Introducing History Communicators

Just as science has Science Communicators, I’ve proposed that history needs History Communicators. The idea of History Communicators, and how public historians may fill these roles, will be discussed in a panel at the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Nashville.

History Communicators, like Science Communicators, will advocate for policy decisions informed by historical research; step beyond the walls of universities and institutions and participate in public debates; author opinion pieces; engage in conversation with policymakers and the public; and work diligently to communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal across print, video, and audio. Most important, History Communicators will stand up for history against simplification, misinformation, or attack and explain basic historical concepts that we in the profession take for granted.

Public historians are well-positioned for this role, as we do much of this work already. Academic historians within the American Historical Association are also looking in this direction, and the recent AHA conference in Washington, DC, featured several panels on historians as public intellectuals, including Yoni Applebaum, Peniel Joseph, Eric Foner, and Michael Kazin. These historians frame issues of politics, race, power, and civil rights in a historical context. But while they may sometimes speak out against history that is oversimplified or dishonest (Foner, for example, was critical of the way that the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment is depicted in Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln), they generally do not devote time to communicating the value of public history institutions to the public at large. They are also not in the business of conveying basic historical concepts to mass audiences. This is where History Communicators can make enormous contributions.

Many public historians do currently engage in public outreach of various kinds, of course. But the goal of such outreach is often narrowly-focused on increasing visitorship or engagement rather than aiming for larger, society-wide goals. History Communicators will focus their work on behalf of the field as a whole rather than just for specific institutions.

There is clearly much scope for action here. For example: at AHA, a colleague mentioned to me that she recently overheard congressional staffers in Washington ask one another, “What’s an archive?” She was appalled that the staffers helping to write the legislation of our country do not know what a modern-day archive is, what it entails, and what value it has to historians, policymakers, and the general public. She presumed they had never visited an archive, either. I would hazard a guess she’s correct and that this is also true of the great majority of Americans.

In our hearts, public historians feel passionately that part of our job is to ensure Americans do know what a modern-day archive is and how it serves its function–as well as what museums, historic homes, government history offices, and historical research have in service to history and the public. But what public history is, and that public history (and history more generally) is a space of interpretation, nuance, and continual reassessment based on new information, remains opaque to most Americans. Among the public, there remains a perception that public historians only safeguard antiquarian objects and perpetuate accepted narratives. Joyce Appleby’s observation in 1997 that historians who choose interpretation over perpetuation of traditionally held beliefs are chided by political and popular forces still rings true today. Part of History Communicators’ charge will be to evangelize and popularize our message. It is a natural extension of the work we already do.

Participants in a 2012 symposium at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science are part of a growing movement in science communication. Photo credit: Virginia Sea Grant

The science community has cultivated a generation of such people–Carl Sagan, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Brian Cox, David Grinspoon, Bill Nye, and Alice Robert. Science also has invested resources to train a new generation of communicators. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science is one example of such an investment, and scientists have teamed up with communications departments at universities to produce media training and communications protocols for scientists who wish to engage in public debates.

Public history should do the same. We have sharpened our methods over the years, but they can be sharpened further. We must strengthen media and communications training for public historians to enhance the receptiveness of our message. As NCPH President Bob Weyeneth said in his 2014 Presidential address, which sparked a discussion of these topics here on History@Work, we need to “let the public in on the trade secrets” that historians share and take for granted. We must develop household names and engaging personalities who communicate about public history in popular culture and who have credibility in communities beyond our own. We must develop a cohort whose specialty is not to communicate within public history, but on it, mastering all media available to us, television, YouTube, Vine, Podcasts, radio, music, print, social, and Web. This is part of the vision for History Communicators.

So are History Communicators actually History Mediators, as Jim Grossman and I wrote in November? Are they History Advocates? History Popularizers? History Evangelists? The answer is all of the above, in my vision. And if many questions feel unresolved in this short blog post, it is because they are. Is History Communicators simply an attempt to put a new, more intentional spin on the kind of work that public historians already do? Is it merely an advocacy campaign–and how does is it differ from advocacy work done by NCPH, AHA, the Society of American Archivists, and others? What actual positions can public historians hold in order to function as History Communicators? Shouldn’t academic historians be History Communicators, too?

These are among the questions we’ll debate in April. This post merely serves to open the conversation and to get us thinking about the possibilities. I hope the conversation expands in many directions and takes what is at present a germinating idea and turns it into a fully viable concept. I invite you to comment below with your initial reaction and to join us in Nashville to discuss further.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

~ Jason Steinhauer is a public historian in Washington, DC. He works and blogs at the Library of Congress, and he sometimes uses Twitter: @JasonSteinhauer.