public or academic—who undertake to write histories of subjects that involve the activities of the military. The ability to analyze historical events through the lens of the social historian is also a valued skill, especially when federal historians must address issues loaded with political controversy. The National Park Service's historical interpretation of the Little Bighorn Battlefield is an example of the use of a social history approach to an event in which cultures clashed and about which many of the descendants of both cultures still feel keenly the need to honor their ancestors.

Federal historians sometimes face unique employment circumstances unknown to historians on university campuses. Historians in the Central Intelligence Agency, for example, write histories based on classified sources, and their work, although widely read within a subcommunity of the federal government, may not be made public and subject to open review of their peers until after they have retired. The small staff of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) history office faces the problems of an overwhelming number of highly technical primary sources and considerable public demand for information about the history of the space program. In order to respond, this federal history office oversees a large contract history program that has produced books and articles about the space program, produces historical materials for its well-maintained and widely used web site, arranges sessions on NASA history at scientific and historical professional meetings at which both the civil service staff and historical contractors regularly present papers, and sponsors an e-mail aerospace history listserv. In addition, it sponsors a prestigious fellowship in aerospace history that is administered by the AHA.

The preparation of reference documents is also a common research and writing task for federal historians. Two recent examples include the massive Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–1989, compiled by the Senate Historical Office in conjunction with representatives of the Office of the Bicentennial for the House of Representatives and published in 1989 as Senate Document 100-34, and the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) three-volume Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Archives, 1995). The valuable finding aids to the records held at the National Archives are other reference documents also produced by federal historians who have archival training. These aids are usually dog-eared from extensive consultation by scholars. One recent reference guide in this genre is Greg Bradsher’s Guide to Records of Holocaust-Era Assets, which is being widely used by governments, law firms, and international organizations to work out the financial entanglements resulting from World War II. Other historical documentation projects which should be mentioned include articles, books, and finding aids relating to the artifacts in federal museums and documentary editing projects conducted within government agencies such as the Department of State’s series, Foreign Relations of the United States, and the Library of Congress’s 25-volume series, Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789.

One final activity that involves research, writing, and policy making by federal historians is essential to all historical work. This is the oversight of the documents on which federal history is based. Archivists, librarians, and records managers are the job descriptions for most of the historians engaged in this work. Since the documents they manage run the gamut from Revolutionary War documents to Matthew Brady's photographs to yesterday's e-mail, their historical training, with knowledge about the kinds of questions that these varied documents can answer, is absolutely key to the preservation of the raw material of historical research. Especially important will be the decisions they make about preserving today's digital documents for research in the next century.

Mission-Based Rationale for Federal Historical Activities

One major difference between public and academic historians is the raison d'être for their scholarly work. Academic historians probably enjoy more freedom to select topics according to their own interests and set their own timetables for research and writing within bounds required for tenure decisions. They often seek to break new interpretive ground with their work, even when it is politically unpopular. The work of federal historians who are employed as civil servants, in contrast, is governed by specific, written mission statements that are never far from their minds, since they must use them to justify budget requests and prepare reports of their activities. The document that guides the Office of the Curator at the White House, for example, identifies the office's prime concern as the "care and preservation of the historic and artistic contents of the Executive Residence." Curator Betty Monkman and her staff are mandated: (1) to produce reports to the President and First Lady; (2) to research and write materials used by White House tour guides in interpreting the public rooms to visitors; (3) to preserve and manage a historic collection of more than 30,000 objects; (4) to maintain a research center and repository for White House history; and (5) to collaborate with the White House Historical Association on the publication of books relating to the White House.

Independent historians working under contract to the federal government operate in yet another fashion, as people whose business is doing history. Their guiding rationale for any project is a "statement of work" in a contract, which defines specifically the schedule they will follow and the "deliverables" they must produce—such as preliminary bibliographies, chapter outlines, revisions, indices—before payment will be made. One such scholar is Ruth Harris, who produced a 40-year history for the National Institute for Dental Research and is currently updating it for the 50th anniversary of the newly renamed National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research. I have watched Harris immerse herself in primary sources, digest a large amount of material, turn up documents and photos her subjects had long forgotten, and draft chapters that are tightly focused and thoroughly documented, all within a period of a few months.

The topics federal historians address are also generated by these mission statements and statements of work. Since most components of government are involved with a wide variety of activities, hewing to the guidance of these documents in no way limits the intellectual challenge for federal historians. Indeed, the larger task is to digest and interpret as much as possible of the mass of data that gets produced in their agencies as the federal government goes about governing. The products of research—whether books, articles, internal papers, exhibits, or reference materials—provide accountability to the citizens whose taxes fund government and institutional memory for agency administrators engaged in policy development. Federal history projects often include collateral activities such as conducting oral histories, assisting with records management questions, advising on archival and historic preservation issues, and building reference collections for internal and public use.

