Friday, November 27, 2009

A Short Intro to Public History (How Original...Yet Appropriate!)

To refer back to the "mission" of this blog, I really want these pages to inform whomever may be reading them about what it is my colleagues and I are doing here at Western. What I'll be doing in this post is pointing out some good resources that can be found on the internet if one wanted to look further into the topic of Public History - whether it be for academic purposes, curiosity's sake, or perhaps if you're flirting with the idea of becoming a public historian. In addition, it can never hurt for me to probe deeper into the contexts of my field and how society understands it.

I suppose the first place someone might start an internet search is the most trusted search engine: Google. Now, I'm not entirely sure I've got an answer as to WHY the world chooses to trust Google above all others - I think it has something to do with the fact that people think it's reliable because it returns what we are looking for, and in most cases, returns sources that are reliable. It's a kind of reliability cycle.

Already, I'm noticing that and call up different results. Here in the States, if we were to throw the term "public history" into Google, our first site that it returns is for the National Council of Public History, which is dedicated to promoting professionalism among historians. It has a pretty decent section called "What is Public History?" which attempts to describe the field and thus the purpose of the council. This is the recent definition that the board gave for public history:

“a movement, methodology, and approach that promotes the collaborative study and practice of history; its practitioners embrace a mission to make their special insights accessible and useful to the public.”

The site also lists WHO can be considered public historians or public history practitioners: museum professionals, government and business historians, historical consultants, archivists, teachers, cultural resource managers, curators, film and media producers, policy advisers, oral historians, professors and students with public history interests, and many others.

This page also contains a full length article, surprisingly titled "What is Public History?", from the Council's official newsletter and a few personal definitions from public historians throughout the nation.

Browsing through this site has brought me to a section that contains more online resources to learn about what public history is. So this is where I'll go next - because I know that these are trusted sites.

The first option is called the Public History Resource Center. This sounds like it's exactly what I'm looking for: "this site provides descriptive and analytical annotations of resources in the field, as well as original essays. The site contains: a working definition of public history; a short essay detailing one aspect of public history's history"

A lot of discovery on the internet comes from following links wherever they may lead, so each of these links should be explored. The resources link is actually a search tool that lets you search the web for all kinds of public history resources - and you can search by resource type AND resource category! I may actually bookmark this page and come back to it later. What a gem! The original essays would probably be more useful once you have a deeper understanding of WHAT public history is. The essays are written on an assortment of applications of public history, like digitization projects and tombstone analysis. The working definition of public history provided by the resource center is what we want. It offers a plethora of definitions that are out there, rather than synthesizing them into one super-definition. Of course, there appears the popular quote, "public history is history, practically applied," which is both horribly vague and... wonderfully vague. I really like that this page is opened up to the public (quite capturing the spirit of public history) so that public historians may submit an application for a definition of what public history is, who public historians are, and what kind of training or study the field entails. While this may sound like it's entering the realm of Wikipedia, the site clearly labels where each definition comes from, whether it be from the Council itself, a University program, or an enthusiastic practitioner of public history.

Going back to our list of resources from the NCPH, another site that is listed under "Websites that address the meaning and uses of public history" is Beyond Academe. This website was mainly created to assist those historians thinking about leaving academia, but it also defines Public History as a wider field and gives less of a sense that it's a very small niche profession. There is definitely a hint of a bias to be aware of on this website because the creator has herself left academia to be a practitioner of public history. It does declare a "mission to change history" - which I, personally, find very important because there's always been this aura around history that it's only useful in the classroom. Historians should work in the public sphere - and the mission of this website sends out a call for change in our universities so that historians can be fully prepared to do so.

Finally, I will return to that resource searching tool in order to find a physical text resource - in case you find yourself walking through a bookstore with money burning a hole in your pocket. So the resource type would be "books" and we'll say that that resource category for our purposes is "General public history." The result list produces five or six books that have to do with the field of public history - but I think the first one sounds like it would really help a reader to more deeply understand the topic of inquiry:

“So, do you want to teach?” That is the standard question that is asked
when one expresses an interest in history as a profession. This book is
required reading for anyone who has ever answered, “Not necessarily.”

~Camenson, Blythe. Careers for History Buffs & Others Who Learn from
the Past. Illinois: VGM Career Horizons, 1994.

Again, this text supports the idea that history should not and can not be locked away in the ivory tower.

As this exercise comes to a close, I should point out that I haven't really done much to answer the question "WHAT IS PUBLIC HISTORY?" - HOWEVER, as the title implies, this is a short intro to the subject. If you want to know a definite definition for the term - well, I suppose you'll just have to follow the steps I've outlined in this post, keep searching far beyond that, and even then, if you happen to come up with something absolutely definitive, please let me know!

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