Is it Performance Anxiety or are you trying to find a job as a Historian?

In reviewing all of the materials presented for this week I felt compelled to quote President George W. Bush’s comments following the inaugural speech of the current occupant of the White House, “That was some weird shit.” (Please excuse the profanity.)

I hate to throw that quote in, but it kind of captures my thoughts after exploring all of the links and articles. I had no idea just how many options and opportunities there are for historians. Granted, both Tyler Rudd Putman’s article Crafting a New Historian on the Chronicle of Higher Education site and the AHA story Historians as Consultants and Contractors point out all of the obstacles and challenges which await newly minted historians. In this vein, the comments by former National Council of Public History President Robert Weyeneth, found on their web site, are probably the most disheartening. The abbreviated summary goes like this, “There are now too many public history programs,…producing record numbers of new MAs, …who can’t find jobs,…in part because they are poorly trained…[or because]…the stodgy curricula haven’t kept up with the realities of the twenty-first-century economy and the digital revolution.” (

Continuing my exploration I was startled by a comment Bob Beatty in his blog about, What employers seek in public history graduates Part 1, “One reason I pulled this session together is that more than anything, I don’t believe it’s the job of history departments to train museum professionals.” Why am I here then? He goes on to make a case that universities should focus on training historians and museums and professional organizations can train history graduates with the “technical skills of museum work.”

Part 2 of What employers seek in public history graduates, written by Scott Stroh provides a list of concrete skills that are useful for history professionals, which I won’t repeat here. In the paragraph that follows that list, he shares what he looks for when he hires someone. It should come as no surprise that virtually every employer looks for the same qualities in their new employees. I can’t say I was impressed by this particular exchange.Deer in the Headlight

All of this left me with both rose-colored glasses and the “deer in the headlights” look. I have over fifty years of experience looking for jobs and I am generally optimistic that I will find something “worth” doing in the field of history.


I’ll end with a fun link I discovered while exploring. It gives me hope that history and historians may not be too dry:

Making history more than a ghost story

The lure of ghost stories and hidden tunnels is what tends to draw tourists to the Old Town section of Edinburgh, Scotland, but it’s in the real historical sites where the story comes alive. Crichton Easton is a former employee with Edinburgh’s Mercat Tours, the most popular and trusted historical interpretation and touring company in the city. He laughs at the transformation that he witnesses in tourists when moving from supposedly haunted sites, to ones where real people lived, worked, and died. “The ghosts elicit giggles,” he says, “but the real history gets the gasps, and ‘ooohs, and the proper interest.’”


Mercat is contracted by the city of Edinburgh to do all “official” tours in the Old Town and along the Royal Mile. The Old Town contains Reformation-era buildings still situated on a Medieval street plan, and the Royal Mile is a long stretch of road that serves as the central hub of the Old Town, running from Edinburgh Castle to the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. While the company’s most popular attraction is the evening Ghost Tour, Easton also gave tours and site interpretations along the Royal Mile during the day, and worked briefly as a site interpreter at various World War I sites in Belgium and France. The tour routes, Easton said, were strict and specific, having been written by the directors of the company. “The directors,” he added, “are all former Heads of History at schools in Edinburgh.” Guides aren’t required to go by a script, though, and are often encouraged to make their tours personal and distinctive.


a screen shot from the Mercat Tours website
a screen shot from the Mercat Tours website


Even in their advertisements, Mercat Tours boasts that all of their guides and site interpreters are university trained, having at least a BA in History or something similar. Easton received his BA in Honors History at the University of Stirling in 1992, his post-graduate diploma in Tourism and Hospitality Management from Napier University of Edinburgh in 1993, and a post-graduate certificate in Education with a distinction of History Teaching from Glasgow University in 2001. He says that his additional degrees more than prepared him for the job at Mercat, and even allowed him to rise through the ranks to interim manager of the Edinburgh branch of the company.

The company’s directors carefully research each site, and routes are often changed when new history or archaeological evidence is found. Interpreters also know to leave time for extra stops, as tourists always have questions or feedback that would invite further exploration of certain places across town. Inevitably, Easton added, tourists would want to know about things they had seen in films, or on TV. Dispelling those myths always felt like a job well done, though Mercat did eventually give in and create a tour of sites seen in the book/television series Outlander.

