Published Date

January 1, 2004

AHA Topics

Professional Life

From Public History, Public Historians, and the American Historical Association (2004)

Since its founding in 1884, the American Historical Association has been simultaneously involved with and indifferent to history as it is practiced outside of the academy.1 Among the association’s early members were men affiliated with state and local historical societies, devoted amateurs, and gentlemen scholars. Herbert Baxter Adams, the AHA’s first secretary, sought to promote collegial relations between local amateurs and professionally trained historians and advocated a close relationship between historians and the public, declaring that “local studies should always be connected in some way with the life of the community and should always be used to quicken that life to higher consciousness.”2 Early presidents of the Association included librarians, archivists, barristers, and politicians.

Equally important, since its founding the AHA has been actively involved in affairs beyond the pursuit of scholarly research, including the preservation of archival records and the teaching of history in the schools. The Association helped establish and remains the primary supporter of the National Coalition for History (previously the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History), a national advocate for history; and at least since the 1980s has occasionally sought ways to recognize and support the work of historians outside the academy. Its 1993 report, Redefining Historical Scholarship, articulates a broad definition of scholarship that encourages college faculty to move beyond traditional research and legitimizes public history work. In recent years the Association has also taken a professional interest in controversies surrounding the public presentation of history at the Smithsonian Institution and elsewhere. Like Adams, many individual AHA members over the past 119 years have actively sought to link scholarship with broader civic concerns.

Yet early on, the emerging professoriate, for whom the pursuit of scholarship was an overriding concern, distanced itself from non-academic members of the Association. The AHA increasingly focused on the interests of professionally trained scholars practicing in an academic setting. Consequently, in 1904 the Conference of State and Local Historical Societies organized within AHA to address the interests of that constituency, whose members, though accomplished and deeply committed to history, frequently lacked advanced training in the discipline. Some thirty-six years later, the conference broke away from the AHA to establish its own independent organization, the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). Partly in response to the job crisis, in the 1970s public history emerged as a self-conscious field focused on historical work carried on outside of an academic setting, including presenting history to public audiences. The National Council on Public History (NCPH) was established in 1980 to represent this field, joining the Society for History in the Federal Government (SHFG), founded the previous year, as a forum for the exchange of ideas and a means to advance the common interests among professional historians outside the academy. Dozens of graduate programs in public history have developed over the past quarter century. At the same time, historians whose primary professional commitment lay in museums and historical organizations became increasingly segregated from their academic colleagues. Over the long term, public and academic historians have become cut off from one another—some would argue deeply estranged—even though they frequently share a common training and commitment to professional history.3

The separation of academic from public historians is symptomatic of the deeper disjuncture of historians from public life. It is hard to imagine George W. Bush joining the Association, as did Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, and John F. Kennedy.4 Historical study has become increasingly specialized and inward-turning, as peers form the primary audience for historians’ work. Graduate study has become devoted to monographic research, with the nearly exclusive goal of obtaining an academic appointment even in the face of a chronically depressed job market. Faculty face increasing pressure to produce scholarly publications. At the same time, we are witnessing enormous popular interest in history. Academics are expressing a desire for a stronger voice in public debates, lamenting that their research fails to reach a wide audience. The AHA’s signal achievement of the last several years, The Education of Historians in the 21st Century, addresses many of these concerns in the context of graduate training. Indeed, it begins by acknowledging that “fellows historians with advanced education in the discipline are not only e mployed as teachers but also work in other settings where they apply their historical knowledge to a variety of pursuits, as journalists, editors, filmmakers; in research institutes, law offices, libraries, and government agencies; and as consultants in the private sector.” Nor is this simply a list of “alternate careers”; the report continues: “Such an inclusivity supports the profession’s public responsibility to promote historical knowledge in American society, whether in schools, in colleges, in museums, in the media, or in the formation of public policy.5 The report of the Task Force on Public History is a second step in the process of reintegrating public and academic history, so that the AHA may represent all historians and better “promote historical knowledge in American society.”


Formation of the Task Force on Public History

Against this backdrop, the AHA Council established the Task Force on Public History (TFPH) in January 2001. Its immediate origins can be traced to a conversation about issues of mutual concern between representatives of the AHA and NCPH in the fall of 1999, initiated by AHA Council member Linda Shopes; Stanley Katz, then Vice President of the Research Division; and Arnita Jones, recently appointed Executive Director of the Association, all of whom shared an interest in advancing the AHA’s relationship with public history. One result of that meeting was an agreement between the two organizations to co-publish a revised edition of Careers for Students of History , which appeared in 2002. Another was to refer various matters of concern to public historians to the AHA’s Professional Division, which considered them carefully during the following year. The division recognized that it could not give public history the careful and sustained attention it required and recommended that Council establish a Task Force on Public History.

