Public history and policy: A synergy

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in 1951. Photo credit: Wikicommons.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in 1951. Photo credit: Wikicommons

As policy makers and politicians debate and make important policy decisions, they are constantly dealing with the past. They must consider what has been tried and failed, and what options were overlooked and why. These are questions that require an understanding of history. Without the benefit of a historian’s expertise, it’s hard to know what may be misremembered and whether we are repeating the mistakes of the past. Institutional memory can be unreliable or even absent. By analyzing policy history, professionally trained historians provide essential context that explains why certain things were done and enables policy makers to make better decisions in the present. Continue reading

Collaborating with consultants

The historical society was sparsely decorated when it opened in 1975. Photo credit: Courtesy of Morgen Young.

The historical society was sparsely decorated when it opened in 1975. Photo credit: Morgen Young

In early 2014, a small historical society outside of Portland, Oregon, circulated a request for proposals (RFP). Having received a grant from their local government, they sought to hire a curator for a one-year contract. The duties of the curator included: inventorying and assessing collections, developing and implementing a policy and procedural structures for managing collections, creating an interpretative plan, developing a public services strategy, and staffing the museum every weekend. Continue reading

The value of history (Part 2)

Editor’s note: During the fall of 2013, the NCPH Consultants Committee distributed a survey to the NCPH consultants community in order to learn more about the community’s members and how best to serve them.  This piece is part of a series examining the results of that survey. 

Last year on this blog, I engaged in an ongoing discussion about how public history consultants determine the value of our work. I proposed that we would benefit from establishing fee standards across the discipline, ideally creating space in the market for consultants to make a living while improving the value of historical work in public spaces. This post came in response to a working group at the 2012 NCPH (National Council on Public History) annual meeting in which independent consultants discussed the need to communicate fee trends while the firms voiced their desire to keep their fees confidential. We all left with a general concept of how to help those who want to band together but not a clear understanding of how to accomplish that goal.

Chart showing public history consultants' fee scale varying by years of experience. Credit: Kathy Shinnick

Chart showing public history consultants’ fee scale varying by years of experience. Credit: Kathy Shinnick

As a step towards this end, the NCPH Consultants Committee conducted a survey, which, in part, asked consultants to anonymously divulge information about their fees. The survey was intended to determine trends by cross-referencing the fee scale with categories such as education level, region, and years of experience. For example, we should be able to assess the going rate for consultants in the Southeast who have a PhD and ten years of experience. Due to a somewhat small sample size of 148 consultants, the results leave a few unanswered questions. However, they also reveal a lot that can guide us to the next step. Continue reading

Twenty questions for consultants

By Berdea (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo credit: Berdea, Wikimedia Commons

Providing assistance to individuals considering careers in consulting remains an ongoing task of the National Council on Public History (NCPH) Consultants Committee. In October 2012 and September 2014, forums held on Versatile PhD opened up discussions that generated valuable data that Consultants Committee members are using in devising initiatives to achieve this end. Both forums were populated with practitioners who represented a number of disciplines, including history. In particular, the forums gave graduate students, postgraduates, and other interested parties in the humanities and the social sciences the opportunity to ask practicing professionals about the business of consulting. The questions posed–the most germane of which are compiled here, in distilled form–can serve to guide the committee in its efforts to address the concerns and meet the needs of those who are considering a career in consulting. Indeed, this is an opportunity to be seized.

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Reflections on relocating (Part 1)

Sweetwater Creek State Park, near my new hometown of Atlanta, includes the ruins of a textile mill, destroyed by Sherman's advancing army. Photo credit: Adina Langer.

Sweetwater Creek State Park, near my new hometown of Atlanta, includes the ruins of a textile mill, which was destroyed by Sherman’s advancing army. Photo credit: Adina Langer

Almost exactly four months ago, I relocated from Lansing, Michigan, to Atlanta, Georgia. Although both are capital cities, Lansing and Atlanta have little else in common. I traded the Midwestern winter and speedy grid-like roadways for mild autumn breezes through dense tree-cover and much-to-be-avoided traffic-choked interstates. Of course I also traded a dominant heritage of the fur trade, mid-19th-century westward expansion, and the rise and fall of the auto industry with one of British colonialism, railroads, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights. I also traded one public history community for another. In this post, I share my first impressions and aspirations. In nine months, I will report again on my progress toward my goals. Continue reading

