What is Public History?
What is public history? A better question is: what isn’t public history? It used to be easier to answer the question. At one time, there was a very clear demarcation: there was academic history, the pursuit of the field grounded in academia, closely tied to a university or college environment, with articles published in scholarly journals or books written for a somewhat narrow audience; and, there was the kind of history that existed beyond an educational institution, such as the activities associated with a museum, a historic house, or a battlefield. Most “real” history was in the academic arena, whose top scholars tended to look a bit askance at so-called “public historians,” who were often, at best, treated condescendingly, and at worst like the red-headed stepchildren of the profession.
But that has changed markedly in the recent past.
Computing power and high-speed internet not only revolutionized the mechanics of research—from a world of card catalogs and microfiche to a whole new universe of Google Scholar and JSTOR—but blurred the lines between academic and public history so that there is frequent overlap. The emerging technology of digital documents and images later beget the capability of sharing PowerPoint presentations and audio and video files, utilizing not only laptops but iPads and Smartphones. Then there was cloud storage, and live video feeds, and remote conferencing, and virtual tours, and web-site creation, and social networking, which had historians once chained to desks frequently stepping on and off campus—physically or virtually or both—while watching or attending conferences recorded by C-SPAN, visiting battlefields and historic sites, hosting a webinar. Today’s historian, whatever their official specialty or job title, is often not only a user but also a creator of digital content. And the audience is … well … everyone … not only the public but global public! The traditional historian has evolved. He or she may still teach, but when not in the classroom is just as likely to be engaged elsewhere. And public historians, who are often on the front lines of both popular culture and technology, find themselves less unwelcome in the hallowed halls of academia, as well.
We can and should bemoan the shrinking history major at universities across the country, but at the same time we should celebrate the fact that there is still a lot of history going on, even if it is far from a campus milieu. And most of that history that is going on is in the purview of public history.
The purpose of this website—created specifically to launch at Pioneer Valley History Camp 2019—is to showcase the wide variety of history that falls into the scope of what we call Public History, and is tied to Stan Prager’s presentation for History Camp 2019, “Go Public with Your History: Create Your Own Website.” Of course, it is fitting that the site launch is tied to History Camp, an “unconference” that celebrates everything that is history for a much wider audience.
In its initial phase, this site highlights Stan’s engagement in the Public History arena, but in future hopes to incorporate work by others in the field made available for public access. Stay tuned!