Non-Academics and the Historical Enterprise

Part Two in a series of posts about the CWI 2014 Summer Conference and the Civil War in 1864.

One of the great things about history is that anyone can study and contribute their own historical scholarship without the need of fancy credentials or even employment in a history-related field. History is all around us, and there are many ways to engage with it beyond the confines of an academic classroom. Even if you grew up hating high school history courses and their seemingly endless focus on “dates, dead people, and dust,” many people in their adult life eventually acknowledge the importance of history and accumulate enough historical knowledge to at least partially recognize their place in it.

The Civil War Institute’s 2014 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College demonstrated to me–perhaps better than any other conference I’ve attended–the benefits of academics and non-academics sharing historical knowledge with each other. Almost every history conference I’ve attended or participated in prior to last week was dominated by academic historians in the crowd and at the speaker’s podium, an environment that essentially consisted of academic historians talking to each other about topics that were mostly of interest to them and only them. I have no problem with academic conferences that are mostly composed of professional historians, but it was a really remarkable experience seeing so many non-academics at the CWI conference, both as attendees and participants. I met so many people who attended the conference not because they worked for a prestigious university that paid for their travels but because their love of Civil War history led them to spend their own hard-earned money and time at Gettysburg. People from a wide range of occupations came to see the conference, including high school teachers on summer break, people in business and law, and retired enthusiasts who now spend their time learning about history.

The presenters at CWI also came from a wide range of occupations. Emmanuel Dabney and Eric Leonard of the National Park Service, independent writer Megan Kate Nelson, high school teacher Kevin Levin, and Licensed Battlefield Guide Sue Boardman all demonstrated to me that one does not need to be a university professor to help shape the field of Civil War studies. I must also acknowledge the talents of Gordon Rhea, who participated in a sit-down interview with Gettysburg College professor Peter Carmichael on the first day of the conference. Rhea was a full-time lawyer in Washington, D.C. in the 1990s and 2000s when he wrote his trilogy of books on Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign in Virginia, essentially turning himself from a lawyer into a historian by nightfall (a fourth installment on the campaign is forthcoming). These books have become standard resources for analyzing the Overland Campaign and are doubtless included in the libraries of academic Civil War historians across the country. Rhea’s accomplishments are really amazing if you think about it. You don’t often see non-academics writing standard treatises on medical practices, quantum physics, or German literature. But that’s the great thing about history – anyone who’s interested can ostensibly contribute their interpretations of history without worrying about a lack of credentials. All you need is good evidence and interpretive skills to back up your claims.

As someone who has great reservations about pursuing a history Ph.D. or an academic career, it was inspiring to see so many public historians, students, and history enthusiasts contributing to the scholarly discussions that took place at CWI. While I haven’t completely ruled out the possibility of someday continuing my education, I’ve come away from this conference thinking I can get pretty far in the history world even if I choose to focus on my public history career without any further education. For now we’ll have to wait and see what happens on that front. Life as a public historian has been pretty great so far.

Cheers

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Reflections on the Civil War Institute 2014 Summer Conference

I have returned to St. Louis refreshed and re-energized after five days at the Civil War Institute’s 2014 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College. I really enjoyed myself and learned a lot of new information about the Civil War in 1864 that I believe will help me do a better job of interpreting U.S. Grant’s experiences during the Civil War in my work with the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Once again I cannot thank the staff at the Civil War Institute enough for awarding me a scholarship to attend my fist CWI summer conference and for providing all conference attendees so many opportunities to network and socialize with some of the best Civil War scholars in the field. I made a lot of connections with students, enthusiasts, scholars, and public historians at the conference and hope to stay in touch with these connections well into the future.

There were a lot of presentations during the conference, most of which I got to see. Here are a few personal highlights:

