Published Date

January 1, 2004

AHA Topics

Career Paths, Professional Life

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


What professional needs are voiced by public historians that membership in the AHA can and should address?

Not surprisingly, the task force learned from its surveys and conversations with public historians that many of them feel—and are—disconnected from their academic counterparts. We emphasize that this perception cuts quite deeply. Although some will undoubtedly remain disgruntled, most also articulate a desire for inclusion as equal members of the profession. They represent a potentially large group of new members for the AHA, as the overwhelming majority said that they were not members but would consider joining (or re-joining) if the Association better addressed their interests. Yet as we emphasize throughout this report, the issue is more than simple “outreach” to a particular constituency. By paying greater attention to public history, the Association can help all historians become more engaged with the public, expanding the profession’s notions of scholarship, audience, and employment and extending the reach of its standards of excellence.

Because this charge opened up so many fruitful areas of discussion and opportunities for action, discussion below has been divided into three sections: 1) services to public historians within existing AHA programs, 2) new opportunities for professional development, and 3) broader forms of advocacy for history, public history, and historians. Each section is further divided into specific topics; recommendations follow from each topical discussion but are numbered sequentially.


Expanding Current Services

Annual Meeting: As the Association’s major collective activity, the annual meeting plays a crucial role in symbolizing, shaping, and reproducing the profession. While its function as a forum for scholarly exchange will always be central, much can be done to represent the range of interests, concerns, and needs of a more broadly conceived profession. In short, the Association can expand the content and format of sessions and the professional services offered to attendees and cultivate a public presence for the meeting. The task force understands the tendency toward cultural reproduction rather than innovation in a form that requires intensive, complex work by a committee charged with delivering a finished program in a relatively short period. It therefore believes that the president, Research Division, and AHA staff must take the lead in developing models, forms, and procedures for the meeting and commends the Research Division’s current efforts to rethink the format of the meeting.1

The task force recognizes that implementing the recommendations below will require reorientation of the work of both Program and Local Arrangements Committees, as well as staff involved in annual meeting planning. The PC will need to be more proactive in developing sessions or identifying those who can do so. The appointment of public historians to the committee, as recommended under Charge 1, can help expand the committee’s networks, but implementing recommended changes is of necessity the responsibility of the entire committee. Even more important, the Local Arrangements Committee needs to be reconceived as a local resource committee, charged with incorporating the resources of the host city and region into the meeting and with reaching out to a broader range of working historians and institutions in the region. The PC and LAC should also work together to shape the program as an integrated package. This, in turn, requires that, at minimum, the LAC chair be appointed at least one year prior to the meeting and that the LAC finalize its plans in time to be included in the printed program. The task force recognizes staff members’ recent efforts to work with the LAC on these changes.


  1. Recruit innovative session proposals involving public history and encourage session organizers to include public historians in thematic sessions, with the goal of both highlighting and mainstreaming public history and public historians. The task force favorably notes that the 2005 Call for Proposals invites proposals from both “academic and nonacademic” members of the Association. Building on this, explicitly encourage the inclusion of public historians on panels in future calls. (President, permanent divisions and committees, staff, Program Committee)
  2. Paralleling a shift in the content of sessions at the annual meeting, shift the format of some sessions away from the dominant mode of reading and commenting on formal papers, to include more roundtables, forums, and other innovative formats. These need not be any less serious, but can help establish the annual meeting as a forum for critical conversations among all historians. (Research Division, other divisions and committees, Program Committee, staff)
  3. Include “how to” sessions and workshops on the program. Focusing attention on specific dimensions of practice (e.g. historic preservation) is one way to highlight the AHA’s interest in an expanded notion of what constitutes history and who constitutes the historical profession. Linking these sessions to parallel academic sessions can demonstrate that such topics and issues are integral to the meeting and to the profession. (divisions and committees, Program Committee, affiliated societies [see #5, below], staff)
  4. Routinely include the full range of career opportunities available to historians, including both careers in public history and related fields and broader notions of public practice for academic colleagues, in sessions on employment and careers. Also feature the broadest possible range of career choices in the job register. These actions can be crucial in signaling to newer professionals that the AHA considers such career choices as normal and indeed, exciting, not marginal or the unfortunate result of a chronically depressed academic job market. (Professional Division, Committee on Graduate Students, staff)
  5. Encourage the National Council on Public History, the Society for History in the Federal Government, and the Association for State and Local History to develop sponsored sessions for the annual meeting. (Program Committee, TFPH, staff)
  6. Consider ways of bringing the annual meeting program into the host city and the city into the program. One way to do this is to schedule sessions at nearby historical sites and organizations, affording local historians an opportunity to present their work and familiarize attendees with resources and opportunities in public history. Another is to encourage local institutions/groups to host events for historians attending the annual meeting. Yet another, more challenging possibility is to open up meeting sessions/events to public audiences—for example high visibility sessions to which “the local public” is invited. (Program and Local Arrangements Committees, staff)