Upon the Council’s acceptance of the Professional Division’s recommendation, then president Wm. Roger Louis charged the task force with identifying ways the AHA can more effectively address the interests and concerns of public historians both within the Association and at large, as well as ways of deepening an understanding of and appreciation for the activities of public historians within the profession. In particular, he charged the task force to report to the Council, through its Professional Division, on the following matters:

  • The size and nature of the current membership of public historians in the Association
  • Whether degree offerings in higher education institutions—including undergraduate as well as graduate programs—adequately take into account the role public history can and does play in the nation’s cultural life and within the profession
  • What professional needs are voiced by public historians that membership in the AHA could and should address
  • The degree to which various professional standards and practices published by the AHA adequately reflect and serve the needs of public historians
  • Ways in which the AHA could cooperate on public history issues and initiatives with public history organizations, particularly the National Council on Public History and the Society for History in the Federal Government

The following individuals were appointed to the task force in May 2001 by President Louis:

  • Michael Frisch, professor of history and American studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo
  • Marie Tyler McGraw, an independent historian and most recently on the staff of the National Park Service (resigned in late 2001)
  • Maureen Murphy Nutting, professor of history at North Seattle Community College, who as a member of the AHA Council, has served as the Task Force liaison to the Professional Division
  • Linda Shopes, historian at the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, chair
  • Noel Stowe, professor and chair of the History Department and senior director of the Graduate Program in Public History at Arizona State University
  • Jamil Zainaldin, executive director of the Georgia Humanities Council
  • Victoria Hardin, Director, Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum, National Institutes of Health, joined the Task Force as cochair in January 2002 upon her election to the AHA Council.

The Work of the Task Force

Responding to its charge, the TFPH took as its primary goal the preparation of this report. Over the past two-and-a-half years, it has had two face-to-face meetings and two teleconference meetings, supplemented by regular listserv communications. While the minutes of these meetings record the range of issues task force members discussed and various actions taken, they do not convey the energy, imagination, and commitment that especially characterized the face-to-face meetings. Repeatedly, task force members have had to remind themselves that they were charged with recommending action to the Council, not initiating it.6

To inform its work, the TFPH surveyed all AHA members about their involvement in and concerns about public history. Almost seven hundred individuals responded to this broad survey. A more focused survey of public historians, circulated via selected listservs, helped identify their particular interests and needs. The task force received fewer than one hundred responses to this second survey. In addition, the task force conducted open forums at the AHA’s 2002 and 2003 annual meetings; engaged in numerous conversations with public history colleagues from SHFG, NCPH, and AASLH, as well as unaffiliated individuals; consulted with Philip Katz, research director for the Committee on Graduate Education, who provided valuable data and input; and reviewed relevant AHA documents, particularly the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. The task force also benefited from responses to the original announcement of its formation in the September 2001 Perspectives and especially to President James McPherson’s column, “Putting Public History in Its Proper Place,” appearing in the March 2003 Perspectives.

Two key assumptions have guided our work: first, we understand public history not as a distinct subset or constituency of the historical profession, but in the broader sense of education for and engagement with the public and, as such, a legitimate dimension of the work of all professional historians. Second, we believe that the AHA and the profession need to take deliberate and active steps to value and serve public history. All of the task force’s efforts at information gathering revealed public historians’ sense of estrangement from, frustration with, even hostility to the organized history profession.

There is an admitted tension in these two assumptions: on the one hand we embrace the notion that “we are all public historians,”7 on the other, we recognize that public history defines a specific kind of historical practice and that public historians have common interests. This tension runs through this report, surfacing in recommendations that identify ways “on the one hand” of blurring the boundary between academic and public practice and “on the other” of addressing the unique needs of public historians.

Yet we would also suggest that there is an underlying coherence to our understanding of public history and public historians. A broad conception of the public dimension of the historical profession recasts the place of public historians within the Association and profession, shifting the focus from an estranged or antagonistic relationship between academic and public historians to one that is more balanced, respectful, and dialogic. As the task force envisions it, the AHA should be the place where historians with different professional relationships to the primary functions of teaching, research, and public presentation learn to work together as equals. Moreover, concerns and opportunities can flow in both directions—it is not a matter of outreach or inclusion from a secure center to a marginalized other. Just as academic history and historians can expand outward toward more sustained engagement with history outside the academy and with varied forms of historical discourse, so too can the professional research standards, methods of accountability, and modes of critical assessment refined in academic practice be valuable resources for improving historical representation and discourse, whatever the mode and venue. An expansive definition of historical practice will also allow the AHA to better address fundamental challenges facing our profession as a whole, including audience, modes of publication, popular (mis)conceptions of history, job market definition and access, and the structure of history education, particularly in the graduate programs responsible for shaping and training future generations of historians. Attention to public history—in this broadest sense—becomes not a problem to be solved, but an opportunity for the AHA, for the profession, and for all historians. The AHA has the unique ability to build bridges between historians practicing in different professional contexts. All historians share a commitment to excellence in the common project of history, and the AHA can encourage them to recognize the value of each other’s work. The AHA can fully articulate public history, in both the broad and specialized senses, within the profession in a way that supplements and supports the ongoing work of more specialized public history organizations.