  • Brooks Simpson of Arizona State gave an excellent presentation on the challenges that Ulysses S. Grant faced as a Civil War General in Virginia during the 1864 Overland Campaign. Simpson argued that Grant’s strategy for engaging Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces was as much about providing his subordinate generals in other theaters of the war a chance to win the conflict as much as it was about defeating Lee. By neutralizing Lee in Virginia, Grant enabled General William T. Sherman to advance upon Atlanta in 1864 and eventually commence his March to the Sea and trek through the Carolinas.
  • Simpson also gave fantastic tours of both the Wilderness and Spotsylvania battlefields in Virginia despite our bus’s A/C breaking down, the bus driver going the wrong direction for about ten miles, and a subsequent shortening of our time on the battlefields.
  • Ari Kelman of Penn State gave a wonderful presentation on the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre that challenged us to view the Civil War as not only a war for Union and emancipation but also a war for empire and conquest of western territories. I also had an opportunity to sit in on a “dine-in” session with Kelman in which he discussed the process of writing his award-winning book A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory at Sand Creek. Kelman described how he conducted more than 1,000 hours of interviews with National Park Service staff at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and local Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes while also admitting that he re-wrote the draft of this book “at least six times.” Wow!
  • Independent writer Megan Kate Nelson gave a talk on the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, by Jubal Early’s Confederate forces in 1864 and how popular media responded to this event through the use of pictures, drawings, and editorials. Even though Early openly admitted his role in burning Chambersburg, northern publications gave a range of responses that placed the blame for the attack on the Union military and even the citizens of Chambersburg. Nelson also gave another fantastic presentation on soldier doodles, drawings, and sketches on the last day of the conference. She showed us how soldiers used these drawings (which were often included in personal letters) to communicate the soldier experience to loved ones at home.
  • Emmanual Dabney of Petersburg National Battlefield gave an excellent presentation on the Battle of the Crater, one of the most fascinating yet sickening battles of the entire Civil War. Dabney argued that the Crater tells us more about racial divisions in Civil War America than it does about tactical maneuvers. Civil War scholars have known for a long time that some Confederates engaged in ruthless killing of United States Colored Troops (USCT) during the battle, but Dabney showed us that some Union troops also started killing USCTs once Confederates began their slaughter “in order to preserve white [Union] lives.” I was stunned when I heard that.
  • Eric Leonard of Andersonville National Historic Site discussed the experiences of Civil War prisoners throughout the conflict, but especially 1864. Prior to 1864 Confederate and United States leadership regularly engaged in prisoner exchanges during the conflict, but once Confederate leadership began refusing to exchange black prisoners of war and in some cases even tried to sell them back into slavery, all prisoner exchanges stopped. Sites like Andersonville began to exceed their holding capacity once prisoner exchanges stopped, leading to truly horrific conditions for prisoners stuck in these places.
  • Crystal Feimster of Yale University had an eye-opening presentation on rape and mutiny at Fort Jackson, Louisiana. In one incident she discussed how white Union soldiers attempted to rape an African American laundress who was working in a nearby contraband camp. When questioned about the incident, the soldiers expressed shock that a black woman would not want to have sex with white men. They also resorted to threats, name-calling, and victim-blaming to otherize the woman.
  • Antwain Hunter of Butler University had a nice talk on African American firearm usage in North Carolina prior to the Civil War. Hunter pointed out that the use of firearms was often seen as a form of labor, and black slaves were sometimes given weapons by their masters as a part of their labors in the rural fields of North Carolina. A complex regulatory system for black firearm usage emerged by the 1840s, however, and free blacks in the state were often prevented from carrying arms.
  • Sue Boardman, a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg, gave a nice battlefield tour of Culp’s Hill, which is on the eastern part of the battlefield. Boardman found the diary of Michael Schroyer of the 147th Pennsylvania in an estate sale several years ago and used this diary to lead us through the Battle of Gettysburg through his eyes. It was an amazing tour, and I loved the way she used this primary source to help us build a sense of empathy for the experiences of those who fought at Gettysburg. One woman in our group actually came to tears once she realized her Virginia ancestor had most likely died at Culp’s Hill.

Over the next few days I will share some additional thoughts in future posts about the conference and about the Civil War in 1864. As always, thanks for reading.

Cheers

Mr. Sacco Goes to the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
The Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

I am currently hanging out in Pennsylvania eagerly anticipating the start of Gettysburg College’s 2014 Civil War Institute Summer Conference, which begins later today. I won a public historian scholarship to be here and am looking forward to five days of listening, learning, reading, socializing, and tweeting. The conference lineup is stellar and I have no doubts the event will be a smashing success.

Yesterday I flew into Baltimore, Maryland, and decided to spend the day in Washington, D.C. prior to the conference. When I was in DC for the first time last year I spent my time walking around the National Mall and taking as many pictures as possible. This time I wanted to actually visit some attractions in the area and spend my time in a slightly more focused fashion. I had never been to any Smithsonian museums before, so I decided to spend most of the day at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Going to the NMAH was a dream come true for me. I stayed at the museum for four hours and visited every gallery and exhibit currently on display, trying my best to see every artifact and read every exhibit label text (I quickly realized the fruitlessness of this endeavor, however). Interestingly enough, my favorite exhibit in the entire museum was “Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000,” located on the first floor of NMAH. Given that my research interests stray far from late-twentieth century food history, this view may be surprising to some. But I found the entire exhibit to be really well-done in terms of exhibit design/room layout, artifact aesthetics, and pithy, concise exhibit labels with well-researched information. As I went through the exhibit I appreciated the ways Smithsonian staff created a balanced interpretation that acknowledged technological developments in food production while at the same time pointing out the potential consequences to labor, capital, and family culture that these technological developments brought with them.