Employment: The task force’s surveys—as well as numerous conversations with colleagues—revealed considerable concern about a number of employment issues, including the privileging of academic positions in Perspectives job market reports; the dearth of data about historians’ nonacademic career tracks and the conditions of public history employment; and, in general, the assumption that the academy is the preferred employment venue for all historians. Of particular concern is employers’ failure to hire historians for work that involves knowledge of history and an ability to synthesize and assess large amounts of data. Experts with training in other fields are routinely hired to prepare historical exhibits, manage historic sites, write histories of agencies and organizations, and prepare historical reports, as well as assess programs, review policies, and manage cultural resources. Colleagues fault professional associations, including the AHA, for failing to make the case that these forms of work are best accomplished by professionals trained in the discipline. To address these concerns, the AHA needs to take steps to raise the visibility and legitimacy of nonacademic forms of employment, understand historians’ career tracks, and improve employment opportunities for historians.

  1. As a long term goal, expand data collection on employment to include a broad range of public history employment opportunities and career trajectories. When possible, include such information in job reports published in Perspectives; if these reports do not include data about public history, retitle them to make clear their focus on academic employment. The task force understands extant data sets make it difficult to extract information about public history. It thus endorses the recommendation in The Education of Historians in the 21 st Century that graduate departments keep placement records for all their graduates; and supports the AHA’s involvement with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators Project, a broad initiative to compile and analyze data about humanities fields. (Professional Division, in conjunction with appropriate external organizations; staff)
  2. Investigate the extent to which independent historians and adjunct faculty do contract work in public history. Assess and take steps to address the concerns of these historians and, insofar as it is possible, integrate part-time public history employment into the agenda of the Joint AHA-OAH Committee on Part-Time and Adjunct Employment. (Part-Time/Adjunct Employment Committee, working with the Coalition of Independent Scholars and the Coalition on the Academic Workforce).
  3. Develop a broad advocacy program to encourage employers to hire professionals trained in history to do historical work, insofar as possible in conjunction with NCPH, SHFG, and AASLH. Such advocacy can fruitfully be linked to competencies encouraged for degree programs and graduates, currently under discussion by the Committee on the Master’s Degree. It can include a number of specific, feasible steps, as follows. First, develop an official document outlining the skills a professional historian brings to the workplace; and suggesting basic degree, experience, and professional accomplishments for different history positions, from entry-level staff to senior administrators. On its own, such a document would allow historians to explain to employers what expert skills they possess that those trained in other fields do not. Second, widely promulgate this document among potential employers, to encourage them to hirel qualified staff. Third, initiate discussions with the American Association of Museums and other public history professional organizations to press for the hiring of trained historians for positions in local, state, and national historical sites, museums, and organizations; and for making appropriate training in history among staff a criterion for accreditation. Finally, public historians have long discussed the certification of historians, that is, the official recognition of an individual as possessing certain skills and bodies of knowledge by a certifying board, as a means of advancing professionalism in the field. While such an idea seems largely incongruous with the professional culture of historians, the discussion nonetheless merits monitoring by the AHA. (Professional Division, staff)
  4. Working with SHFG and NCPH as well as the National Coalition for History, advocate the redefinition of job qualifications for historians within the federal government, arguing that civil service rules should require those who work as federal historians to meet standards equal to those set for government scientists. (Professional Division, staff)


Member Services: Survey responses from public historians indicated a willingness to join the Association if it offered a membership package that appealed to them. Many especially find the American Historical Review too focused on scholarly articles, noting a preference for review articles or continuing education materials that would help them stay current with research in a given field. For example, AHA pamphlets synthesizing recent historiography fill the need for an overview of the literature when developing an exhibit on a particular subject. Not surprisingly, many survey responses suggested offering discounted membership to public historians, or a subscription that includes Perspectives but not the AHR. The task force understands that important financial considerations make this impractical. However, the expense of membership in multiple organizations is a real problem and, per recommendation under Charge 1, a joint membership in the AHA and a public history organization such as NCPH or AASLH might be considered. More generally, while implementing any number of the recommendations in this report may encourage public historians to become members of the Association, providing specific services to address articulated needs will play a particular role.

