For my public historian informative interview, I chose to talk with Linda Morton-Keithley. She has worked for museums, archives and historical societies in Idaho, and continues to work on projects throughout the Northwest. I had the privilege of working alongside Linda in 2011-12, when she was hired at Boise State as a grant contractor to work on integrating our finding aids into the Northwest Digital Archive consortium. Before the grant, all of the archive’s finding aids were either word documents or MS Access tables, not available to the public. Linda worked on converting these files to XML and uploaded them to the NWDA website. During that brief time, I had some opportunities to ask her about the history profession, however there was a lot more I could have asked. This assignment gave me an excellent excuse to request some more wisdom from her. Linda has been in Idaho’s Public History profession since the 1980s. To see what linda has been up to check out her extensive list of publications, including many oral histories, available through the library.
After earning a B.S. in Human Resource Sciences (with a minor in History and Anthropology) from Michigan State University and a Masters in Historic Costume and Textiles from Colorado State University, Linda went to work as the Museum Director of the Owyhee County Historical Society in 1982. She served as director for six years then, after a year as the director of the Hunt County Historical Society, she became an Oral Historian for the Idaho State Historical Society (ISHS). After ten years of service, she became the Administrator of the Public Archives and Research Library at ISHS, a position she held for eleven years. Since 2010, Linda has been consulting, grant contracting and volunteering for several different institutions in Idaho and Oregon. Linda is also co-owner of MK Custom, a family-owned business creating hand-crafted horse and cowboy ‘goods.’ From her home in Melba, Linda makes custom hand-woven saddle blankets and rugs. For the past couple weeks I had a string of emails with Linda. I asked Linda questions about what she liked about working in archives and what she saw as challenging:
JD: As a professional with many accomplishments in public history, what job (or project) did you find the most rewarding?
LM-K: Two aspects really stand out as most rewarding. First, I really liked being oral historian for ISHS. Throughout most of my 10 years in that position, I was given latitude to develop my projects. The emphasis was always on identifying topics with little representation in Idaho’s written record – second-wave feminism, the CCC, saddlemaking, outfitters and guides, BLM state directors, to name just a few In each case, I was able to conduct original research, seek out and interview narrators, and, most importantly, create a record of information available to future researchers. In that same vein, I also found customer service to be very rewarding. It’s a wonderful feeling to be familiar with the collections in your institution’s custody and be able to match the collections up with a researcher request. The more obscure, the better!
JD: You have worked for large and small, public and private institutions. What are the advantages and disadvantages of both?
LM-K: My first professional position was as director of the Owyhee County Historical Society and Museum in Murphy and my last full-time position was as administrator of the ISHS Public Archives and Research Library (now Idaho State Archives.) OCHS was a fabulous experience for someone coming right out of school. I was the sole employee and was able to experience every aspect of running a museum, from cleaning the bathrooms, to building exhibits, hosting school tours, writing articles for the historical journal, and answering research questions. Although I worked directly for a board of directors, I had a great deal of latitude in how I structured my work day, the exhibits I wanted to create, and the topics I wanted to research. There were always volunteers available for large projects which I couldn’t accomplish on my own, such as building and grounds maintenance.
As administrator at PARL, I had supervisory responsibility for a fair-sized staff and a much larger collection, oversight of a nearly $1 million budget, and a role within the agency’s leadership team. All very rewarding and a natural progression after 20 years in the history field, but have to say the biggest disadvantage is that as an administrator, you never have time to actually work with the collections themselves.
JD: What is your assessment of the current environment for the traditional career paths for public historians (cultural resource manager, archivists, curators, etc.)?
LM-K: The biggest challenge I see for public historians in Idaho is the lack of available jobs, especially those that pay a living wage. For those interested specifically in archives, there are only a handful of institutions with professional positions – ISHS, U of I, BSU, ISU, C of I, several more I can’t think of at the moment. There are also a handful of cultural resource positions with the State and Federal agencies. For those more interested in records management, there is also ISHS, a few corporations, and the larger Idaho cities. As you may know, city clerks in Idaho are responsible for local records management and I believe the larger cities often have an assistant clerk who oversees day-to-day management of the records. For curators, again, there are only a handful of positions in the larger museums. The smaller, county-level museums are generally run by volunteers or, at best, part-time, curatorial staff.
The current political climate worries me when it comes to our field. Far too many politicians and other leaders see historical endeavors as nice, but non-essential. That attitude has major implications when it comes to funding for grant-making agencies such as NEH and NHPRC. I know lots of folks who got their start in the field by working various grant-funded projects and would hate to see those opportunities go away. Advocacy has become a daily aspect of the job for public historians.
JD: What skills would you recommend we build to succeed in this field?
LM-K: Develop your communication skills by accepting all opportunities for public speaking, submitting articles to professional newsletters and blogs, networking whether possible. Stay current with trends in the field by subscribing to relevant listservs, joining professional organizations such as Northwest Archivists and Inter-Mountain Archivists, attending meetings (some offer student scholarships), signing up for webinars. Even though the majority of jobs throughout the nation are becoming more specific, i.e. digital content management, seek a well-rounded experience that gives you exposure to all aspects of the field. This might include working with traditional, paper-based materials; digital content; and audio/visual materials; as well as customer service/reference experience. Volunteer if you can work it into your schedule and include an internship as part of your academic experience. And take a grant-writing workshop if the opportunity presents itself.
JD: When interpreting history for a public institution, sometimes emotions can run high when dealing with sensitive topic. Have you ever had to navigate those waters for an exhibit, publication, or other historical presentation? In other words, what advice can you give about presenting history accurately and handling negative publicity for an institution that may come from that interpretation?
LM-K: I served 15 months in the mid-1980s as director for a county museum in Texas, charged with developing their first museum. The community had a long history of poor race relations and for many years had a sign hanging across Main Street, close to the railroad depot, that read: “Welcome to Greenville. Home of the blackest dirt and the whitest people.” (FYI, this was cotton-growing country and the black dirt was a major contributor to successful crop management.) For obvious reasons, the sign had been taken down in the 1960s and placed in storage at the town’s maintenance yard. Shortly after I was hired, the sign was offered to the museum as part of its permanent collection. I accepted the donation because it was part of the town’s history. I didn’t, however, put it on exhibit although many folks thought I should have. My feeling was that it could only be displayed IF placed within the context of a very thorough, and honest, interpretation of the town’s past history. If I had stayed longer, I would have conducted an extensive oral history project with the town’s white and black communities to help develop that interpretation. I don’t know if the sign was ever put on exhibit after I left or not.
I am truly grateful Linda made herself available for my informative interview. It is historians like Linda that make me hopeful that our profession has a future in Idaho. Despite the State’s funding issues, she continues to contribute to the humanities. I was pleasantly surprised to hear Linda found the oral history project the most rewarding. I too like conducting oral histories, I hope there are more opportunities to build an oral history program in this valley. I also think Linda’s advice to join professional associations to keep up with the profession is wise. That was similar advice to what another guest speaker told us last month. I am a member of two local professional associations, one for archives and one for records management. I hope to contribute more to these groups once I have time after my schooling.
Even though the public history profession may be transforming, with limited budgets and increased technology, there is still work to be done. I think it is fair to say, that that work will probably not pay well and will not be as stable as it used to be. Linda made it clear that advocacy and communication are important aspects of staying relevant. As I read some of the other informative interviews, I think we are gaining a good understanding of what it takes to work in our chosen field.