Public History Series: What is Public History?

I have been asked this question many times and it really annoys me when people assume it is just the “study of old barns.”  In fact, there are many facets to Public History that are used by historians of all interests.  Over the next nine weeks I am going to break down Public History into its many subcategories and explain how everything works.

Before I get to the subcategories, this post is merely a brief look at Public History and is meant to introduce the readers to the two main organizations that exist to assist Public Historians,  the National Council of Public History and the Public History Resource Center.  These two organizations make up the bulk of the Public History information available to those interested in the field.  Their websites provide information about educational opportunities as well as employment opportunities.  The most important thing is the make the discipline and its resources availabe to those interesting in pursuing a degree, and eventually a career, in the field of Public History.

The National Council of Public History is a professional organization much like the American Historical Association.  Members of the organization pay dues and receive updates, discounted rates at the NCPH Annual Conference, and the journal The Public Historian.  Like most professional scholarly organizations, the NCPH is a way for those in the profession to share their work and ideas with each other.

The Public History Resource Center has a very different purpose, however.  They primarily provide up-to-date information on degree programs for Public History as well as employment opportunities.  This site is a must visit for anyone interested in pursuing a degree in Public History or those seeking employment in the field.  They also provide reviews of history websites which provide information and documents for research.  These reviews are not only intended for Public Historians as they cover a wide variety of topics.

So what is Public History?  The National Council of Public History defines Public History as a discipline in which “historians and their various publics collaborate in trying to make the past useful to the public.”  This can be done in a wide variety of ways.  Museums are the most common form of Public History in practice, but there are others including local/regional history, oral history, historic preservation, documentary editing, museum studies, documentary film and visual arts, historical archaeology, archival work, and memory.  I am going to spend the next several weeks covering all nine of these topics in more detail.  I hope this series of posts will serve as a guide for anyone interested in the field. Until then…


NOTE:  This is the first in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.


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