Easton loved his job with Mercat, relaying stories of giving tours to Barry Gibb (twice!), to the Russian Ambassador to Scotland, and to a NASA astronaut who was working on the tiles of the Space Shuttle. But he also understands the importance of making history relevant and exciting to those who might think otherwise. One has to imagine that in this company, making the history tours just as worthwhile as the ghost tours can be a challenge. But he says it’s not impossible. “Be confident in what you are talking about. Have a theatrical slant — once did a tour with 250 people on it — very hard work but worth it.”

Interview With an Archivist

Dr. Cheryl Oestreicher has held many positions in her career but none she found as fulfilling as working as a library archivist. It was not her first choice–she did not attend library school until her late twenties, and only chose archival work halfway through her program–but little makes her happier than working with the general public to uncover pieces of the historical narrative buried in special collections. Dr. Oestreicher began her career in the archives excited about the collections she could preserve and has continued it because she is excited about the people who wish to work with them.

The Boise State Library Special Collections and Archives require several different kinds of work in order to function. Someone must seek out or accept collections for donation, which means that the archive must have a clear idea in mind of what kinds of collections they wish to keep and what to pass on. Space is always a limiting factor in an archive, particularly since the stacks where collections are stored generally require temperature and humidity regulation. Since an archive cannot house everything, someone has to judge whether the collection is worth keeping–a tricky prospect for an archivist. Next, someone must process the collection. This can be as simple as labeling folders or boxes or as intense as itemizing and describing each piece. Later that collection must be added to the catalog, as a collection is hardly useful if no one knows an archive has it. Additional work can include digitization, cross-referencing items with other collections, and interpreting the collection to create public history installations like interactive timelines or exhibits. Dr. Oestreicher has done it all.

Most if not all archivists require a masters or doctorate in one of the library sciences. Very few have any background in history, and while some archives build exhibits that is not their main focus. The majority of archives exist to serve a curatorial function, and the Boise State archive is not an exception. The archive works with a variety of different kinds of people, from faculty and students to amateur historians and curious members of the public. Dr. Oestreicher has also worked with researchers from the National Science Foundation and researchers from other countries who are interested in topics covered by the special collections the library owns. The Frank Church Papers are by far the most utilized collection, but many others have fueled important projects.

Many archives are funded by the institution they are attached to and accept donations to further expand their capabilities. Collections are often donated to the archive, though some actively seek out and purchase famous or desirable collections. Dr. Oestreicher and her team are lucky in that they have the ability to chose which collections or projects they would like to work with and are able to develop their public history installations from there. While a small exhibit in the windows of the library features some of the archive’s pieces, the primary interest of the archive is not to track how many people are stopping  by to look at them. The archive has also done a fair amount of digitization, either at the behest of an interested party or because the archive itself believes that the collections will be of interest to the public. Dr. Oestreicher’s favorite public history piece that has been produced in the last few years is the timeline of Boise State’s campus that features pictures of the old buildings and tidbits of the University’s past. The user response to this timeline has been overwhelmingly positive, and the archive plans to do more like it soon.

Dr. Oestreicher had some advice for those who wished to get involved with archives. So many people want to work for an archive because they believe they will be in a back room processing collections all day, and will not have to deal with the public. She freely admits that is what appealed to her the most when she was first choosing this career. However, she has found that even in her time spent processing collections for the Atlanta library she used to work for, she still had to spend a certain amount of time talking with the donors in order to properly label things. Over time, more and more of her job consisted of interacting with the public in some way. This interaction is now the most fulfilling part of her work in ways she never thought it would be. Being an archivist is not just about the ‘stuff;’ it is about the new knowledge gained from projects that utilize that ‘stuff.’


Jill Gill – Idaho Black History Museum

Idaho Black History Museum, photo by Alisha Graefe

The Idaho Black History Museum may seem a bit out of place in Idaho seeing as the population is only .8% Black. (Census) This museum is located in downtown Boise right next to the Boise Art Museum, the Idaho State Historical Museum, and the Boise Zoo. The museum which is housed in the historic St. Paul Baptist Church is in prime real estate in Boise which was more than likely a strategical move by the museum founders. On the surface, Idaho’s past doesn’t seem to have a rich African American story, but this museum proves otherwise. According to the website, the museum exists to “build bridges between cultures to explore issues that affect Americans of all cultures and ethnicity.” ( About Us)

According to Dr. Jill Gill, former Board Member of the museum and history professor at Boise State University, it is a volunteer based museum. The IBHM has no paid professional staff. “Therefore, the board runs the museum. It creates the exhibits, and brings in traveling exhibits, solicits donors, rents the facility to other groups, manages the site, sells items for fund raising, and arranges for volunteers to open the museum for business.” Due to the volunteer-run system, the exhibits are mainly put together by amateurs without any formal curator training. This gives the museum a different feel than other museums in the surrounding area.