Below is one example of an exhibit label text I think does a nice job of creating a sense of tension in describing “innovation” and “progress” in food production.

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

The only thing I would change here is more explicitly stating who exactly is asking questions about mass production and consumerism. “Many raised questions…” is too vague, in my opinion.

I also enjoyed several exhibits on transportation and technology and the NMAH’s featured “Star Spangled Banner” exhibit, which includes the American flag flown at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, that inspired Francis Scott Key’s writing of the Star Spangled Banner. The “Star Spangled Banner” exhibit did a nice job of focusing on tangible artifacts instead of exhibit labels – the labels were short and complemented rather than dominated the artifacts on display. “Star Spangled Banner” is pretty small compared to other exhibits at the museum, but I think that’s actually a good thing because visitors are not mentally or physically overwhelmed while going through it.

One exhibit I was not impressed with was “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.” Granted, I was running on fumes by the time I got up to see this part of the museum and did not read every label with exacting precision, but overall I found the display to be too celebratory and exceptionalist in its design and interpretation.

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

George Washington’s experiences during the Revolutionary War are interpreted in a way so as to almost deify him (David McCullough’s 1776, among many other works on Washington, shows that Washington made plenty of mistakes as a General during the war), and visitors never get a sense of the Loyalist perspective that was shared by many colonists who sought to maintain their allegiances with the British empire and opposed colonial revolution. The section on World War I is about 1/8 the size of the section on World War II and mostly focuses on technological developments in the types of weapons used during the war. The WWII section is full of nice artifacts but portrays too much of a “good war” vibe for my liking.  In each of these displays I also thought there was not enough focus on explaining how the U.S. military has found itself in so many armed conflicts over time, nor are there any portrayals of the fears, uncertainties, and consequences of life as a soldier. Shirking, draft dodging, PTSD, and suicide don’t make any appearances in these walls.

Within “Price of Freedom” I did like the interpretations of some nineteenth century “Wars of Expansion,” including the Mexican-American War, the Indian Wars of the late 1800s, and the Spanish-American War. I also thought the Civil War section did a nice job of outlining the disagreements that emerged in American society before the war over slavery, states’ rights, and other topics.

I do have one brief theoretical question to ask my readers about the Civil War section, however.

I found it interesting that this section interpreted the experiences of both Union and Confederate soldiers. But when we talk about “Americans at War,” should the experiences of Confederate soldiers be included in this discussion? Are Confederates “Americans”? After all, this war was fought between the United States military and the Confederate military, correct?

To be sure, some white supporters of the Confederacy believed they had a right to secede from the United States precisely because they were the true Americans whose values and beliefs were in tune with the legacy of the founding fathers. But as scholars like Gary Gallagher and Drew Gilpin Faust have demonstrated, many other white Confederate supporters supported a war against the United States because they believed the white South was composed of a stock of Anglos that was culturally distinct from their Northern counterparts. These people believed they were not Americans and that threats against their way of life (i.e. the removal of slavery, increased tariffs, the changing nature of federalism) justified the creation of a sovereign nation separate from the United States.

Is the Confederate war experience worthy of inclusion in a discussion about “Americans at War”?

Cheers

Looking for Resources on Oral History

When the doctors told my Grandfather in early June that they hoped to extend his life an additional two months, I immediately thought about conducting an oral history interview with him, even going so far as to get a verbal agreement from him to conduct the interview at his house once he got out of the hospital. Although I knew a lot about my Grandpa and his life experiences, there were parts of his early life that I wanted to know more about and I knew there was a lot of interest from other family members in documenting and preserving his story. My idea came too late, however, and as I outlined in my last post, we lost Grandpa on Thursday, June 12.

I really, really regret that my family and I were unable to get Grandpa’s story before he passed. We should have taken steps to get his story long before this point in time, especially after he was first diagnosed with cancer in 2012. I’m also frustrated because my knowledge of oral history is rather limited even though I’m a professional public historian. I received a little bit of training in oral history while a history graduate student at IUPUI and could probably do a decent informal oral history interview with a family member, but I don’t really have the skills to conduct a professional oral history project.

