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Curious About a Career in Public History?

What is Public History?

First of all, what is public history? Depending on who you ask, that can be many different answers. There are several points of view, and it is important to understand people’s perspectives. Some argue that where “history” and “public history” differ is that public history takes history out of a strictly academic setting. Public historians often encourage the public to form their own opinions and ideas about history. They see the exchange between themselves and the public as multifaceted and collaborative. Often, a goal of public historians is to make history accessible and useful in modern times.

People come to work in the field of public history in traditional and not so traditional ways. Some know right off the bat that this is the career path they want to pursue, others stumble into the field, or find that they want to pursue it after realizing that their first career choice was not the best fit.Fortunately, there are many ways to get into this rewarding field.

Do Your Research

Wherever you are in your educational path, if you know that this is the field you want to pursue, start zeroing in on your areas of interest by doing some research. Public history jobs can be found in a variety of places including museums and historical societies, public and private archives, libraries, academia, local government, and film and television production companies. Numerous corporations also hire consultants to assist in public history-related projects and corporate archives. Finding the right fit for your personality and skill set are also important, as is being honest with yourself regarding such things as the type of work schedule you want and the amount of income you hope to earn.

Academy vs. Reality

There is ongoing debate about how public historians are trained. (See article “Training Public Historians: Academy and Reality“)  Some people do not like the label “public historian,” preferring terms such as museum professional, educator, or historian. What cannot be debated, however, is that these people—no matter what you call them or they call themselves — are interested in history and in serving the public. Embarking on this career path requires a genuine interest in the subject matter and a desire to engage with the public, whether it be one-on-one or through the creation of such things as exhibits, books, websites, etc.

A Bachelor’s degree for most jobs in the field is a must—but it can be in a number of disciplines (including history, public history, American studies, communications, marketing, business, journalism, archeology, sociology, English, education, and political science). The field of public history needs people from a variety of backgrounds, so even if your BA is in Communications or Economics—it CAN apply to the field of public history. Depending on the type of institution in which you want to work, you might have to make a case for yourself, but that is usually true for any job that you apply for, right?

Some schools have undergraduate programs with options for an emphasis in public history, and a growing number offer MAs in public history. Few schools offer BAs in public history.