Just by walking into the museum, you can tell that it truly is a passion project by members of the community. Gill who has served on the board for many years has helped with events and spoken at some. She has worked on fundraisers, created exhibits, and even helped clean up the museum. Being a board member and volunteer means helping out with everything and truly being involved in every aspect of the museum. You can tell by the exhibits that there is a large amount of input and help from the community. The volunteers that are at the museum regularly give great direction and are extremely helpful. Last time I visited the museum, I only got to look at a couple of the exhibits because I was wrapped up in a great and informative conversation with one of the volunteers (who happened to be the grandson of the man who built the church). This all gives the museum a homegrown, comfortable feeling.

Gill spoke about the size of the museum and their goals that include expanding the donor and revenue base so they can hire part-time professional help. They also hope to bring in new traveling exhibits. They hope to gain more volunteers and to expand its outreach further across the state. “The IBHM has always supported human rights and been part of the Idaho human rights movement, which it will continue to do so via its educational mission.”

Gill describes how her interest in Black history led her to get involved with the museum back in 2002. She explained how the Boise State University history department has had a history of representation on the board and have “tried to be helpful in connecting university classes/programs/resources with the museum and vice versa.” Gill describes the success of the museum as simply the number of viewers as well as engagement of the audience. “Oftentimes classes of school kids come through, and success would be measured by indicators that visitors have learned something, or though of things in a new way as a result of the exhibits/programs.”

Visitors can currently visit the museum and see the large piece of artwork by Pablo Rodriguez depicting the journey of Black Americans throughout history called Slave to President.


Jim Duran, Digital Archivist and Side Project Historian

In an ever-more digitizing society, the work of a digital archivist is growing.  I sat down with Jim Duran to discuss the job of a digital archivist and how the field is changing and what it takes to be a digital archivist.

Duran has worked in the Boise State University Special Collections since 2007, and been the Digital Archivist since 2015.  He began his career as a library assistant for the BSU Special Collections while working to obtain his undergraduate math degree.  He enjoyed working at the library, and his interest in history was peaked through classes and interactions with history professors in the Residential College housing program.  His choice to study history was further influenced by his interest in cause and effect, agency, social systems, and opportunities to teach people who are interested in history.  More specifically, with archives, Duran enjoyed organizing things and having the ability to save history from obscurity.  Duran decided to pursue a career in libraries, graduating from the Boise State Master of Arts, History program in 2013.  He is currently working on his Master in Library Science degree, a requirement for academic archive personnel.

Having been involved with the BSU Special Collections during his undergraduate career, Duran wanted to continue working there for a number of reasons.  First, as a Boise State alum, Duran liked the Boise State community, campus, and city of Boise.  Secondly, working for a smaller archive with fewer staff allowed for more freedom when exploring different aspects of archives.  Lastly, the location of Boise as a capital city offered opportunities to collect political papers and corresponding documentation, which could provide multiple perspectives on historic and current events.

As a digital archivist, Duran’s day is usually spent working with students, staff, and the public, providing access to materials, managing interns, and processing new donations.  Additionally, he digitizes audio/visual materials by converting obsolete formats to digital, facilitates duplications since materials cannot leave the area, and creating digital collections.  Since 2015, a major part of the job has been website development.  That entails creating websites for content management, which make existing digital collections accessible online.  The focus for such collections has primarily been University archives and regional papers from Southwest Idaho.

For those interested in history and archival careers, Duran offered up some sound advice.  In history, he advised that finding non-profit organizations to work with is a major advantage.  Many grants require non-profit involvement, so finding a non-profit that shares your passion for a certain subject increases your probability of obtaining a grant.  As historians, many times we are required to write with a specific client or audience in mind.  His advice is to practice writing for different audiences as much as possible.  In reference to archives, his advice was to volunteer and intern to gain experience.  As the field turns more and more digital, he also offered to consider learning a coding language.  For those interested in archival work, the standard for academic libraries is a Masters in Library Science, as they will most likely be teaching.  The standards for non-academic libraries are a little more relaxed.  Some helpful skills are knowledge in the certain styles of processing collections, computer guidelines in describing collections, and familiarity with systems that manage digital content.  Additionally, skills associated with negotiating with donors, attention to detail and organization, and an ability to relate what people are looking for with what is available are desired.  Duran further emphasizes an awareness that the work you perform is permanent and meant to last a long time.  One of the challenges that he faces regularly is that there are no standards for how to archive and preserve digital materials.  The policies for such practices are still being written for digital collections.

