Published Date

January 1, 2004

AHA Topics

Career Paths, Professional Life

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


Ways in which the AHA could cooperate on public history issues and initiatives with public history organizations, particularly NCPH and SHFG

Those who define themselves as public historians often find their professional home in the National Council on Public History, the Society for History in the Federal Government, and increasingly, the reinvigorated American Association for State and Local History, which the task force has added to this “cooperating” charge. This is quite appropriate: many historians find that their most satisfying professional affiliations are with colleagues and organizations in their specific fields. Yet the AHA has been since its inception the umbrella professional association for all historians, articulating and advocating for the highest standards of historical practice and creating a place where all can come together to advance their mutual interests. To continue its historic role as a big tent, the AHA must work to more fully integrate public history and public historians into its programs and, more generally, into the historical profession. Close associations with NCPH, SHFG, and AASLH can considerably assist in this effort.

While many members of these organizations may distance themselves from academic historians, and some are not professionally trained in the discipline of history, they focus on the historical past and work assiduously to provide opportunities for wide sectors of the general public to engage with history. Their serve audiences that range from professional historians to devoted amateurs to individuals with only a casual interest in history. Collectively, their programs, publications, exhibits, and presentations appeal to a wide public, and their audiences cut across age groups, educational and economic levels, neighborhoods, nationalities, and races. They clearly share the AHA’s commitment to fostering a better understanding of the past. Moreover, the organizations themselves share the AHA’s interest in professional standards on a variety of issues, including curriculum, hiring policies and conditions of work, and the quality of historical interpretation. They are logical partners for the AHA as it develops a more inclusive agenda.

While the Association has made overtures toward these organizations in recent years, it has done little to promote substantial dialogue and cooperative ventures. Indeed, as task force members have talked with their representatives over the past two years, there has been a decided note of coolness: “Why now?” they appropriately ask. “How will affiliation with the AHA serve my interests?” Hence, as the AHA seeks collaborations with these organizations, it must to do so carefully, recognizing that they may question the Association’s motives; recognizing too that they have been laboring for years in areas where the AHA may now wish to be more active. The AHA must also bear in mind that, although it is the umbrella organization for all historians, any collaborative efforts in which it engages must be done in a spirit of equal partnership, with an ethic of inclusion, not outreach, and a recognition that public historians often operate with different assumptions and in different modes than their academic colleagues.

The previous four sections of this report include a number of recommendations for specific projects and activities to be undertaken in collaboration or consultation with one or more public history organizations (e.g. membership development, creation of professional development opportunities, reciprocal sponsorship of sessions at annual meetings, review of the Statement on Standards ). We do not reprise them here, only affirm that the AHA will necessarily collaborate with these organizations as it takes a more proactive approach to public history. Here we outline additional recommendations for cultivating cooperative relationships. The task force believes that organizational collaboration opens up opportunities for more localized collaboration among members, arguably of more significance in efforts to integrate academic and public history. Our recommendations reflect this broader view.



  1. Active participation by AHA staff members in meetings of the NCPH, SHFG, and AASLH as AHA representatives. Attendance by individual AHA Council members at these meetings, insofar as it is practical. This rather modest action can serve to improve communication, cultivate networks, and work to end public historians’ misconception of the AHA. It may also open up opportunities for deepening relationships between the AHA and these organizations. Here we note with enthusiasm the recent participation of Debbie Ann Doyle on the AASLH Program Committee; and the open forums CGE Research Director Philip Katz organized at recent NCPH meetings. (staff, Council)
  2. Establish regular channels of communication with public history organizations to encourage them to think of the Association as a supportive network in matters of common concern. Regular communication could also broaden the AHA’s base of support for its own initiatives. Communication can range from simple efforts at information sharing, to modest requests for information or contacts, to mutual involvement in each others meetings and programs, to support for advocacy and other initiatives. As a gesture in this direction, the task force notes with favor the inclusion of the AASLH’s “Statement of Concern Supporting State and Local Historical Agencies” in the September 2003 Perspectives . (staff, divisions)
  3. Assuming the Council acts favorably on this report, publicly and visibly announce the AHA’s developing relationship with public history, as both a valued form of practice for all historians and as a specific kind of practice/practitioner with particular interests and concerns, parallel in importance to those of research and teaching. (staff, Professional Division, Task Force on Public History)
  4. During the task force’s terminal year, consider developing a symposium or similar program on the subject of “making histories public.” This program would have a twofold purpose: to encourage respectful dialogue among academic and public historians about the relationship between scholarship and public audiences; and to signal, in a way visible to the profession, the AHA’s interest in seriously engaging with issues of public history. While NCPH, AASLH, and/or SHFG would be appropriate collaborators for such a program, the goal would be to promote cooperation among the members of these organizations. Clearly, this is a long term project, one that would require considerable resources, and not one that the task force can fully plan during its final year. It can, however, refine the idea, consider its viability, begin to define a structure, and consider sources of funding. It is the kind of program that the National History Center, should it come to fruition, might appropriately sponsor. (Task Force on Public History)
  5. Secure ideas and support for the developing National History Center from public historians. If the center is established, offer professional development programs for public historians and include public historians in its leadership. These actions are in line with the mission statement of the Center, which defines it as “a public trust devoted equally to the professional study and teaching of history and to the advancement of historical knowledge in government, business, and the public at large.” The NHC would thus be well positioned to promote civic engagement by professional historians and forge links between historians and the public. (staff, National History Center Planning Committee)

Next section: Key Recommendations