Published Date

January 1, 2004

AHA Topics

Professional Life

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


The size and nature of the current membership of public historians in the Association



Although the AHA collects a variety of demographic and professional data about its members on its membership renewal and new member forms, the data does not include detailed occupational information. Hence it is not possible to get a precise count of the number of public historians within the AHA. Nonetheless, staff were able to identify two broad categories of public historians from the membership data base:

  • those who identify their “Principal Area of Employment” on the membership form as outside of the academy, most of whom can be inferred to be public historians1
  • those who identify their “Principal Area of Employment” as a school, college, or university, but also identify a nonacademic employment category under “Position” on the membership form2

Robert Townsend, Assistant Director for Publications, Information Systems, and Research, prepared a “Report on Public Historians in AHA Membership as of March 31, 2003.” This profile provides context for subsequent sections of the report and also defines a baseline against which to compare future assessments of the representation of public historians in the Association. The following summarizes key points.

If we assume that the 1,758 AHA members (of a total of 14,048) whose “Principal Area of Employment” is outside of the academy are, in fact, employed in public history positions, 12.5 percent of AHA members are public historians. An additional 24.7 percent are academics who also hold a nonacademic position; of these, 19 percent can clearly be identified as public historians, working primarily as researcher/consultants and independent historians. Thus, according to AHA membership data, approximately 17 percent of the Association’s members can be reckoned as public historians. When coupled with data from the task force’s survey of AHA members, which indicates some involvement in public history among 85 percent of academic respondents, we can reasonably assert that public history is part of the normal practice of many AHA members.

The 12.5 percent of AHA members who are principally employed outside the academy can further be characterized as follows:

  • Many of them are self-employed (32 percent); others are employed in business or industry (17.6 percent), U.S. government (12 percent), nonprofit organizations (10.5 percent), and research centers, libraries, or archives (10 percent)
  • Almost half (42 percent) also list an academic position, primarily as graduate student, doctoral candidate, or adjunct. The task force’s survey of AHA members amplifies membership data on this point: 27 percent of nonacademic respondents reported substantial involvement in research, teaching, and scholarly presentations and publication
  • They are somewhat (13.6 percent) less likely than all AHA members to have a PhD and slightly (5.9 percent) more likely to have an MA as their terminal degree. They are slightly (4.4 percent) less likely than all members to be students
  • Their research specialization approximates that of all AHA members in many fields. They are, however, considerably overrepresented in legal, military, and public history and the history of science and technology; and considerably underrepresented in the fields of cultural, gender, intellectual, religious, social, and women’s history
  • They have considerably lower incomes than all AHA members (24.7 percent reporting incomes under $20,000 and just under 1 percent over $70,000; as opposed to 13.8 percent and 11.3 percent respectively for the entire membership)
  • Their racial and gender profiles are similar to that of the entire AHA membership

In addition, a mere 1.6 percent of AHA members are also members of the American Association for State and Local History; 1 percent are members of the National Council on Public History (which, nonetheless, is about 14 percent of NCPH’s individual members); and only .07 percept belong to the Society of American Archivists (SAA).

These data suggest a few observations: the AHA’s membership includes a respectable, if modest, number of historians whose primary employment is outside of the academy and in public history. A sizable minority of all AHA members are involved in public history, ranging from regular employment to occasional consultancies. Nonetheless, the AHA obviously appeals to an academic constituency. Even those whose primary employment is nonacademic also indicate an academic affiliation. It is also likely that, at least for many AHA members, public history is a default and perhaps temporary position for those who have not secured full-time academic employment, a conclusion supported by the fact that a relatively large percentage of those members counted as public historians are self-employed, independent historians, or researcher/consultants. In fact, few who join AASLH, NCPH, or SAA, indicating that they primarily identify themselves as public historians, also join the AHA.

Perhaps the most optimistic conclusion to be drawn from the data is that the AHA has a solid base of public historians—and more importantly, historians engaged in public history—among its current membership upon which future growth can build. The task force’s brief electronic survey of public historians suggests that the majority are not AHA members because they perceive the Association as primarily focused on the interests and needs of academics. Changing that perception could convince more public historians to join the AHA.