In general, when a federal historian is writing a scholarly article as an authority in the field, he or she enjoys the same degree of editorial freedom as do scholars in academia. This is not the case, however, for highly controversial topics—the only topics for which the concept of academic freedom has important consequences. Federal historians, whether civil servants or contractors, do not speak or write from a personal viewpoint when acting in their official capacities on matters that have political consequence for their agencies. Their work, whether an exhibit, a book, an article, or a web site, is subject to review and approval by agency administrators. In some cases, this situation has led to highly public controversies. A recent example of this was the decision by the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution to cancel The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II, after the exhibit script came under fire from veterans’ groups. Sponsored by the National Air and Space Museum, this exhibit would have featured a portion of the front fuselage of the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima in 1945 and interpreted this event in the context of what nuclear war, real and threatened, has meant to the world. Those objecting believed that the exhibit did not suitably memorialize the American decision to use the bomb. In the wake of the exhibit cancellation, historian-curators at the Smithsonian had two choices: either leave government for academia, where they would have more freedom to present their individual interpretations to a smaller audience, or continue working in the federal government and view this incident as one negative experience in the larger context of their access to millions of viewers annually of other historical exhibits.

More often, the "clearance" process that federal historians undergo requires their awareness of issues that are politically sensitive and a willingness to leave some—usually internal—controversial issues for future scholars to address. For example, in historical evaluations of agency programs whose leaders are still working in the agency and whose viewpoints may clash with those of other employees in the agency, the wise federal historian documents the views of all parties and, if pressed to comment in writing, describes the position of both sides and states what decision was made. Federal historians do not adopt an ideological approach to their historical narratives that castigates government, nor do they write under the interpretive direction of agency administrators as "court historians." They remain keenly aware of the importance to future scholars of carefully documented narratives and of preserving the vital records of government.

Some federal historical offices operate under mission statements that make them unique within the governmental components that house them. Richard McCulley, for example, is employed by the National Archives but holds a position created by Congress in 1990 that charges him with preparing scholarly narrative histories or documentary histories using the records of Congress archived by NARA. He is also expected to promote congressional history and research in Congress's records by contacting scholars in the field of congressional history at professional meetings and other venues. McCulley's major project to date has been a history of the Senate Armed Services Committee based almost exclusively on that committee's archived records. This history will be published as a Senate document with the dual goals of providing value to the Armed Services Committee and stimulating further archival research on congressional committees by other scholars.

Timetables for Federal History Projects

Some projects may be open ended and composed of many smaller projects. The biographical reference works about members of the House of Representatives and the Senate are, of course, updated with every newly constituted Congress. These ongoing projects may also serve as the basis for subprojects such as publications about the individuals who comprised the leadership of each body during a particular time period. In my own office at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I have for some 10 years been involved with a long-term documentation and writing project on the history of NIH intramural research on acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). This project has included the preparation of scholarly papers on topics ranging from the history of federal AIDS policy to the history of the types of scientific evidence used to determine viral causation in infectious diseases. I have also presented lectures on these topics and about the individuals and groups at NIH involved in this research. The project includes an oral history component, in which my colleagues and I have interviewed research scientists, administrators, and other NIH personnel who were extensively involved in trying to deal with this new disease during the earliest period of the epidemic. By default the project has included the amassing of an "archive" of AIDS documents, images, research instruments, and other artifacts. A historical consultant and I plan to bring this material together into a book-length narrative and to produce an associated digital archive of documentary materials.

Timetables for historical projects are dictated by agency needs, however, and are often exceedingly short. Federal historians, whether civil servants or contractors, are accustomed to conducting research and producing documents on extraordinarily tight deadlines—days or hours, in some cases. Knowing where to find materials quickly, and close attention to accuracy of the written document that results are the requisites for this aspect of federal history jobs. These documents, which may be no more than one paragraph, one page, or one short paper, often become the historical material incorporated into a public document that will be scrutinized by Congress, the White House, or the national media—hence the emphasis on accuracy. Federal historians thus prize reliable sources for information and usually maintain paper or digital versions of what used to be called "vertical files" of information that they know will likely be used repeatedly.

"Bread and Butter" Activities

The hardest part about being a federal historian is finding sufficient time to do long-term research and writing—a hurdle faced by academic historians as well. This is because, like academic scholars, we have "bread and butter" activities that we must also accomplish during the course of our days. Some federal historians, especially military historians, teach regularly. Rebecca Cameron, for example, has taught a history of air power course as a part of her duties in the Air Force History Office. Others may not teach on a regular basis but give lectures quite often. I personally speak to Elder Hostel groups, school groups from high school through medical school, and groups of visiting scientists or nonscientist citizens about the history of biomedical research in the United States, the history of the NIH in particular, and the history of AIDS research. All federal historians assimilate considerable technical information about the activities of the agencies with which they work. This expert knowledge, coupled with the historical perspective produced by their training as historians, can make them exceptionally valuable in briefing administrators who must testify before Congress or other high-level commissions. Some serve as expert witnesses themselves.

