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Bringing History to the Masses: Exploring Careers in Public History

Founded in 1699, though its origins date back to the 1630s, Williamsburg was the Colony of Virginia’s capital from its founding until 1780, when then-Governor Thomas Jefferson moved it to Richmond. For the next century, Williamsburg stayed quiet — a town of several thousand people sandwiched between the York and James rivers, a few miles from the Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the Atlantic. Spurred by Reverend Doctor W.A.R. Goodwin in the 1920s, Williamsburg’s center became Colonial Williamsburg, a living museum demonstrating the way of life in the 18th century. The museum’s shops, restaurants, houses, and other buildings now draw more than $1 billion in tourism to the region each year, hosting more than a half-million visitors annually.

A history teacher takes his class to a museum.

There’s more to Colonial Williamsburg than turning a profit. It takes the work of thousands of employees to make the museum and town come to life, and those colonial reenactors and educators inspire a love of history in visitors. Colonial Williamsburg employees work in what’s known as public history, where history connects with the public. Continue reading to learn more about careers in public history and how to step into one of these dynamic roles.

What Is Public History?

Public history is the interaction between history and the current world. In other words, it’s the application of history to current issues in a public context. Public history is sometimes also known as “applied history,” but neither term completely describes the professional opportunities available in the field. People who pursue careers in public history are often passionate about their work and hold a relevant degree, such as a Bachelor of Arts in History.

Explore Careers in Public History

Powered by a passion for history and teaching stories and lessons to others, those who want to work in public history have several professional paths available to them. Below are some popular careers in public history, with details on the job market and expected salary for each.

Museum Professional

There are more than 35,000 museums operating in the United States, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. They cover topics ranging from science and art to history and culture. Even museums that aren’t specifically history museums feature aspects of history. For example, an art museum might offer a tour addressing the impact of Italian art on the Western world, which would include historical details. Therefore, those who work in museums, such as curators, docents, and tour guides, must know the history behind objects in their museums.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 28,100 people working as museum technicians, conservators, or curators as of May 2018. Curators earned a median annual salary of $53,780, while museum technicians and conservators earned $43,020. The BLS projects the job market for these professions to grow at a similar rate. Museum technician and conservator jobs will grow from 14,400 to 15,700 (a 9% increase), while curators will go from 13,700 to 15,000 (a 10% increase).


Archivists work with historical documents and other media, protecting and preserving them for future generations. They often work in museums or similar organizations, especially those that house historical art, artifacts, and documents, such as the National Archives. Their work may also include sorting and storing those artifacts and documents, leading restoration efforts, and acquiring new materials.

According to the BLS, the 7,800 archivists working in the U.S. as of May 2018 earned a median annual salary of $52,240. The BLS expects the job market for archivists to add 700 jobs between 2018 and 2028, a 9% increase, which is nearly double the projected national job market growth rate during that span.


A library is a collection of materials that teach us about the past. Librarian is a career in public history in which individuals can help millions of people access history and much more. These professionals include school librarians, who encourage young students to read about important historical events, as well as librarians in specialty libraries, who direct researchers toward important primary documents and literature.

The BLS reports there were 134,800 librarians working in the United States as of May 2018, a number that’s projected to grow to 143,800 between 2018 and 2028 (a 6% increase). Of that 134,800, 33% worked in elementary and secondary schools, 31% in local government (i.e., local libraries), 18% for colleges and universities, and 7% in information. The median annual salary for librarians as of May 2018 was $59,050. Colleges and universities paid the highest annual salary ($64,130), followed by elementary and secondary schools ($60,780).

High School Teacher

High school history teachers can connect with hundreds of students each year, teaching them about different aspects of U.S. and world history. While elementary and middle school students also learn history, high school courses are more detailed, exploring specific time periods and cultures. High school history teachers with a specific area of knowledge, such as post-World War II U.S. or medieval Europe, can teach those topics in large schools with diverse history offerings.

The BLS reports there were 1.07 million high school teachers in the United States as of May 2018, making a median annual salary of $60,320. The lowest 10% earned approximately $39,740, and the top 10% earned around $97,500. The BLS expects the employment of high school teachers to increase by 4% between 2018 and 2028, which equates to 38,200 new jobs.

Share Your Love of History

History degree graduates have many different opportunities to share the valuable lessons of the past. One option is pursuing a career in public history, inspiring future leaders, thinkers, and historians. Explore how Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in History can put you on the path to one of these fulfilling careers.

Recommended Readings

Career Paths for Graduates with a History Degree

Teachable Moments: What’s in Store for the Future Educators of America?


American Historical Association, Careers in Public History

American Historical Association, Historians in Archives

Institute of Museum and Library Services, “Government Doubles Official Estimate: There Are 35,000 Active Museums in the U.S.”

Maryville University, Online Bachelor of Arts in History

National Council on Public History, “Looking for a Job in Public History: An Outsider’s Perspective”

National Council on Public History, “How Do Historians Know About the Past?”

National Council on Public History, “How Do We Define Public History?”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Archivists, Curators, and Museum Workers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, High School Teachers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Historians

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Librarians

Williamsburg, Virginia, Brief History