Since 2011 Duran has also been a side project historian, usually employed through the City of Boise Arts and History Department.  He enjoys the variety of the side projects and their ability to spice things up.  It was through this collaboration with the City of Boise Arts and History and with the Boise Public Library that Duran published a book about the history of the Central Bench.  The book was a success, provided history on a relatively unknown subject, and was a fun way to support the Central Bench neighborhood.  The book was so well-received, that the first printing of 1,000 copies was gone in three weeks.  As a side historian, Duran’s projects are almost always related to neighborhood associations and grant funded.  When on a project, he devotes about 10-20 hours a week to research, writing, interviewing people, and presenting his findings.


My favorite section of the interview was devoted to the projects that Duran is proudest of.  He mentioned his Central Bench History book, his Photo Services Negatives Collection, and his Master’s thesis.  The Photo Services Negatives Collection involved over half a million photos on two obsolete content management systems.  Duran was able to migrate data to access it and preserve the digital content.  This project is an example of why Duran likes working in archives.  He states that, “Archives can be very rewarding if you enjoy preserving history and helping people discover it”.  His Master’s thesis was focused on the Morrison-Knudsen construction company based in Boise, and its connection to Cold War era Afghanistan.  Duran discovered that not much research had been done on the subject, conducted interviews of past employees, and became the expert on Morrison-Knudsen.  He was contacted by the BBC, the Washington Post, and others to discuss the company.  Duran created a professional niche for himself and is particularly proud of his thesis for that.

In an age increasingly digitizing, the work of Jim Duran will not cease any time soon.  His interview shed light on the roles of archivists in preserving digital content, and what it takes to enter the field and be successful.

Central Bench History book by Jim Duran

The most special things in Special Collections


As an undergraduate I embarked on a solo transcription and translation of a portion of Boise State University’s sixteenth century copy of Peter Comestor’s Historia Scholastica, a twelfth century university history textbook. In order to perform a proper textual comparison, I needed to procure another version of this text. My search led me to the University of Iowa Library Special Collections. After a thoroughly enjoyable exchange between myself and the curatorial staff I obtained digital representations of what I needed.
This experience had a real impact on me. I decided I needed to find out how one came to be in a position to be around old texts all the time.
For this purpose I contacted Amy H. Chen, Special Collections Instruction Librarian at the University of Iowa. I asked, “What path led you to your current position?”
She replied, “I obtained a PhD in English from Emory in 2013. During my time at Emory, I worked in the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL, now Rose Library). That experience allowed me to get a Council on Library and Information Research (CLIR) postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Alabama, where I worked from 2013-2015 as the coordinator of exhibitions, instruction, and online outreach. I then moved to the University of Iowa to serve as the Special Collections Instruction Librarian in June 2015. In October 2016, I became the interim English and American Literature librarian.”
Having no idea as to what a Special Collections librarian does, I asked, “What sort of projects do you work on?”
“I coordinate instruction for our department, which means managing the 250+ classes that book with us on an annual basis. I also do teach, but we all teach here at Iowa. On the side, I do things like develop games (#codexconquest and #markthegame on Twitter if you want to check it out), serve on local and national committees for both English and special collections, and conduct my own research. I publish in the fields of pedagogy and literary collection acquisition; the latter of which I am currently writing an academic book on.”
Intrigued by these opportunities, I asked, “Are you afforded autonomy to pick your own projects, or are projects generally assigned to you by other in your organization or elsewhere?”
“I create my own projects,” she stated, “aside from the general coordination of instruction.”
Knowing so little about the challenges that Special Collections librarians I asked, “What are the current issues in your field?”
“The role of PhDs in libraries, PhD job placement overall, increasing pedagogy in special collections to partner with DH and move beyond show and tells, information literacy standards (especially following the election!), moving toward multiple sessions per class rather than one shot classes, game development in higher education.”
I asked, “How is your position currently funded? Is this typical for positions in your field or organization?”
She answered, “I am salaried through my department, yes, this is normal. I am salaried as a Librarian II (will be a III in June 2017) but many are salaried on a non-librarian level.”
Hoping that she was as enamored with Historia Scholastica as I am, I asked, “Knowing that you prize everything in your care, is there one thing you prize above the others?” I was dismayed when she replied, “Maybe our Babylonian clay tablet, our oldest item in the collection. I also am partial to our medieval manuscripts on paper (especially rare), and the marker drawings of Kurt Vonnegut.”