The declassification of records is another "bread and butter" activity for historians in many agencies. This process includes physically examining and making determinations about the status of documents based on written guidelines. Civil servants and historical contractors alike must apply for and receive security clearances before they are permitted to participate in this highly regulated activity. Once involved, however, most historians also become advocates to the administrations of agencies with which they work for declassification of records at the earliest possible time.

Another routine activity that many federal historians undertake is responding to internal, congressional, and public inquiries about historical matters. One aspect of this involves assisting academic historians with access to federal documents less than 30 years old and therefore not yet accessioned into the National Archives. During the impeachment trial of President Clinton, members of the Senate Historical Office spent considerable time replying to journalists who asked the question, "Who was Andrew Johnson and why was he impeached?" Moreover, considering how rapidly events become "old news" in Washington, responding to inquiries frequently means that federal historians are called on to explain as history what most historians would think of as "current events."

Federal historians are expected to be generalists with respect to the agencies with which they work and must be able to answer questions from three years ago as easily as from a hundred years ago. They must be diplomats when contacted by people who have a burning conviction about some issue, no matter how bizarre. They also are expected to be aware of issues that might carry political sensitivities for their agencies. For example, some time ago, I received a press inquiry about whether the Salk polio vaccine had been developed using human fetal tissues or the tissues of experimental animals. I realized that this question carried more political freight than a simple "this" or "that" answer might imply, since medical research on both types of tissues had evoked considerable political dissension. Fortunately, my historical training made it possible for me to identify and obtain rapidly copies of the scientific papers relating to development of the Salk vaccine, and I was able to call the reporter back with an answer buttressed by citations to the scientific literature. (The answer, by the way, is "both.")

Each agency or private-sector firm requires different "bread-and-butter" activities. Members of the National Park Service historical staff, for example, register properties on the National Register of Historic Places and conduct the Historic American Building Survey. Most historical consulting firms produce public relations documents and materials to reach new clients. As one part of her routine assignments, Peggy Dillon of History Associates Incorporated takes responsibility for her organization's internal and external newsletters. She writes articles, edits the articles of others, acquires illustrations, and works on design and layout.

For some historians, "bread-and-butter" activities have become their entire mission as they have given up formal historical office responsibilities for administrative and policy positions. Heather Huyck, for example, now uses her historical skills in preparing the National Park Service's long-term strategic plan. Anne Effland, who was transformed into a social science analyst in 1994 when the bulk of the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) history program fell victim to budget cuts, now provides historical analysis of current policy issues for USDA administrators. Recently, for example, she researched USDA's historical relationship with minorities and women in connection with the department's 1997 civil rights review and for an exhibit in conjunction with the department's millennium activities.

Administrative and Professional Responsibilities

Finally, federal historians engage in a variety of administrative and professional activities. In my office, I oversee an annual program of travel grants and a postdoctoral fellowship, and the occasional Interagency Personnel Agreement for a senior academic scholar to spend time at NIH working on a project related to agency history. Federal historians are also active in professional societies, giving papers, chairing sessions, participating on committees, and serving as officers for various organizations. By extending their professional connections, moreover, they are knowledgeable resource people about their disciplinary specialties when they are asked to name a historical expert in response to an inquiry.


Perhaps one reason Professor Darnton was uncertain about the answer to the question "What do federal historians do?" is that the responsibilities of federal historians are so varied. These jobs are challenging, interesting, and rewarding. They often permit historians to participate in decisions that have national or international consequences. They require well-honed research skills and the ability to speak and write clearly. Federal history positions for civil servants and private-sector contractors, moreover, are compensated at a rate competitive with—and sometimes greater than—positions in academia.

I hope that my comments in this column will spark a dialogue between federal historians and our colleagues in other settings. More important, I wish that all historians might reexamine what it means to be a historian and a member of the American Historical Association. I believe that we would be better served if we stopped associating particular job titles with the term "historian" and instead conceptualized ourselves as those people who utilize a common intellectual training to approach our varied tasks.


1. Richard G. Hewlett and Jack M. Holl, Atoms for Peace and War, 1953–1961: Eisenhower and the Atomic Energy Commission (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); Donald A. Ritchie, Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991). Both these books also won the Henry Adams Prize for the best book on federal history awarded by the Society for History in the Federal Government.

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