On the one hand, oral history seems to be a pretty straightforward process. I believe oral historians do a significant public service by giving a voice to those whose experiences may not get into the history books or recognized by the rest of society. Oral historians act as facilitators by empowering the people they interview with tools, context, and questions to help them recall important details of their life and tell their stories. On the other hand, oral history presents its own unique challenges when it comes to accessibility and preservation over time. As Cleveland State University history professor Mark Souther asserts, good oral history projects that engage a wide audience are easily discoverable, interactive, and reusable. Even if I had been able to conduct an oral history with my Grandfather, what equipment would I have used and how would I have preserved this document so as to encourage accessibility and interaction in the future for both family members and other interested parties? I’m afraid I don’t know.

What do you consider to be the best resources for learning more about oral history? If you know of any books, articles, webpages, or anything else that you deem relevant, please let me know in the comments below. I hope to be in a position to someday conduct oral histories of other family members and potentially engage in oral history projects in a professional capacity.

Cheers

Remembering Grandpa

My grandparents and me a few years ago.
My grandparents and me in 2011.

At 1:08PM CST on Thursday, June 12, 2014, the world lost one of its kindest, gentlest, and most generous souls at the age of 66 to a rare form of cancer that originally attacked his Ampulla of Vater, a small pathway located in the pancreas. William J. Bezdek was beloved and admired by all who met him. I was blessed with the distinct privilege of being able to call him Grandpa.

Grandpa was diagnosed with cancer two years ago and the process was up and down the whole way through. In the beginning the tumors gradually shrunk and the chemotherapy worked, but the side effects of that chemotherapy made Grandpa extremely sick. Several times he was forced to go off the chemo and the tumors eventually started growing. Things got really bad about a month ago, but the doctors told us last week that additional surgery could give him two additional months of life. Grandpa went through with the procedure and initially recovered in admirable fashion, but it simply wasn’t meant to be. My entire family is a bit stunned right now. I personally have never experienced such a grievous loss in my lifetime.

It crushed me to see the pain he endured over the past two years, but I am taking comfort in the fact that he’s no longer in pain. Hopefully we as a society can someday look back at the process of chemotherapy and react to it with the same horror and shock that accompanies any discussion of Civil War medical practices today. We recoil with disgust when we hear about those Civil War practices because we can’t imagine the idea of doctors not washing their hands before performing surgery or slicing off limbs with rusty medical devices. I can only hope that medical advances for treating cancer can eventually lead to future generations recoiling in disgust when they hear about the ways chemotherapy could literally destroy the humans it was supposed to save.

Grandpa was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1948. After graduating from high school in 1966 he attended Iowa State University, where he studied engineering and no doubt graduated towards the top of his class. In 1970 he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to work for McDonnell Douglas (which is now Boeing) as an aerospace engineer, staying with them until his last days and absolutely loving the work he did there. He married my Grandmother in 1981 and became a grandfather six years later when I was born.

I have nothing but happy memories of spending time with Grandpa. When I was growing up in the 1990s he regularly attended my sporting events, school concerts, and just about anything else I participated in. We also worked on and played a lot of games on the computer; I fondly remember playing a NASCAR racing game with him online back when you still had to use a dial-up modem to connect to the internet. I also remember going to the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with him for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Neither one of us maintained our interest in NASCAR, but we always enjoyed talking about cars, planes, trains, and just about any science or technology thing that moved fast.

My most prominent memories of Grandpa revolve around all the St. Louis Rams football games we attended together over a span of nearly twenty years. When the Rams moved from Los Angeles to St. Louis in 1995 Grandpa immediately purchased season tickets. He originally envisioned a process by which a different family member would attend each game with him, giving everyone in the family who was interested the opportunity to go see an NFL game. The Rams, however, were pretty bad when they came here. A few family members took an interest in going to those games in the early years, but it soon became evident that someone in the family would have the chance to attend two or three games a year. I became that person.