Finally, the task force believes that that this is an especially opportune time for the AHA to direct attention and resources toward public history. Its survey of AHA members reveals a deep and passionate concern that, especially in these difficult times, historians reclaim a role in public life. Some respondents defined this as giving historical perspectives on current issues; others, playing a role in the formulation of public policy. Some members indicated a desire for greater personal involvement in public history programs and projects; others urged the AHA to advocate for the intellectual integrity of public presentations of history. Relatively few respondents (13.6 percent) believe that the advancement of scholarship should remain the central focus of the AHA, to the exclusion of public practice. On the other hand, 39 percent think public practice/practitioners need to be more highly valued and incorporated into the profession and just over 29 percent think that the profession does a poor job of serving nonacademically based historians. The survey also revealed that historians whose primary affiliation is with an academic institution are already considerably involved in some form of public history, with 85 percent of respondents noting involvements ranging from occasional to substantial.

AHA members also recognize there is an enormous public interest in history, even as they regret that this interest is all too frequently satisfied by work of questionable quality. Survey respondents also readily admitted that academic historians have generally abandoned writing for non-specialized audiences and expressed considerable interest in educating the public to a more complex view of the past. Finally, the survey indicated a pragmatic recognition that the dearth of academic positions will continue to lead more historians to public history; and the need, therefore, for the profession and the Association to accommodate this trend in positive ways.

Public historians surveyed by the task force identified many of the same concerns as respondents to the survey of AHA members: the lack of understanding within their institutions, within the profession, and among the public about the need for and value of good history for the general public; the challenges of dealing with popular misconceptions of the past; the desire for greater cooperation with academic colleagues; and the need for greater public support for—and especially funding of—public history institutions. Indeed, the similarity in responses to these two surveys suggests there is considerable common ground upon which all historians stand. It is the goal of this report to recommend ways the AHA can cultivate that ground.

Next section: Organization of the Report


  1. We take this as the broadest definition of “public history,” deliberately not complicating the definition of who is or is not a public historian or what does or does not constitute public history. Public historians are simply those who “do history” outside the academy, whatever their primary locus of employment, whatever the specific nature of their historical work. What they do, as historians, constitutes public history. []
  2. John Higham, “Herbert Baxter Adams and the Study of Local History,” American Historical Review 89:5 (December 1984): 1230. []
  3. John Higham, “Herbert Baxter Adams and the Study of Local History”; Arnita Jones, “Public History Now and Then,” The Public Historian 21:3 (Summer 1999): 21-28; Arthur S. Link, “The American Historical Association, 1884-1984: Retrospect and Prospect,” American Historical Review 90:1 (February 1985): 1-17; David Van Tassel, “From Learned Society to Professional Organization: The American Historical Association, 1884-1900,” American Historical Review 89 (1984): 929-956. []
  4. Thanks to Miriam Hauss, who consulted the 1887 and 1907 membership lists, and Arnita Jones. []
  5. Thomas Bender, Philip M. Katz, Colin Palmer, and the Committee on Graduate Education of the American Historical Association, The Education of Historians in the 21st Century (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 3. []
  6. Face to face meetings were on March 9, 2002 and February 1, 2003; conference call meetings on August 23, 2001 and October 15, 2002. These meetings have been reported in full in four memos to the Professional Division, dated November 29, 2001; March 27, 2002; November 1, 2002; and March 19, 2003. While the task force directed its attention primarily to the preparation of this report and related activities, it also engaged in a number of other short term activities broadly related to its charge, including organizing sessions for the 2002, 2003, and 2004 annual meetings; reviewing the draft of the CGE’s report, The Education of Historians in the 21st Century; and recommending public historians to the Committee on Committees for various appointments. []
  7. This concept, phrased as the question “should we all become public historians?” and answered affirmatively was advanced by AHA president Joyce Appleby in her column in the March 1997 issue of Perspectives. []