John Dichtl and Robert B. Townsend: Preliminary Results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals

Historians in the News

[John Dichtl is the executive director of the National Council on Public History. Robert Townsend is the AHA’s assistant director for research and publications.]

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles analyzing results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals. This article will also appear in Public History News, the newsletter of the National Council on Public History

Public history is one of the least understood areas of professional practice in history because the majority of public history jobs are outside of academia. The federal government collects an enormous amount of information about history teachers from school through university, which makes it relatively easy to assess the contours of their work. Unfortunately, however, we lack similar sources of data for most public history workplaces.

In order to get a better picture of public history as a profession, the National Council on Public History organized 10 historical organizations to survey their members about the demographics, training, employment conditions, and expectations of public history practitioners.1 The survey elicited almost 4,000 responses from the United States, Canada, and other English-speaking countries, providing a substantial base for assessing who is drawn to this area of employment, and what their concerns were, as we headed into the recent economic recession.

This survey replicated portions of a similar study from 1980, in an effort to facilitate some comparisons to the founding era of public history.2 The earlier study was conducted using similar methods (a mailing to the members of a number of historical organizations), but the new survey relied on e-mail and an online response form. The 1980 survey received 2,347 valid responses; providing the best, and in many ways only, snapshot of public history to date. Wherever possible, this analysis of the results of the new survey draws comparisons to that earlier study.

Defining Public History

One of the most significant challenges for public history as a field is ambiguity about the definition of the term. That came through in the responses to the survey. Of the 3,856 people who responded to the survey, just 2,946 were willing to identify themselves as public historians—the remainder expressed some uncertainty about the term and whether it applied to them.

In fact, 364 of the respondents who appeared to be employed as public historians (with long-term or professional positions in history outside of academia) declined to accept the label. They offered a range of reasons for avoiding the term. Some found it too confining. As one observed, “A historian is a historian whether working in government, academia, or private industry.” Others said they were not specifically trained in public history, noting that, “I don’t have the qualifications for that title” or “I view it as a sharply-defined, credentialed occupation or profession.” Others felt their work was more precisely described in other ways, preferring to describe themselves as “preservationists,” “records managers,” or “archivists” at historical organizations. And many noted that they were not actually “producing,” “practicing,”or “using” history, and worked more as “administrators” or otherwise in support of others who do the historical work. A surprising number of these respondents emphasized the public character of public history, noting that they “don’t deal with the public domain,” “do not directly disseminate information to the public,” have “little or no public interaction,” or that they work for private institutions.

Conversely, 641 of the respondents who accepted the label were either employed at, or were students in, a college or university. In some cases, these were faculty who teach public history, in other cases they were archivists and librarians at those schools. Other full-time faculty who embraced the term were also employed as consultants or digital historians. Digital history, in fact, seems to provide a new avenue for academic historians to enter the realm of public history.

Setting aside some of these ambiguities, we took an expansive definition of public history practices, and included all those who either defined themselves as public historians or were employed in a historical activity outside of academia. This raised the level of respondents included in our tabulation of the survey to 3,492.

Public History in the Workplace

Not surprisingly, the survey revealed that public historians were employed in a diverse range of workplaces. Almost a quarter of the respondents were employed in a museum (23.8 percent), while faculty and students at colleges and universities accounted for another 16.6 percent of the respondents (Figure 1).

Government—at the federal, state, and local level—was a significant employer for the remaining public historians in the survey. State/provincial governments employed 9 percent of the respondents, the federal government another 8.5 percent, and local governments employed another 3 percent. Beyond those broad categories were a rich array of employers, including historical organizations (8.9 percent); research organizations, archives, and libraries (5.1 percent); nonprofit organizations (4.5 percent); and consulting firms (3.4 percent). Another 6.1 percent reported themselves as self-employed, while 7 percent indicated that they were either semiretired or that their employer did not fit into one of the other categories.

Due to variations in the labeling of particular work areas in the new study, we could not draw direct comparisons to the 1980 survey. But there was a notable increase in the number of academic historians adopting the public historian label in the new survey (up from less than 7 percent in the earlier survey). And in relative terms, there appeared to be a significant decrease in the proportion of public historians employed by federal, state, or local governments. With the rise of graduate programs in public history creating MAs moving into other areas of activity, and better dissemination of the concept of public history into the wider historical profession, the employment picture has become considerably more complex.

Most of the respondents who were not currently students were employed full-time. Of those who provided information, 81.3 percent reported they were employed full time, 11.8 percent said they were employed part time, and 0.9 percent indicated they were unemployed. The remainder were either retired or working as a volunteer (often after retirement). This marked a modest change since the 1980 survey, when 86.9 percent of the respondents reported they were employed full time, and just 7.6 percent reported they were employed part time.

In general, however, public historians appeared to be doing fairly well economically. Their average income was modestly higher than that of other Americans last year, as 61.4 percent of the respondents employed full time earned more than $45,000, while 20.0 percent earned more than $75,000. Most of the respondents (71 percent) said they are satisfied or very satisfied in their jobs (though 47.0 percent felt they were “underpaid” in their jobs). In comparison, the Conference Board found that less than half of all American were satisfied with their jobs in 2007...
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