In Defense of the Public Historian

Calling the case of the the Public Historian versus (insert name of person who has ever said public historians aren’t real historians).

I am ready for the Public Historian.

“Those who might be considering taking up public history need to be aware that some academic historians regard it with disdain, seeing public history as second-class citizenship in the historical community. It is, they say, no more than a temporary response to a shortage of academic jobs…”

David E. Kyvig – Introducing Students to Public History

Your Honor and ladies and gentlemen that read this blog: it has come to my knowledge through a friend that there has been a comment or two made against public historians, implying that they are not real historians. The evidence I present will prove to you that this is a falsified claim and that public historians will not and should not let the words of those who don’t understand, get us down.

One Friday night a few weeks ago was really hard for me. I was already in a weird slump, not feeling that confident in myself as a grad student, as a GTA, as a historian in general. I had talked to my non-public history friends about this before, I have heard rumblings from others, but it was way more “through the grapevine”. When my friend told me, casually, that they had heard someone say, “public historians aren’t real historians” it really hit hard. Its different reading other public historians warnings about people’s view of the discipline, it feels distant and far off. Rather this is someone that I know in passing who views me as less than or perhaps not up to par.

I mean I already don’t feel like a historian.

Knowing how people, even historians, view public history has made me feel as though I am not a historian. However, even within the discipline, I don’t feel like a historian. I feel as though I am an impostor.

You see in my undergrad, I saw myself as a historian. My research interests centered on the world wars, I considered myself a social historian, I mainly focused on Indigenous soldiers and veterans in Canada and Nazi Germany and the Holocaust/Porajmos. I wrote papers and spent hours sorting through documents, records, and newspapers. I felt valued and validated with my research, as though this is what a historian does, thus by doing this process, I feel validated as a historian. Yet, that all changed.

I fell in love with dark tourism. Your first thought might be, “go apply to a tourism and hospitality program” and you’re right, I should, shouldn’t I? Dark tourism isn’t necessarily history, it occupies a weird space between being both history and not-history at the same time. Of course, I look at the history of the sites in question, but I am also more interested in why the public is coming to these sites, what ethical questions arise from the tourism, how does it impact the community etc. As a result, I don’t feel like I am a historian. I am not writing papers in the same way I used to and I am not spending hours sorting through documents to support an argument in the way that I have grown accustom too.

Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t me saying that dark tourism is not history or belongs within the discipline, rather I feel as though in comparison to my former self, that I am not a historian.

Maybe its a self confidence thing, as I view my classmates as historians, but not myself? Am I just occupying a weird place between historian and non-historian? I don’t know! But, if public historians aren’t ‘real’ historians, I have a few questions…

If public historians aren’t real historians, then why does the public/corporations/government entrust us with researching and writing for publications, curating exhibits, running archives (you know, the things “real” historians rely on for projects), working with heritage, genealogical research and so much more? I mean, would you go to a mechanic for a broken arm? No? You would likely want to see a orthopaedist or at the very least a doctor. Y’know, someone who has dedicated their lives to the practice right? Yeah, public historians are just as dedicated as other historians, we have just specialized to be able to effectively work in a certain field.

Are public historians not real historians because we are only answering for a temporary lack of jobs in academia? I will give you credit, that is one of the reasons I chose public history over the regular stream as there were more job opportunities. But, does that make me less than? Thinking about my financial future while still doing something I love? Western’s public history program has had a 90% placement rate in the public history field since 2008. [1] Over ten years of a 90% placement rate? I am quite confident when I say, academia is not the only job avenue for historians! So, even when the academic job shortage is over, I still think there are going to be people in public history.

Think of it like this, as a type one diabetic, I have my general practitioner/family doctor who does my routine checkups, evaluates my mood, you know that yearly doctor’s appointment kind of stuff. Now, she is amazing because she does a little bit of everything, but she can’t give me the specialized care that I need. So, I then need to go see an endocrinologist, a doctor who has specialized in the endocrine system and the diseases and conditions that concern that system. Both of my doctors are amazing, however, because of the disease I have, I need someone who is more specialized, who understands my endocrine system better, in order to receive the treatment I need.

That can easily be applied to history and public history. A historian who remains predominantly in the academic realm is fantastic, we need people like that. We need professors, academic writers and researchers! But what happens when the public comes into the question? We need people who have specialized and studied how to interact with the public in the history realm, understand the role we as historians have but also the roles the public has and that’s where public historians come in! We are just specializing in a field that has piqued our interest.

But is public history really so different from history? For me, I guess not. Remember that former self I talked about? I was doing public history, before I even knew it.

Taste of the Library

2017, I was a part of a class that created the “Taste of the Library” exhibit. Specifically, I was the leader of the nationalism group, where we told the story of/explored Canada’s nationalism through cookbooks. I learned about museology, exhibit design and also learned about interacting with media. Here is me on live television (I had to be there for 6:30 in the morning! I was tired!)

Behind the Bars

In 2018 I was awarded an Undergraduate Student Summer Research Fellowship in which I had the opportunity to create a documentary based upon a paper I wrote in my third year. Entitled Behind the Bars the documentary sets to explore how Kingston Penitentiary has moved from an active penitentiary to one of Kingston’s biggest tourist draws. Doing the project I learned how to conduct oral interviews/history and use them for academic work, documentary creation (filming, narrating, editing), working with the public and government, getting an understanding of the tourism industry in Kingston. The documentary is currently in post-production, I was naive to think I could complete all my research and have a finished and polished documentary in four months! Stay tuned for the premiere of the documentary in a few months!

Check out some photos from when I posed as a tourist at the penitentiary!

This program is amazing as well, every day I am expanding upon what I know and growing as both a historian and public historian. Every project planned is only going to help me grow. Projects such as working with LACH on heritage designation and working with the Banting house to create panels for the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin are real-world projects that will actually have an impact! I know I feel the same rewarding feeling I felt during the opening of my first exhibit Taste of the Library and working on my documentary and I cannot wait.

Another amazing thing about this program is who I am studying with. It may be cliche of me to say, but I believe it fully in my heart, I am the luckiest person to be able to study alongside my other public historians this year. They are all incredibly talented, smart, well-spoken and the experiences they bring to the program inspire me to do the same. They inspire me to not let negative opinions bring me down as I am just as valid within this program, there is a reason I am here and I should to some extent be sharing my experiences with oral history, documentaries, museum exhibits, internships and yes, even dark tourism! I couldn’t see myself at another school or in another program.

This feels like home.

In conclusion, I am my father’s daughter and I’ll be damned if I let someone tell me what I am or am not. I am also stubborn as hell, so watch me prove this person wrong. I will show you just how much of a historian I can be. I have accomplished and experienced so much in the month or so that I have been here and I can’t wait to continue to grow, explore and experience public history.

My blog readers are thanked and excused. Court is adjourned.

Further Reading

Introducing Students to Public History ” by David E. Kyvig

Fewer Students Are Majoring in History, But We’re Asking the Wrong Questions About Why (briefly discusses the rise of public history masters/PhDs)

Taste of the Library Exhibit:

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