  1. To create wider awareness of the AHA’s ongoing activities and market the electronic version of Perspectives, regularly post announcements of Perspectives articles of interest to public historians to H-Public, H-Museum, and other listservs. (staff)
  2. Market AHA pamphlets to public historians by advertising in public history publications and listservs, as well as on the AHA Web site. Also consider developing pamphlets that would serve historians in public practice— fundraising and developing a consulting business are repeatedly identified as topics of interest. (staff)
  3. Consider publishing more frequent review or “state of the art” articles in the AHR to enable public historians—and all historians—to remain current with research in specific fields. Post notice of these articles on public history listservs, with a link to the History Cooperative. (AHR editorial staff)
  4. Consider publishing reviews of various forms of public history, including exhibits, interpretive activities at historic sites, and Web sites, in the AHR. In addition to subjecting public history to critical review, this would help legitimize forms of public practice to the entire profession. (AHR editorial staff)
  5. Provide a regular and highly visible place for recognizing innovative professional work in public history within the AHA’s prize structure. The existing Herbert Feis Award, which recognizes a publication written by a public or independent historian, could be redefined to recognize museum exhibits and other forms of public history scholarship. An additional award, either funded or honorific, could be developed, perhaps jointly with a public history organization. (Research Division)


Professional Development: Historians in the academy and public historians both express interest in learning more about each other’s work and in working together more effectively. The former want to the learn strategies and skills of public practice, especially ways to reach a wider audience with their research. The latter want more interaction with the world of scholarship. Yet few opportunities exist for the sort of continuing education that might bring the two groups together to learn from each other. Existing professional development programs are not grounded in history and occur in venues and forms unfamiliar to historians. This suggests the need for professional development opportunities for historians, especially those encouraging collaboration between academic and public historians. To this end, representatives of the AHA, OAH, NCPH, and AASLH met at the 2003 Organization of American Historians’ meeting and will meet again at the 2004 AHA meeting, to explore ways to configure and fund a possible pilot professional development program. In addition, the TFPH sponsored a successful session at the recent Federation of State Humanities Councils meeting on recent trends in Southern history, as a way of alerting that constituency to new scholarship in the field.

  1. Continue to publish articles on collaborations between historians in academe and their public history colleagues in Perspectives. While the series of articles on the Teaching American History program to appear in coming months will include attention to this issue, additional articles might highlight successful collaborations on programming, grant writing, consultations, exhibits, and curriculum. These might ultimately be consolidated into a single “collaborations in public history” space on the AHA Web site, analogous to the K-16 Teaching Collaboratives space. (staff)
  2. Develop and offer opportunities for professional development at the annual meeting, to serve both public and academic historians; and explore the value of offering professional development credit for these programs. Topics might include grant and proposal writing, working with amateur historians on local projects, business skills for freelance consultants, etc. Should these prove successful, consider presenting a series of workshops and seminars around the country, independent of the annual meeting, perhaps in collaboration with an established public history program or organization. The workshop on electronic publishing on the 2004 meeting program is a good step in this direction. (Program Committee, Professional Division, staff)
  3. Develop AHA-sponsored sessions for the annual meetings of other historical and humanities organizations, including “state of the art” presentations, sessions about academic and public history collaborations, and sessions that bring academic and public historians together to consider interpretive issues from their particular vantage points. (TFPH, Professional and Research Divisions, staff)
  4. Pursue the collaborative project discussed at the 2003 OAH meeting. (TFPH, staff)


Broader Advocacy for History, Public History and Historians

State-Level Advocacy: Among the clearest messages emerging from both internal task force discussions and the survey data, as well as from conversations with colleagues, is the desire for the AHA to engage in strong advocacy for public history at the local, state, and federal levels. In part this means advocating for sound public interpretations of the past; it especially means advocating for public funding for historical programs and sites. Although many colleagues are regrettably unaware of the AHA’s advocacy at the national level, its efforts in this arena are outstanding. It is at the state level that greater attention is needed. It is within the individual states that most public historical activity is carried out and funded—in historical societies, archives, heritage tourism initiatives, historic preservation programs, etc.—much of it below the radar screen of the Association and its members, who do, after all, reside in specific states. Recent crises threatening the elimination of state funding for state history offices and programs in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Florida and elsewhere underscore the need for state level advocacy. They also reveal the connection between supporting public history and sustaining professional history in general. Vigorous public history programs within states support excellence in the history presented and provide professional opportunities for historians. As a modest effort to stimulate awareness of public history at the state level, the task force has initiated a series of Perspectives articles on “taking care of history in the states,” focusing on a particular public history issue within a given state as a way to open up broader questions about the practice of/funding for/advocacy for/organization of public history. The first article, by TF member Jamil Zainaldin writing about Georgia, appeared in the November 2003 issue.

