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Careers in Public History: Sharing Lessons from the Past

Founded in 1699 (with origins dating back to the 1630s), Williamsburg was the capital city of the Colony of Virginia until 1780. After that, then-Governor Thomas Jefferson moved the capital to Richmond, and Williamsburg remained a quiet, sleepy town of several thousand people for the next century.

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.

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.

A history teacher takes his class to a museum.

What Is Public History?

Public history is the interaction between history and the modern world. In other words, it’s the application of history to current issues in a public context. According to the National Council on Public History, “Public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world. In this sense, it is [the aspect of] history that is applied to real-world issues.”

Public history is a collaborative and interdisciplinary branch of history that involves communities, scholarship, and research as it impacts and illuminates local history.

Public history is sometimes also known as “applied history,” but neither term completely describes the professional opportunities available in the field. Those who pursue careers in public history are passionate about their work and hold a relevant degree, such as a Bachelor of Arts in History.

Steps to Starting Your Career in Public History

Individuals interested in exploring careers in public history should first understand how it differs from other branches of history. Public history requires a specialized set of skills. Researching potential careers and what employers are looking for can help candidates determine whether they want to enter the field. Those who are passionate about public history can begin their careers with the following steps.

Step 1: Earn a Degree

Prospective undergraduate students should consider degree programs that offer public history-related coursework. Some bachelor’s degrees, such as Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in History program, offer classes that cover public history and local history concepts, as well as region-specific history courses. Students may also benefit from pursuing a graduate degree in history or a related field.

Finding a program that aligns with a student’s personal and professional goals can make a difference in whether they are practically prepared for a career in public history. By pursuing a history degree, students gain knowledge and skills in areas including cultural, legal, and diplomatic research. They also develop strong communication, collaboration, and analytical thinking capabilities.

Step 2: Gain Experience

After graduating with a degree in the field, individuals should gain experience to stand out to prospective employers. If any research projects were completed during their undergraduate studies, students can focus on finding internships or entry-level jobs in those areas of specialty. Some degree programs will offer internship opportunities as part of their curriculum.

Recent graduates can typically find internships or jobs at local historical societies, museums, community consulting firms, or public history institutions. Some organizations will hire entry-level individuals to work on temporary projects or part-time research studies. If an individual collaborates well with the members of the organization, they may be offered a full-time job.

Explore Careers in Public History

Powered by a passion for history and teaching through stories and lessons, 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. Salaries for history professionals will vary based on geographic location, place of employment, and level of education and experience.

Museum Professional

More than 35,000 museums operate in the U.S., 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), 35,900 people were working as museum technicians, conservators, curators, or archivists as of 2018. The BLS projects that the job market for museum technician and conservator jobs will grow from 14,400 to 15,700 positions (a 9% increase) between 2018 and 2028, while openings for curators will grow from 13,700 to 15,000 (a 10% increase). These projections are faster than the 5% projected growth rate for all jobs nationwide. Curators earned a median annual salary of $54,570 as of May 2019, while museum technicians and conservators earned $44,430.

Archivist

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. The work may also include sorting and storing artifacts and documents, leading restoration efforts, and acquiring new materials.

According to the BLS, there were 7,800 archivists working in the U.S. as of 2018. The BLS expects the job market for archivists to add 700 jobs between 2018 and 2028 (a 9% increase). The median annual salary of archivists was $53,950 as of May 2019.

Librarian

A library usually includes a collection of materials that teach us about the past. A librarian career in public history 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 134,800 librarians were working in the United States as of 2018, a number that’s projected to grow by 8,500 jobs between 2018 and 2028 (a 6% increase). Of those librarians, 33% worked in elementary and secondary schools, 31% in local government (i.e., local libraries), 18% in colleges and universities, and 7% in information-related careers. 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 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 that have diverse history offerings.

The BLS reports there were nearly 1.1 million high school teachers in the U.S. as of 2018. The BLS expects the employment of high school teachers to increase by 4% between 2018 and 2028, which equates to 38,200 new jobs. High school teachers made a median annual salary of $61,660 as of May 2019. The lowest 10% earned approximately $40,540 and the top 10% earned around $99,660.

Share Your Love of History

Those who graduate with a history degree have many opportunities to share the valuable lessons of the past. One option is to pursue a career in public history, inspiring future leaders, thinkers, and other 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 Reading

A Guide to Archives and How to Use Them for Research

Jobs for History Majors: Where Will Your Degree Take You?

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

Sources

American Historical Association, “Careers in Public History”

American Historical Association, “Historians in Archives”

Institute of Museum and Library Services

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