Thursday, August 11, 2016

Public History: Essays from the Field - A Review


"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana

"The past is the past. The people, the places, and the events, they are all there. History is the process by which one conveys meaning upon those people, places, and events." - James W. Loewen

"If one looks very closely, they will find that making history and writing history are much the same thing." - Kent Allen Halliburton

Gardner, James B. and Peter S. LaPaglia, Eds. Public History: Essays From the Field. Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 2004.


        Public History: Essays From the Field is a compilation of essays edited by James B. Gardner and Peter S. LaPaglia. The editors assembled this group of essays to help broaden the definition of Public History, and to show people what it is like to be a Public Historian. The essays are organized into three sections. Part I is "An Overview of Public History," Part II is "Varieties of Public Historians," and Part III is "The Practice of Public History."  The authors in this volume work in a variety of institutions from around the country and each has a unique view on the practice of Public History that stems from their unique experiences. This provides for a diverse view of the field of Public History. To someone just getting into the field, this collection of essays is an eye opener, as it encompasses many places and people that one may not have considered to be part of the field of Public History. In conjunction with my review of James W. Loewen's, Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, the review of this text helps to shed some more light on how the past, which is just the people, places, and events, without a story, becomes the history that we read in books, watch on television, and see at historical sites.
        Part I contains two essays. The first essay, authored by Patricia Mooney-Melvin, is "Professional Historians and the Challenge of Redefinition."  This essay traced the emergence of professional history in the late nineteenth century, noted how historians voluntarily segregated themselves from the rest of the liberal arts community, and then offered a redefinition of history, which fully integrated the traditional professional historian and public history. The second essay, authored by Constance B. Schulz, is "Becoming a Public Historian."  This essay examined the role of professional associations in public history, discussed the establishment of training programs in public history, analyzed the present status of public history education, and argued that public historians are distinct from academic historians, in that, they are committed to a broader audience, the general public, whereas, traditional historians, generally, are only writing for their peers. The thing that was most interesting about these two essays was that while they disagreed about the nature of public history, whether it was entirely distinct or fully integrated, they both agreed that public history was a vital field. The two authors also just differed on the origins of public history. Mooney-Melvin traced it from the 1970s jobs crisis in academia, and Schulz from the 1920s, with the emergence of the first museum training programs. Essentially, what this tells us is that there has long been a gap between the writers of history, the professional Historians, and the general populace. Further, it has become the job of Public Historians to basically translate history to the public. Another point that one will encounter here is that even though Public History grew out of the professional field of History, there is a constant tug of war between the two fields over how exactly the stories should be told.
        Part II contains thirteen essays. This part of the book is where the reader will begin to encounter the diverse nature of public history, as many different types of professionals are represented. Most of the job titles, such as Archivists and Records Managers, Manuscript Curators, or Oral Historians, will be easily identified with public history by the reader. There are a few, however, who the reader may question at first look, namely Administrators, Contract Historians, and Policy Advisers. Upon further reading, though, one will find that each author made it clear how their jobs related to public history. Michael J. Divine, the author of "The Administrator," did a real good job of this when he discussed what he felt made a good administrator or director. One of his main points was that such a person should have at least a master’s degree in history. His second point was that it would be pretty hard to properly administer a historical project without at least some understanding of the basics of what was going on. In the, "Contract Historian," Jannelle Warren-Findley showed how her job related when she discussed the work that she did in Washington, D.C. for the Salt River Project based out of Phoenix, AZ. She spent days going through old maps, letters, and legislative records in her effort to determine whether or not the project would be able to continue with its plans or if it would have to adjust its operations. Sylvia K. Kraemer showed how her job related to public history in "Policy Adviser," when she compared the work of a historian to that of a lawyer, as this related to helping department heads or politicians make better policy decisions. She routinely had to translate historical legal hearings, old maps, letters, and legislation to public officials whose professional focus was elsewhere.
        There are two other things that the reader of this text will encounter in this section of the book. The first thing is a slight sense of confusion, and the second is a sense of personal offense. The slight sense of confusion will come in the reading of the piece "Archivists and Records Managers" and the piece "Manuscript Curator and Specialists."  The confusion lies with definitions. Roy H. Tryon, the author of "Archivists and Records Managers," defined the job of the archivist to be the handling of non-current records of a multitude of organizations or institutions, and Debra Newman Ham defined the "Manuscript Curator" as someone who acquires, organizes, and describes the personal papers of individuals or the records of various organizations. It would seem that these two authors unnecessarily narrowed their definitions. They both work with similar documents, and in similar environments. To a degree, it would seem that they are doing the same work, with their job title depending entirely upon the institution in which they are working, like an actual Archives, or in a Museum. The sense of personal offense will come when reading Jannelle Warren-Findley’s "Contract Historians and Consultants."  The way in which the author described how one can build up their resume could very quickly come off as insulting to someone that has worked a lifetime to build up a reference sheet with solid backing. He acts as though work in history is something that can be monetized like any other job. Worse, it seems like he would be willing to sell someone whatever story they were wanting to buy. This is a criminal offense in the professional world of History, and any good Public Historian would not dare befoul their reputation in such a manner.