Grandpa and I went to the first Rams game at the Edward Jones Dome in 1995 (then called the Trans World Airlines Dome) and many, many more over the years. I attended at least one game with him each year from 1995 to 2013 with the exception of one season when I was in Indianapolis for graduate school and couldn’t get back for a game. We saw some amazing football during the “Greatest Show on Turf” years and were there when the Rams defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 11-6 in 1999 to go to Super Bowl XXXIV (and it just so happens that the last game we attended together was another victory over the Buccaneers on December 22, 2013). I still remember that 1999 game against the Buccaneers. The dome was so deafeningly loud that Grandpa insisted I wear earplugs. When Rams wide receiver Ricky Proehl caught that game-winning touchdown in the last minutes of the game I thought the dome was going to explode. Grandpa and I went crazy, jumping up and down and hugging each other like we had just witnessed a miracle performed by Jesus Christ himself. I think others around us were crying. And all of this celebrating was over a silly football game! For that short period of time we saw Rams stars Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Issac Bruce, and Torry Holt at their finest. But most of our football-watching experiences during those years were spent watching lousy football, unfortunately. The Rams have lost a lot since being in St. Louis. That’s okay, however, because it was always about spending time with Grandpa at the end of the day.

There are a lot of other memories I could reflect upon, but it’s hard to add much else. The pain I feel from his death is so immediate right now that I can’t convert my other thoughts into words. I will say, however, that I could not ask for a better, more loving grandfather to teach me about the ways of the world and be there by my side at all times. He was thrilled to hear that I earned a full-time job with the National Park Service a few weeks ago and delighted in seeing me succeed in my professional endeavors in both history and music. Grandpa was intelligent, hard-working, and dedicated to producing the highest-quality work at all times. I stand in awe of him and intend to use my Grandpa’s example to advance my own professional career while at the same time always making sure I strive towards being a more loving and caring person towards others.

I got nearly 27 years with Grandpa and was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to say goodbye to him before he passed. I am blessed in both regards and fully realize how lucky I really am in my life. Many grandkids in my situation don’t have living grandparents and never get a chance to even say hello to them, much less goodbye.

Cheers

Trial By Fire With the National Park Service

 

The White Haven estate at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The White Haven estate at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Starting My Career as a Public Historian

My first week of work with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site is in the books and I think everything went pretty well. Staffing at ULSG is pretty limited right now, so I was quite surprised when I arrived on Sunday, June 1 to find out that I was already scheduled to be on the tour rotation for that day and that I would be working the cash register at various points as well. Since I worked for ULSG as an intern four years ago and again as a seasonal two years ago I was able to pick up on everything pretty quickly, but I definitely need a little more time to get adjusted to life as a full-time Park Guide.

The most important task I perform on a daily basis is giving interpretive tours of the historic home White Haven, a large plantation-style home that was completed in 1816 and owned before and during the American Civil War by “Colonel” Frederick Dent, Ulysses S. Grant’s father-in-law. Dent’s son–also named Frederick Dent–was a roommate of Grant’s during his time at West Point, and it was Fred Jr. who invited Grant to White Haven after Grant was deployed to nearby Jefferson Barracks upon graduation in 1843. Grant met his future wife Julia Dent at White Haven and would later live in St. Louis (most of the time at White Haven, but not always) with his growing family from 1854 to 1859. Depending on how busy we are and how many guides are on staff I give between two and five tours of White Haven a day.

Public history excites me because I am challenged to work within small spaces and limited time frames. A historian who writes a book has ample space to add fine details, nuance, and context to their historical study, often needing 200 to 400 pages to get out everything they want to say (and sometimes they need even more space). University history professors and middle/high school social studies teachers have sixteen weeks of class periods that last between 50 minutes and three hours to make their points and impart historical knowledge upon their students. Public historians are not afforded these kinds of luxurious time frames and are often forced to work within word limits, character counts, and timed presentations. They’ve got to get to the point and spark the minds of their audiences quickly.

At White Haven I get ten minutes at the beginning of each tour to make my interpretive argument and explain to my audiences why it’s important to think about the history of this site and why it’s important for the National Park Service to be here preserving this area. I need to discuss the Grants’ and Dents’ family life at White Haven before the Civil War, but I’ve also got to talk about the conversations, tensions, and uncertainties that were expressed at the dinner table between Colonel Dent, Julia, and Ulysses about the status of the United States and the possibility of war in the future. And I’ve got to remind my audiences that there were upwards of thirty slaves owned by Colonel Dent whose perspectives were never acknowledged by the Dents but who nevertheless played an integral role in the shaping of the Grants’ and Dents’ family culture at White Haven. I get ten minutes to talk about all of these intricacies!

I have the knowledge and the facts in my head to report the history at White Haven to my audiences during their tours, but I’m still working my way through the creation of a cohesive interpretation that captures the big ideas and themes I want to convey to my audiences. I gradually got more and more comfortable as my first week moved along, and I have no doubt my tours will be even better as I get more experience working with my audiences.

