Published Date

January 1, 2004

AHA Topics

Career Paths, Professional Life

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


The degree to which various professional standards and practices published by the AHA adequately reflect and serve the needs of public historians

The task force responded to this charge by assessing the AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct in light of the two assumptions governing our work. We considered the extent to which the Statement reflects a broad understanding of the role of public history and engagement in the lives of all historians and how it addresses the specific conditions of professional life outside the academy. The task force recognizes that the Statement articulates the professional practices and ethical principles that have guided historians for the past 27 years. Yet is also recognizes that the document carries a special burden: because the AHA itself represents the broadest spectrum of history, historians, and historical activities, the Statement must be inclusive in its definition of who makes up the profession and what comprises professional work.

In spring 2003, the task force submitted a substantial critique of the Statement on Standards to the Professional Division. Our comments built on the work of former division member James Grossman, who undertook a similar exercise when the division first began its consideration of public history. To summarize our concerns: The guiding paradigm of the Statement is the scholar-teacher. Despite the AHA’s efforts to update the document and extend its reach, it is of limited relevance to public history, public historians, and public service. In places the Statement actually runs counter to public history concerns as the task force has defined them, including its overly limited definition of “public service” and its failure to adequately take into account the particular circumstances of workplaces outside the academy. The document is also marred by some confusion in voice and audience. While some of these shortcomings—from the standpoint of public history—result from an accretion of additions and revisions to the Standards, the net effect is to deprive the document of the clarity and consistency it strives to attain.

Partially in response to the TFPH’s critique, the Professional Division has initiated a major revision of the Statement on Standards and has articulated a “new emphasis on developing resources for historians seeking guidance about various aspects of their professional lives.”1 The task force has suggested several ways to advance this project in its previous reports to the division; these are codified below as recommendations. Members of the TFPH would be pleased to work with the Professional Division to draft or suggest authors for specific items and to review drafted material.



  1. Write and promulgate widely a single, short, non-legalistic statement that identifies a guiding ethos or fundamental principles applicable to all persons engaged in professional historical activity, whatever their specific circumstances, employment, and interests.This document should affirm the profession’s unwavering commitment to such values as the integrity of sources, civility in professional discourse, honesty in acknowledging the work of others, fairness in hiring, and respectful working conditions. It should also explicitly affirm the value of public practice and public engagement for all historians. (Professional Division)
  2. Because these fundamental principles play out differently in different occupational and professional settings, supplement the initial statement with a range of guidelines, statements, and best practices documents that identify values and preferences appropriate to those different settings. Other sections of this report identify issues relevant to public history that can appropriately be included in such guidelines; we summarize key concerns on the following page. While the framework and organization of these proposed documents will be refined as the division continues to consider and develop them, we would suggest that some subjects may appropriately be discussed in a separate document (or documents) specific to public history (e.g. hiring and employment practices), or a specific subset of public history practice; others as part of a broader discussion of a given subject (e.g. part-time employment, teaching). (Professional Division)
  3. Supplement these guidelines with “tip sheets” or short essays addressing professional concerns in an informed and informal manner. On the following page is a short list of public history topics that might lend themselves to tip sheets; existing Perspectives articles might be edited to create some of these or related documents. (Professional Division, staff)
  4. Consult with other historical organizations, including NCPH and AASLH, in the development of certain documents, as appropriate.
  5. Widely promulgate these statements, guidelines, and other documents, including posting them on the AHA Web site. Also include on the Web site best practices statements already developed or endorsed by the AHA, such as the Standards for Museum Exhibits , and links to statements of professional standards developed by other public history organizations. Important documents include the American Association for State and Local History’s Statement of Professional Ethics, the National Council on Public History’s Ethical Guidelines for the Historian , the Oral History Association’s Oral History Evaluation Guidelines , and the Society for History in the Federal Government’s Principles and Standards for Federal Historical Programs . (Professional Division)

Proposed Advisory Documents


Employment Guidelines
  1. Discussion of hiring practices and conditions within a variety of public history institutions, including museums; local, state, and federal agencies; profit and nonprofit organizations; et al
  2. Guidelines for professional development for public historians, specifying the resources that public history professionals need to develop and sustain competencies, skills, and expertise (e.g. funding for research and conference travel, sabbaticals, research assistance, relief from administrative responsibilities, and ongoing professional development opportunities)
  3. As discussed above under Charge 3, outline the skills an historian brings to an employer and the value and importance of hiring trained professionals to do history. A related document is a discussion of hiring standards for public history positions within nonacademic institutions including recommended training, experience, etc.
  4. Guidelines on conditions of part-time employment within public history institutions
  5. Hiring guidelines for public history positions within academic institutions, to include the assessment of prior public history employment
  6. Guidelines for the part-time employment of public historians in a post secondary institution
  7. Guidelines for assessing public history involvements in promotion and tenure decisions
Professional Standards
  1. Discussion of the professional and ethical concerns relevant to “doing history” in a variety of settings (including intellectual autonomy, working as part of a team, and other issues), including historic preservation and cultural resource management programs, filmmaking, museums, monuments, historical sites, journalism, etc.
  2. Guidelines for core competencies for the MA degree in history, with attention to public history and its various fields, perhaps developed by the Committee on the Master’s Degree
  3. Guidelines for developing an MA program in public history, done in conjunction with NCPH Discussion of how the professional value of openness relates to claims of national security, corporate secrecy, and personal privacy
  4. Discussion of the professional obligations of teaching in a variety of settings in addition to the classroom, including museums and “the public square”
  5. Discussion of the professional obligations that inhere in what are frequently understood as “public service” activities, including giving expert testimony, advising on public policy, serving on a public commission, and public advocacy activities
“Tip Sheets” or Informed and Informal Advice
  • How to get a job in public history
  • How to get a history job with the federal government
  • How to talk to the media
  • How to talk to public audiences
  • How to work with filmmakers
  • On becoming a consultant
  • Effective collaborations between public and academic historians

Next section: Charge 5


  1. “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct to Be Revised—Suggestions Invited,” Perspectives 41:6 (September 2003): 20. []