        Part III contains eleven essays. The diverse nature of Public History is further displayed in this part of book, as multiple institutions are represented. From historic houses and museums, to urban history museums and open air battlefields, to the Federal Government, the reader will read stories about the challenges and rewards that come with work in public history. In "In Federal History Programs: Ensuring the Future," Jesse H. Stiller pointed out clearly the three biggest challenges that are faced by people in public history. These are, in no particular order, funding, relevance, and adaptability. He followed how in the 1980s civilian government organizations and military institutions were opening history departments to help with policy production. They, however, did not get what they wanted, and so when the time came for cutbacks, a great many of these history programs were lost. He pointed out that historians need to prove their relevance to retain funding and can only do so if their education is diversified, which would help them to be more adaptable and usable. He contended that if many of the historians during this period had had policy experience, they may have had a better chance of keeping their programs funded. They needed to be able to show how knowledge of past policy initiatives would be helpful in the production and development of present policy programs.
        Elizabeth W. Adkins discussed similar issues as they related to the "Corporate Environment."  Companies are always looking to trim the bottom-line, and in order to avoid being out of job, a person working in this environment must be adaptable and constantly be able to show how they are an indispensable part of the company. She argued that as in her case, the archivist should endeavor to become as integrated into the company’s culture as possible, using their lingo, their acronyms, and even developing an access policy that limits who can and cannot use records. This would serve to protect the company’s interests. These things can challenge a person’s academic sensibilities, as the documents may disprove the image the company wants to maintain with the public, or denying access to records may violate standard rules of access set by academic institutions. Both of these authors point out that the most important rewards for such adaptability is job security, increased funding, and the survival of history. One can also imagine that working as an archivist for a corporation or the government could also, at times, pose a dramatic challenge to one's professional integrity. What happens when a company archivist comes across information that implicates their company in a criminal enterprise, or what happens when an archivist working for the National Archives comes across documents that implicate a sitting office holder in a ring of corruption or misconduct?
        Perhaps the most interesting essay in this part of the book is the essay that the editors chose to include at the very end, "On the Web: The September 11 Digital Archive," by James T. Sparrow. They did this perhaps because the essay applies to all of the essays that come before it. Sparrow pointed out that all public institutions are in search of ways to survive and adapt in present times. He argued, using the September 11 Digital Archive as a case study, that embracing the digital world is the key to survival in the future, and he enumerated some of the main benefits of doing so. First, despite fears that certain parts of history would be lost in the vast expanse of the internet, a great many more overlooked portions or history could be made available. Second, the internet could bring a great many more visitors to an institution than ever before. Despite the virtual nature of these new visitors, these institutions could greatly benefit from the exposure. Thirdly, he pointed out that on the internet, historical narratives for displays and other items are not limited by the amount of space available in a single room or on a single small plaque. The narratives made available on the internet can be more in depth. The fourth and perhaps, the biggest benefit he discussed was the increased access to materials. More than ever before, materials can be made more readily available to the public for research and for general education purposes without having to worry about the wear and tear from their being handled by to many untrained hands.
        To conclude, this book provided a look into the professional debate in public history, and offered a vast expose into the many different options that are available to professionals who are seeking a possible career in History, Academic or Public. Aside from that though, this book made another big contribution to the historical field; in that, it helped to dispel the Ivory Tower mentality that was established or encouraged by persons in the history field, like Richard Hofstadter who, essentially, believed that the public was not important. It also helped to encourage the idea that was espoused by persons like Charles Beard and Carl Becker that history has a greater social purpose to deliver credible history to the public. It showed the reader that history is becoming more and more accessible to the public every day, through the efforts of persons like Candace Balk, who spent a great many years making the Emma Goldman Papers open to the public, and persons like Robert B. Patterson, Jr., who has spent a similar number of years working to make the history of Clarksville, Tennessee and its surrounding area more clear and accessible to the general public. This book offered an encouraging view into a field of work that can be challenging and, as is evident in the essays that are presented, both rewarding and profitable. On a final note, while reading this book, the reader may find themselves asking, what other ways has history been disseminated to the public? One such method is through publications like the one released by Time Magazine in the Fall of 2011, "The World’s 100 Most Important Places: An Illustrated Journey."  Did the Editors miss things like this or did they leave them out intentionally? Was there anyone on the staff of this project that had received professional historical training? Is this a valid form of public history? Either way, it is yet one more way that the public learns about human history. As long as it remains accurate, the more the merrier. Unfortunately, as I have already shown, in Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, this is not always the case.

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