Public history is generally defined as work related to history that’s done outside of specialized academic settings. Public historians are generally the incredible individuals who communicate history to non-historians and engage in work outside of academia in what’s sometimes jokingly referred to as the “real world”. Public historians are the oftentimes the individuals who inspire future historians to become historians because most of the people who study history probably didn’t get started by reading formal academic works by historians whose work exists and is known primarily within academic circles. Personally the work of public historians is what motivated me to become a historian myself, specifically the work of museum historians who create exhibits to showcase history in the real-world and to non-historians in an effective and engaging way.
Public History And History Communication:
An article from the National Council On Public History from 2015 is one of the first I’ve ever seen that uses the term History Communicator. It’s a really neat article written by Jason Steinhauer, a leading public historian whose website you can visit by clicking here. This article is fantastic because it clearly and loudly states the importance of the work done by existing public historians and future history communicators. It takes time to state that the work in the field of public history matters in the present-day and showcases the value of history for the public and policy-makers instead of just within academic circles. I recommend you check it out either before finishing this article or shortly afterwords as a bit of “recommended reading” to accompany my statements on public history and history communication.
I want to become a history communicator. Some might try to tell me that I already am one both by looking at my previous articles and by virtue of wanting to be one, some could argue that I’ve become one. I’ve certainly engaged in history communication previously with my articles on the Alhambra Decree and one of the few listicles I’ve made: some often glossed over moments in Latin-American history. But I want to become a formal history communicator. I want to become an individual who has a talent for the various aspects of history communication. This is more than merely understanding historical concepts and research and having an ability to make this understandable to non-historians but also someone with a platform that is capable of sharing that information.
History communication is not just the act of communicating history to anyone who is willing to listen. Real history communication involves or at least ought to involve an understanding of social media and the other ways that people share information. Understanding history and having an ability to communicate it to non-historians including people who actively dislike history is not enough nor is it particularly uncommon, lots of people can distill valuable information from formal and academic history research and even share it effectively but those people often lack a passion or interest in doing this and a lot of the work done by history communicators ought to focus on getting the information out into the world, not solely on translating it or attempting to make it more “understandable”. History communicators who want to be taken seriously ought to either understand how to share this information in ways that get other people to share it or know and work with people who have that knowledge and understanding. As a historian I feel like there’s an arrogance among some academic historians who think that people are incapable of understanding history, and it’s more accurate to say that non-historians often lack an interest in history not that they are incapable of understanding it, at least in my experience.
History communicators have also got to be adept at interacting with existing media outlets. We’ve got to be building relationships with journalists, with editors, with writers, and with content creators. We need to be seeking opportunities aggressively, putting ourselves out there as leaders and content creators ourselves. Like more conventional public historians we’ve got to be in the public eye hosting conversations and taking part in platforms and spaces built for cultural discourse. We need to do what we can as public historians to ensure that people hear us and that we are seen.
History communicators who want to be real, full-time, history communicators need to be willing to create platforms and build audiences and this takes a long time. This is a process that is perpetually ongoing. It takes long and hard hours. But it’s extremely valuable work that is worth doing. I value history and I value it being properly understood by non-historians. If history communicators are successful in developing leadership and talent eventually we’ll become a more well-known and well-respected specialty within and outside of academia.
In order for me to become a more effective history communicator I need to buildup my reputation as both a historian and communicator who can create truly engaging and thought-provoking content and I need to continue to building my network of contacts in various publications and my network of where I contribute articles which will help boost my platform and thus the number of people I can reach with content related to history.
I want to be a history communicator for a variety of reasons but the main purpose of today’s post was to introduce my readers to the concept of public history and to public historians. I’d love it if you’d take some time to check out a few of the resources I’m about to share.
Another Steinhauer article, a more recent one about the “next step” for history communicators.
An article by Elizabeth Covart, a historian who specializes in early American history. This article gives voice to some early concerns Covart and other historians had with the idea of history communicators.
An article from the American Historical Association about historians who want to work as communicators of history but doesn’t directly use the term “history communicators” in the same sense as Steinhauer and Covart.
Jason Steinhauer runs a YouTube channel named History Communicators and in it he created some videos educating viewers as to the birth of media involvement in presidential campaigns including the beginning of weaponized and tactical Public Relations as it relates to politics. Been a while since a video was uploaded though. These are 2 of their 3 videos.
I recommend checking these articles out for additional perspectives and thoughts on public history and more specifically history communication. I thoroughly enjoyed all of them and I whole-heartily recommend reading each link I shared here.
I’d love to know what you think of public history and history communication after reading this article. If you have an opinion or want to share some resources chat with me in the comments section!