Graduate school and the consulting historian

Central Experimental Farm, Ottawa Photo Credit: Pete Anderson

Central Experimental Farm, Ottawa
Photo Credit: Pete Anderson

Academic careers are hard to come by these days. Public historians will not be surprised by the posts on the active #altac hashtag on Twitter or the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s (SSHRC) recent “White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities” that observed that only between 10 and 15 percent of those who enter PhD programs will be employed at a post-secondary institution [1]. A declining number of tenured and tenure-track positions, coupled with an increased reliance on precarious labor in the form of adjunct and temporary appointments, has destabilized the academic job market for graduates. Deep budget cuts to museums, archives, and other research-oriented institutions–not just in history and the humanities, but also in the social, physical, and life sciences–make finding “traditional” public history jobs increasingly difficult as well.

As a second-year PhD student working towards defending my dissertation proposal and completing my qualifying exams this term, I do not have the answers to questions about the utility of a PhD, but I am interested in designing my project with an awareness of the challenges facing new graduates. As Abby Curtin notes in her recent post on History@Work, while theses provide opportunities to explore rich historical questions, it doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be strategic in project design or have an eye towards future employability. Continue reading

From independence to collaboration in historical consulting

SHRA Staff Photo. Photo credit: SHRA.

The SHRA team at the Fall 2013 Boise Mayors awards ceremony in Arts and History. Photo credit: Idaho Statesman

Long before I had employees, I began my consulting career as an independent researcher. Although I fall into the introvert category on every personality test that I have taken, I am not your stereotypical introvert. I enjoy interacting with people and seek out opportunities to socialize and work as part of a team. Indeed, I believe that my desire for teamwork was one of the reasons I turned to public history. It gave me the chance to interact with more than just a remote editor in my research and writing. Consulting offers the opportunity to conduct regular face-to-face meetings with exceptionally diverse audiences, where I discuss my work, bounce around ideas, and get instant feedback. Because of the pace of consulting work, I actually have had more opportunities to write than I likely would have had in academia and on subjects that vary widely in both topic and scope. These are bonuses I didn’t anticipate when I turned to consulting as a career.

As the owner of a growing business, I recently have found it necessary to expand my notion of teamwork to include not just clients but also other researchers and writers. I admit that the conversion of my solo consulting career into a research-team-based enterprise has been one of my greatest challenges. Finding an appropriate balance among us on task assignments, making sure our work doesn’t overlap, and setting up procedures for effective team communication have tested me. I often find myself wondering how other historical consulting firms face these challenges. Continue reading

Ask a Consulting Archivist: Maija Anderson

Editor’s note: We are beginning a new series on the Consultants Corner, Ask a Consulting Archivist. In the series, we will interview archivists about their careers, including how they first got started in consulting work, challenges they face, and current projects. We will soon begin similar series with consulting preservationists and curators/museum professionals. Adina Langer leads our first interview, which is with Maija Anderson who, in addition to consulting, works as Head of Historical Collections & Archives at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.


Maija Anderson surveying an archival collection on-site. Photo credit: Max Johnson

How did you get involved in consulting?
I value the idea that everyone’s history is valid and important and that everyone should have power over their histories. As a university archivist, I’ve always been encouraged to contribute professional service by teaching what I know. I’ve always done mini-consults with anyone who has questions or needs a sounding board, just as a professional courtesy.

My first independent client was a collector of fine-press books. She had purchased some production files from one of her favorite book artists and wanted to make them presentable within her book collection. I think I was really lucky that my first client was a woman entrepreneur.

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Consulting Alliances Working Group advances case for collaboration

Consulting Alliances Working Group, NCPH Annual Meeting, Monterey, California, March 2014. Photo courtesy of Michael Adamson.

Consulting Alliances Working Group, NCPH Annual Meeting, Monterey, California, March 2014. Photo credit: Michael Adamson

The Consulting Alliances Working Group formed last fall to explore collaboration as a means by which independent consulting historians might do work that otherwise would not be available to them. After writing, posting (on this blog), and commenting on individual case statements, the group gathered in March in Monterey, California, at the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History (NCPH) to continue their consideration of the extent to which consulting historians may be missing opportunities to join colleagues in competing for projects that are likely beyond their reach as individuals. Consulting historians not only may be missing out on chances to work on more, and more varied, projects but also on opportunities to hone and leverage their talents as professionals. As Bill Willingham noted, by collaborating, historians can increase their creativity and improve their ability to execute projects. Continue reading