Public history can be practiced almost
anywhere, from the largest public agency to the smallest private company.
This page discusses many of the largest fields of public history employment. It includes helpful links to
representative employers, positions, and job search resources.
You may scroll down the page or use the following links:
firms remind the world that "history has a present value." The key
word in the phrase is value - people will pay you to conduct
historical research and analysis!
History consulting firms offer some of the most exciting and rewarding
employment opportunities for historians. History
consulting firms hire public historians, and technical and administrative staff
with all levels of education and experience. Many firms offer temporary
appointments, part-time positions, and internships, in addition to the
standard full-time, permanent staff. As with any portion of the
consulting industry, history consulting can be unpredictable and
stressful. However, the intellectual and financial rewards of consulting
can outweigh these drawbacks.
There are several basic concentrations within the history consulting
industry. Most firms have one or two specialties and develop
an expertise and reputation in those areas.
Examples of large historical consulting firms include: History
History Factory, and
Historical Research Associates.
Genealogy and public history are intrinsically linked. Genealogy is the
study of family history. It is often a personal study using public
historical domains. Genealogy and public history also share a common
background. Both are connected to the past, the present, and the future by
their historical natures.
Professional genealogists are usually self-employed, assisting clients in
researching their ancestors. They are also contracted by private law firms to help find missing heirs, by doctors to trace the medical histories of their
patients, and by historians or writers to assist them with research for
certain articles or publications. In addition, due to the highly competitive
nature of the business, many of them work part-time in another closely
related field - - as librarians, archivists, educators, and historians. Many
genealogists supplement their income writing freelance articles for local
newspapers, genealogical or historical society publications; going on the
lecture circuit at national genealogical or historical society conventions or
conducting college seminars for adult education.
In order to conduct their research, genealogists rely heavily on public
history resources found in government and state libraries and archives; state
genealogical and historical societies; and national patriotic societies, such
as the Sons / Daughters of the American Revolution, the Society of the
Cincinnati, and others.
The opportunities for genealogists and public historians abound. Both of
these relatively new vocations have long and venerable traditions connected
with a variety of other occupations. With the increasing availability of information via the Internet, and other electronic sources, the research
opportunities will continue to grow throughout the next century and beyond.
So what is an archives? Typically, they are
perceived as dusty hoards of
old papers completely irrelevant to modern life. Nothing could be more
untrue. They are places where citizens, such as scientists, students,
lawyers, writers, public officials, and many others, go to find records
containing useful information. Traditionally, archivists worked with
older hand-written documents, but today they assemble, organize, and make
accessible records in a variety of formats: electronic, photographic, and
audio, to name a few.
The work of an archivist is varied and provides an opportunity to
utilize a number of skills. Assisting patrons, designing exhibits,
managing projects and people, as well as working with records, writing
articles, and mounting a website are only some of the opportunities an
archivist may encounter. You will find archivists working for state, local,
and federal governments; for historical societies, businesses, and
churches; and for educational institutions, research facilities, and
museums. This list of archival employers is not comprehensive but is
intended to illustrate the variety of sizes, locations, activities, and
collections among archives. Also included in this site are links to the
Society of American Archivists' Student Chapters, selected professional
organizations, and several metasites of interest to archivists.
Resources about Archives
Museums are repositories for the physical remains of cultures,
places where we can go to see the artifacts that help to explain
the history of civilization. They transmit this history to visitors
using their resources in an artistic and informative way, a way
that pleases the eye and stimulates the mind, and they are one
of the few institutions that often hold the interest of all age groups.
One of the advantages of practicing public history in a museum
environment is that museums exist for virtually every field of
interest. No matter what one's historical specialty, chances are
good that a museum exists to accommodate that specialty. On
the other hand, if one wants employment in the United States
and has a field of interest other than U.S. history, employment
opportunities may be less plentiful. Nevertheless, if one seeks
museum employment, there are many jobs to be had, ranging
from becoming a curator to working in the preservation
department. Employment in a museum provides the employee
with an opportunity to use many and varied skills; there are
opportunities to create exhibits, help researchers to find
materials, work with children, preserve museum materials,
manage collections, and organize cultural events, to name a
Resources about Museums
If the historical societies in the United States today were to be characterized in a single word, no doubt the word would be, “variety.” Some historical societies, like the Massachusetts Historical Society focus on national history, while others specialize in the history of a particular state or locality, such as the Oregon Historical Society, or the Chicago Historical Society. There are historical societies specific to particular ethnic and religious groups, such as the American Jewish Historical Society, or topics of historical interest, such as the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society. Also common are societies that specialize in pioneer history, genealogy, or preservation of antiques or historic buildings. Examples are The Pioneer Historical Society of Benford County, Inc , the
Louisiana Genealogical and Historical Society, and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, respectively. A good way to appreciate the breadth of variety among historical societies is to take a look at the
list of repositories of primary sources put together by the University of Idaho. It contains links to over 5250 websites which describe the various holdings (manuscripts, archives, rare books, photographs, etc) of different repositories worldwide.
Historical societies also vary in size and in funding sources; some are almost entirely publicly funded and employ hundreds of people to oversee their various departments, which typically include libraries, archives, and museums, as well as historic preservation and educational outreach programs. Others are privately funded and small, but hold valuable collections. While the stated mission of most historical societies includes the intention to collect, preserve, and make available the documents and artifacts of history, societies prioritize these activities often quite differently, juggling competing demands, such as those put forth by community members and those expected by academia.
This variety makes historical societies difficult to summarize. A look at the historical evolution of historical societies, however, provides insight into the origins of this diversity and helps to make sense of the challenges faced by employees of historical societies today. Equipped with an understanding of the background of diverse types of historical societies, prospective historical society employees can choose the organization best suited for them.
Continue to History of Historical Societies...
Historical Society Resources
There are many opportunities for public historians to work in the
- Public historians may work for consulting firms or as
self-employed individuals, providing
services and content to media presenters. (See above)
- Public historians may work as self-employed directors and authors,
pitching projects to large media corporations that will then produce the
- Public historians can be employed by media firms as in-house
historians and producers.
It is this final category that I will explore in more depth.
When considering employment opportunities in the media, the public
historian must determine if she wants to work in "old" or "new" media.
Dominated by television broadcasting, old media can also encompass radio,
film, and various print mediums. New media can encompass Web-casting and
other delivery methods of digital, electronic information. Most large
companies maintain separate divisions of people involved in old media and
new media. Depending on the individual company, these divisions may work
together to produce joint projects that mirror one another, projects
complement one another, or, projects which are distinct from one another.
While public historians can find many niches in the media industry with
a history background alone, collateral coursework in Communications,
Journalism, and Radio/Television/Film departments, as well as coursework
and experience in new media will help make the public historian more
employable in this field.