  1. Continue the “taking care of history in the states” series. (staff, TFPH)
  2. Prominently feature direct links to pages and sites spotlighting state level issues and a broad range of advocacy efforts on the AHA Web site. The site should also communicate more effectively the AHA’s on-going advocacy efforts. (staff)
  3. Initiate a conversation with AHA staff and Bruce Craig, Executive Director of the National Coalition for History, about the possible development of resources and networks for history advocacy at the state level. Other historical organizations—OAH, AASLH—might fruitfully be included in these discussions, including discussion of funding for an additional part-time staff member to work on state-level advocacy issues. (TFPH)


A More Informed Public: In replies to the TFPH’s survey, AHA members consistently decried the media’s presentation of history, expressing enormous frustration at the disparity between the availability of historical knowledge, represented by the tremendous expertise of the profession, and the shallowness, sloppiness, and even total disregard for history evidenced in movie making, television, and reporting.

There are exceptions to this generalization. We can point to examples of journalists, film makers, popular writers, documentaries, and even a television channel that acknowledge professional history. Likewise, there is no shortage (as our survey showed) of AHA members with expertise in many fields, eager to engage a broader audience. The task force has struggled to identify ways to connect historians with the media to deepen the public’s understanding accurate and thoughtful history. An AHA connection with popular history through American Heritage magazine or the History Channel, for example, might help leverage greater involvement with these media by members and contribute to raising the standards of history that reaches the public through the media. Another possibility is for the AHA to become an active resource for popular media so that AHA members can be identified as expert consultants. The History News Service (HNS) and the History News Network (HNN) are existing means by which historians are developing a credible, recognizable voice on the World Wide Web and in print media. AHA staff member Miriam Hauss regularly provides journalists with contact information for AHA members who can comment on specific issues. However, the working styles of historians and the press are significantly different.2 Reporters working on a deadline frequently are unable to reach a historian in time. Increasingly, they turn to the Internet when they need background information on a particular subject.

The task force thus considered one other professional organization’s solution to the problem of connecting scholars to the media. The American Academy of Religion (AAR) has undertaken an ambitious project to connect journalists with academic experts in religion by means of a Web site that links reporters seeking information or commentary on a specific topic with an expert in the field. Developing a similar mechanism for connecting historians to journalists is appealing. It is also expensive—the AAR received a multi-million dollar grant to hire two full-time staff people and to develop specialized software, and the final product requires ongoing oversight. But after a certain point, the online “connector” does the work. A similar initiative at the AHA would require substantial additional resources, and fundamental questions remain about how journalists might respond to such a tool. Nonetheless, it opens up intriguing possibilities for connecting historians to journalists and ultimately altering the way history is portrayed in the popular media.

The task force notes that the mission statement of the developing National History Center includes “the advancement of historical knowledge in government, business, and the public at large.” Should plans for the center come to fruition, it too could appropriately develop programs to connect historians with journalists.

The larger point in this discussion of historians’ relationship with the media, however, is the need for all historians to cultivate ways of sharing their expertise with a public both misinformed and eager to learn more about history. One specific way the AHA can advance this ethic is through collaborations with organizations, such as the Federation of State Humanities Councils, that can promote structured ways of connecting historians with public audiences.

  1. Initiate conversation with the History Channel, and perhaps American Heritage, to determine if there is interest in more systematically connecting with historians with particular expertise; and to consider opportunities for collaboration. (staff, Council members, divisions, TFPH)
  2. Consult with the media to consider ways of developing more systematic channels of communication between journalists and historians and, more generally, how to encourage better representation of history in the media. To being the process, consider developing, perhaps in conjunction with a reputable journalism school, an annual meeting session or Perspectives article on the relationship between historians and the media, to involve media professionals who then might begin a more long term relationship with the AHA. (Professional Division, staff)
  3. Should the National History Center reach a stage of active program development, use that institution as a forum for connecting historians with journalists and other media professionals. (staff)
  4. Consider initiating discussion with the Federation of State Humanities Council (and perhaps other organizations) about potential collaborations. Discussions might assess ways historians have worked with communities in the past, consider specific resources historians might offer local communities, and look toward the development of joint projects.3) (TFPH, Professional Division, staff)

Next section: Charge 4


  1. Roy Rosenzweig, “Should the Format of the Annual Meeting Be Changed?”, Perspectives 41:6 (September 2003: 21-23. []
  2. Kate Coe, “On the Prowl for Telegenic Experts,” Chronicle of Higher Education 49 (1 August 2003): C3. []
  3. The March 2002 joint report of the Association of American Universities and Federation of State Humanities Councils Task Force, “Humanities Partnerships: University-State Council Collaboration recommendations includes the following: “Professional societies should be encouraged to address the value of collaborative activities. … The directors of professional societies such as … the American Historical Association … should be encouraged to emphasize community services—and specifically, collaboration with state and local humanities organizations—as an important component of a well rounded and rewarding scholarly career (p. 15 []