The task force also analyzed the extent to which public historians have played a leadership role within the AHA by serving in either elected or appointed positions during the past decade (1994-2003). Here public historians are reckoned solely on their institutional affiliation, based on data compiled by staff. The task force understands that many historians with academic affiliations demonstrate commitment to public history and also that many leadership positions have little to do with public history. Nonetheless, the number of nonacademically affiliated historians in leadership positions is a useful measure of their engagement with the Association, as well as a means of assessing their visibility (or invisibility) within it. It is also of substantive and symbolic importance to many public history colleagues.

Table 1. Public Historians in AHA Leadership Positions

YearNewly Appointed or ElectedTotal in Service


Table 1 displays the elected and appointed positions held by public historians, 1994–2003 (excluding the Program and Local Arrangements Committees, discussed separately below). They have held a total of 55 positions during the decade, including 10 elected and 45 appointed positions. Each year, 12 positions are filled by election. Public historians have thus been elected to fill 8.3 percent of the available elected positions for the decade under consideration. The total number of appointments made annually varies, depending upon the cycle of a given award, the cycle of appointments, and other considerations. In 2004, 39 positions were open for appointment; if that number is taken as fairly typical, public historians have filled approximately 11.5 percent of available appointed positions.3

The data reveal a number of patterns:

  • Public historians have consistently been represented on the Council throughout the decade, with four individuals elected in succession to an unofficial public history slot4
  • For eight of the ten years under consideration, they have had a seat on the Committee on Women Historians
  • They have been represented on six of the AHA’s 13 standing and joint committees and ad hoc task forces; nine of its 26 prize and award committees; and three of its eight delegate positions
  • More than one-fourth (28.8 percent) of the total appointed positions filled by public historians have been on the Herbert Feis Award Committee, where they have filled thirteen slots. The Feis Award recognizes the scholarly interests of public and independent historians and was created during previous efforts to increase the Association’s service to public historians
  • During 2003, a record 24 public historians held leadership positions within the Association. One fourth of these positions were appointments to either the Task Force on Public History or the Task Force on Intellectual Property

Table 2. Public Historians on the Program and Local Arrangements Committee

Program CommitteeLocal Arrangements Committee
YearNumber of Public Historians on CommitteeTotal Number of Committee MembersNumber of Public Historians on CommitteeTotal Number of Committee Members
Totals6 (4.7%)12831 (16.8%)184
* a public historian was co-chair of the 1999 Program Committee


Because the annual meeting is the AHA’s most visible and inclusive program, public historians’ participation on the Program and Local Arrangements Committees has been reckoned separately, as displayed on Table 2.5 Overall, public historians have constituted 4.7 percent of the Program Committee and 16.8 percent of the Local Arrangements Committee during the decade.

Again several observations can be made: public historians have been consistently, if sparsely, represented among AHA’s leadership during the past decade. If the 17 percent figure noted above can be taken as a rough gauge of the total membership of public historians in the AHA, their level of participation in leadership positions has not been on par with their overall numbers. However, it may be more useful to look at where public historians have and have not been represented. While welcome in some ways, the informal allocation of a public history slot on the Council is its own form of marginalization. Could two never serve simultaneously? Among the divisions, the Research Division has been most open to public historians; all divisions could arguably benefit from their sustained participation. For the ten years under consideration, no public historian has served on the Committee for Graduate Students, the Committee on Minority Historians, or the Committee on Committees; only one has served on the Nominating Committee. While well represented on Local Arrangements Committees, public historians have not been much represented on the Program Committee. Other then overrepresentation on the Feis Award Committee, again perhaps a form of marginalization, they have enjoyed only scattered representation on other prize and award committees, fellowship and grant committees, and as delegates.6 No public historian served on the Editorial Board of the American Historical Review in the past decade.


