Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Opening comment

Attention all public historians, it is time to get to know one another and understand the nature of the work we do. I am convinced that one criterion for a public historian is that he/she does not teach. There are many other public and private arenas in which we work, but the variety of that work is not understood well enough. Where does your work fall under the umbrella of "public history?" I work for a state historical agency in the southeastern United States and my job description is ill defined, although that gives me great freedom to research and write about topics previously abandoned by historians of bygone eras. In any event, won't you comment on your situation as a public historian? Thanks.

2 comments:

Eagles Nest said...

Since you cannot really define what a public historian it, then perhaps we should define ourselves. Many will fit under your umbrella regardless of how little you may like it we will be there. I am the history lead for research into what the military may look like 30, 50 and 100 years in the future. My talent for comparing the past to the present is what earned me my position. I have defined my position and set the guidelines for how this position will be filled once I leave.

James B. Jones, Jr. said...

First of all, thank you for your comment. A public historian works for a public agency other than a private or public university. Certainly, however, that is the arena in which historical training is acquired. They may work in a private or public archives, a state historical agency, SHPO, etc. A public historian may likewise work for the public through grants, making the result of his/her work available to the public.

Or, as I suspect of your situation, they may be a lone wolf historian with few ties to the public. I wonder, did your job definition sprung full blown from the brow of Zeus, or did it evolve over a given period of time? Was there a "job description" from which your work, which seems to call for a degree of clairvoyance, evolved? I believe you are right, though, about defining ourselves, but oftentimes public, and even private, bureaucracies tend to stifle imagination and change and self-definition. They likewise tend to have a credibility the public endows upon them as the only place historians of any stripe can be found. Can you elaborate somewhat on the nature of your training and work? It sounds as though you use the past to fashion a martial vision for the future, or, you are more a military planner than a public historian? Correct me if I am wrong here. Do you have a talent for comparing the past with the future that other historians, especially the public kind, do not? Usually public historians, in my experience, are loathe to compare the past to an unknowable future - there are just too many possible variables to take into account.

I look forward to hearing from you. You could be on to something here...