Personal and Professional Adjustments

As I settled into my new job it dawned on me that there two major adjustments to my personal and professional life that I need to work through.

One of the downsides of working outside the academy is that I lose my access to paywalled scholarly journals in repositories such as JSTOR and EBSCOhost. Although my membership with the National Council on Public History allows me access to The Public Historian and a host of other history journal collections up to roughly 2009, there is undoubtedly a lot of scholarly resources that are now gone because I am no longer a student. Several professors told me while I was at IUPUI that too many public history and museum professionals stop reading the newest scholarship when they get full-time positions in the field; I will not be one of these people, but it’s going to be difficult given the problems of access that accompany life as a professional. The problem of time for reading scholarship is also particularly acute to me right now because my current (but temporary) living arrangement in Missouri has me traveling eighty miles round trip to and from work, taking away two hours of time each day that could be spent in other ways. When I get home from work, I’m tired.

Another challenge relates to Twitter. There’s a popular perception in the minds of many users and non-users that Twitter is merely a place for sharing trivial pictures and tweeting about the coffee you had in the morning. For me, however, Twitter is about building connections with other historians and humanists and sharing thought-provoking ideas, articles, and scholarship. As a graduate student I often spent 30 to 60 minutes each morning browsing Twitter as a way to keep up with the news and latest discussions, but now I’m away from the computer for most of my working day. I think that’s a great thing and I love being outside with visitors talking about history, but I hope to maintain a strong presence on social media and a solid connection with fellow scholars and practitioners on Twitter going forward.

Cheers

Job Hunting [For Public History Employment]

I wrote this essay for the newest issue of the National Council on Public History’s quarterly newsletter Public History News. I provide some basic tips and advice for finding employment in public history and discuss my experiences running NCPH’s Jobs page during the 2013-2014 academic year.

***

One of my duties as NCPH’s Program Assistant this year involved me updating the Jobs Page on NCPH’s website. Every week I searched the internet for public history job postings that were relevant to the skills and desires of the NCPH membership base, and at times I was able to post upwards of twenty or more openings to the webpage. I gained valuable experience for my own job search in running the jobs page and came away with several key pointers that I think can benefit all public historians currently seeking employment.

Know what you are looking for: Public history is a broad field that encompasses many occupations within the historical enterprise. Knowing your professional strengths and having a clear vision of your preferred occupation, geographical region, salary, and professional goals can all help the application process.

  • Am I interested in working for a large historical society, museum, or other cultural institution where I have a specialized job, or do I want to work for a smaller institution where I might have my hands in everything from fundraising and grant-writing to public programming and interpretation?
  • Do I want to work for an established historic preservation or consulting firm, or do I have the skills to start my own firm?
  • How much will it cost to move to a new city?
  • Do I need my health benefits to be covered immediately?

Be aware of deadlines: Postings often have strict closing dates. This is especially true for federal jobs with the Department of the Interior and the U.S. military, where the window for these openings is often open for only seven or less days. One recent posting I saw on USAJOBS opened for applications on a Friday and closed the following Monday. If working for the federal government appeals to you, be sure to use the resume builder on the USAJOBS website and check often for relevant job postings.

Look out for openings on the state and local levels: While the federal government and national organizations (like the American Alliance of Museums and the American Association for State and Local History) list many job opportunities for public historians, there are state and local positions that sometimes fall under the radar of the NCPH and related jobs pages. Many states have membership organizations that post local jobs on their website. A few particularly helpful associations for finding public history jobs this year included state and regional museum associations (i.e. the California Association of Museums or the Association of Mid-West Museums), as well as other sites like PreservationDirectory.com and statelocalgov.net.

Sometimes jobs are hidden. Look everywhere!: Some cultural institutions promote job openings on their own websites, but don’t promote them anywhere else online. To complicate matters further, many of these same cultural institutions do not display or promote their jobs page on their website homepages. Don’t simply rely on one or two job resource pages for getting the latest posting. If you have a specific institution that you’d like to work for, visit their website to see if they’ve posted any job openings, and make sure to search for “employment” or “jobs” within their website if there is nothing listed on their homepage. An opening that hasn’t been posted elsewhere may pop up.

Finding gainful employment in public history has always been difficult for emerging professionals, but devising tips and tricks for finding and applying for jobs can do much to make the process smoother. As I prepare to move on to the next phase of my public history career, I realize that my experience running the NCPH Jobs Page this past year helped me find a job that suits my professional interests.