  1. Continue to track the size and nature of AHA’s public historian membership and their leadership participation in the Association, in order to assess the impact of the AHA’s efforts on behalf of public history and measure change over time. (staff)
  2. In the context of AHA’s developing marketing program, consider a targeted membership campaign, focusing on members of the National Council on Public History, the Society for History in the Federal Government, and the American Association for State and Local History, after the Association has demonstrated an increasing commitment to public history and public historians. Consider a joint membership arrangement with one or more of these organizations and/or consider soliciting joint advertisements for membership in these organizations’ newsletters. (staff)
  3. Expand current efforts to include public historians in AHA leadership positions, especially on those divisions and committees where they have been largely absent. In light of the Professional Division’s reaffirmed mission to represent the professional interests of all historians, regularly include one or more public historians on that body. While the task force recognizes that AHA leadership must be broadly representative in a number of different categories, including geographic specialization, it also understands leadership to be more important than “representation.” We therefore recommend neither a quota system nor the assignment of specific “slots” to public historians, but a more integrative approach, which recognizes that a public historian can make a positive contribution to the AHA as both a public historian and colleague. (Nominating Committee, Committee on Committees)
  4. Evaluate knowledge of and commitment to public history as an important consideration in the selection of nominees for the position of AHA president, president elect, and vice presidents. (Nominating Committee)
  5. For the next several years, include on the Nominating Committee and Committee on Committees one or more individuals with well developed networks among public historians who will identify public historians as candidates for available positions. In the absence of such individuals, actively seek recommendations for candidates. (Nominating Committee, Committee on Committees)
  6. Regularly include public historians and/or academically employed historians with a lively interest in public history on the annual meeting Program Committee. While the Task Force recognizes that the Program Committee must represent diverse fields and interests within a limited number of positions and does not seek an annual slot or quota, it also notes that public historians also have expertise in fields other than public history. Continue the substantial representation of public historians on the Local Arrangements Committee, including, where feasible, the appointment of a public historian as LAC cochair. The presence of public historians on the PC and LAC will be instrumental in implementing recommendations we are making for the Annual Meeting (see Charge 3). (Research Division, staff)
  7. Consider an occasional, informal modification of the AHA policy that requires those appointed or elected to a leadership position be an Association member, so that an individual who is not an AHA member may nonetheless be approached about service to the AHA on the condition that, if he/she wishes to accept a nomination or appointment, s/he must immediately join the Association. The task force recognizes that a commitment to the AHA as indicated by membership is an important qualification for a position within the Association. Yet it also recognizes a vicious cycle: public historians are not AHA members because they do not feel represented by the Association and the Association loses the contribution of otherwise highly qualified public historians because they are not members. (Nominating Committee, Committee on Committees)
  8. Revise the employment taxonomy on the membership form to distinguish those who work outside of the academy in history related jobs from those who work outside the field of history altogether. Refine the “Position” categories to distinguish those that are located in an academic setting, those in a public history setting, and those outside the field of history. Consult with public historians to determine the most appropriate categories of public history employment. While we recognize that implementing this recommendation may involve considerable time and expense, we also suggest that expanding fields in the employment taxonomy would not seriously undercut comparison over time and would make comparisons more precise. (staff)

Next section: Charge 2


  1. “Inferred,” because we do not know, for example, if the 310 members who identify their “Principal Area of Employment” as “Business or Industry” are employed in what can broadly be considered “history jobs,” or if they have left the field altogether. []
  2. Most of these individuals are not likely to be substantively involved in public history; fully 54 percent fall into the amorphous “other” category; 13 percent are “administrators,” including, presumably, college and university administrators; and 8.6 percent are retired. []
  3. In any given year, public historians have filled from seven to twenty-four positions, both elected and appointed; the average is thirteen positions annually. Looked at another way, each year during the decade zero to nine public historians have been elected or appointed to positions, the average is five (the discrepancy between the number of total positions held annually and number of positions to which individuals are elected or appointed in a given year results from the fact that the term of most positions is longer than a single year; typically it is three). []
  4. Four, because the data provide a ten-year snapshot and two Council members—at the beginning and end of the decade—were reckoned mid-term.
  5. They have held four positions on the Research Division and one on the Professional Division []
  6. In seven of the ten years, five or fewer public historians were on the LAC. Six public historians have served on the Program Committee; zero to 12 have served on the LAC in a given year. One public historian has co-chaired each committee. []
  7. One explanation for the absence of public historian on book prize committees is the preponderance of Americanists among them—committee members must have published work in the field represented by the award and thirteen of the AHA’s prizes cover fields outside the United States. []