Coming to terms with public history

More than three decades ago, Ronald J. Grele challenged his colleagues to think about the meaning and goals of public history.1 The National Council on Public History (NCPH), which publishes the journal in which Grele’s article appeared, still does not have a firm definition. It suggests that “applied history” captures the essence of the field.2 But is that good enough?

Grele pointed out that historians address different publics — even in the academy, where those publics include other academics (usually addressed through research publications and conferences) and students (addressed through coursework). Public historians, on the other hand, engage various publics in non-academic settings, such as museums, archives, government offices, and documentary film.

Emerging out of the local history movement, public history now can claim large audiences served by professionals who are not always sure they are in fact engaged in public history. A 2008 survey of public history professionals found that 76 percent of respondents identified themselves as such, but the rest did not. “One of the most significant challenges for public history as a field is ambiguity about the definition of the term,” according to the survey report.3 The survey’s definition focused on practitioners “who either defined themselves as public historians or were employed in a historical activity outside of academia.”

Grele’s questions, published in 1981, came at a time when history in the academy was in crisis. “The study of history is in total collapse in the academy,” he wrote, “while the popularity of history with the public is growing everywhere.”4 Grele found this ironic. Similarly ironic is that because of the subsequent explosion of public history programs in universities across America, too many graduates now are competing for too few good jobs, according to Robert Weyeneth, a past president of the NCPH.5

Grele pushed for a definition of the field that favored collaboration between professionals and their publics. This, as Denise Meringolo observed, is now at the core of a definition of public history.6 Public history also is interdisciplinary. Still, for some academic historians, collaboration with the audience and an interdisciplinary approach suggests a lack of scholarly rigor.

The debate over public history and the role of public historians reminds me of a similar concern in my own area of specialization. As someone who earned a degree in journalism, worked in the field, and now teaches future news workers, I place high value on the word “journalist” and the professionalism associated with it. However, as I often remind students, in the United States a journalism degree is not required to be a journalist. Many a fine journalist has done stellar work without an academic background in journalism, instead entering the news business with training in fields such as English, sociology, or philosophy. And there are examples of journalists, fewer today than years ago, who did not even attend university. Plus, so-called “citizen journalists” cover issues and events that interest them and often without remuneration. Many lack proper training, but some have managed to run rings around professional journalists. Who, then, is a journalist?

The need for best practices — for professional standards and intellectual rigor — is as important in journalism as in history. However, that does not mean the public(s) should be excluded. Journalism would not exist without its audience. History can’t either.

1. Ronald J. Grele, “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of a Public Historian?,” The Public Historian 3, no. 1 (1981): 40-48.

2. “About the Field,” National Council on Public History, accessed January 27, 2017,

3. John Dichtl and Robert Townsend, “A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals,” American Historical Association, accessed January 25, 2017,

4. Grele, p. 47.

5. Robert Weyeneth, “A perfect storm?,” National Council on Public History, published September 6, 2013, accessed January 25, 2017,

6. Denise D. Meringolo, “Prologue” in Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), p. xxiii.