While medieval text books, clay tablets, ink drawings, and the lot are special, and worthy of the title, it is my humble opinion the most special thing is Special Collections are the librarians charged with their protection.

Let’s Talk, A Conversation with Troy Reeves, Head, UW-Madison Oral History Program

Photo – Zoom, Model H4n Digital Voice Recorder

I originally met Mr. Reeves through an oral history class taught at the Nampa Public Library in February 2016, courtesy of the Idaho Humanities Council. The two-hour class introduced us to the work of an oral historian and was a wonderful starting point for those interested in oral history either as a hobby or a profession.

To begin it is worth noting some of Mr. Reeves’ bona fides. The following information is drawn from the University of Wisconsin-Madison staff directory. Mr. Reeves manages collecting and curating oral history recordings, as well as communicating and collaborating with interested individuals about the art and science of oral history in both Wisconsin and Idaho. He is responsible for twenty oral history projects in both states covering such topics as cultural, political, and environmental history. He has been published in such journals as the Western Historical Quarterly, the Public Historian and the Oral History Review. He is also the managing editor of the Oral History Review overseeing day-to-day operations, including its social media initiative. He also works with the editorial team to add multimedia (both audio and audio/visual) content into the journal’s articles.  Finally, Reeves has held various leadership roles in the national Oral History Association.

Mr. Reeves near twenty-year career began with a part-time, six-month project for the City of Boise in 1997. From 1999 until 2007 he served as Idaho State Oral Historian, Idaho State Historical Society (ISHS). He left that position to become the head of the oral history program at the General Library System at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which encompasses forty libraries on campus.

Mr. Reeves’ educational path typifies oral historians. He received a Bachelor of Arts, History from Idaho State University and a Masters of Arts, History from Utah State University.  In both programs he selected projects that allowed him to do oral interviews in conjunction with other research he was conducting. Reeves stated that the few full-time jobs in oral history require at least a master’s degree, typically in history, folklore, library sciences, or journalism. Recently Columbia University began offering an Oral History Master of Arts.

Interpersonal skills are of paramount importance, being a good if not a great listener. He quoted a friend, Sarah White, who says, “Being a good listener requires not only the ear, but the brain and sometimes the heart.” Being a good researcher is essential so you know the person or people you are interviewing and the topic being discussed. Finally, perseverance is vital. People will back out of interviews leaving you stranded. Finding funds for different projects is frustrating. Knowing you have a good idea and the interest in the topic is not enough, it takes perseverance to get the project done.

When asked about salary, Mr. Reeves chuckled and said, “In the humanities there is never a poverty of ideas, only a poverty of everything else.”  As the State Historian for the Idaho State Historical Society his starting wage was $13.50.  No oral historian positions were found on National Council of Public History jobs board, however other entry level jobs on the site started at $15-$19.

“Oral history is what I do and who I am,” said Reeves.  His position is funded by the library to promote oral history on the campus, especially focusing on capturing the history of the university. His projects fall into two “buckets,” campus life stories and project or topic-based oral histories.  As an example of the first he cited a recent interview conducted with a wildlife biologist who talked about his work and the history of the university over the last nearly forty years. Reeves would like to do more such interviews, but as a one-person operation he typically can only do a few each year.

Front page of Wisconsin State Journal Oct 67 Riots
In 1967, University of Wisconsin students and police clashed when an anti-war protest – Pinterest

A project or topic-based project can be found in the interviews he is conducting around the 2011 protests which occurred at the state capital and on campus regarding changes Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin legislature were trying to implement. Since summer of 2011 he has been interviewing graduate students and some faculty and staff who were deeply involved in those protests. Another hot period for protests on campus occurred between October 1967, when there was an anti-war riot on campus, and August 1970 when there was a bombing on campus. These interviews continue with people who were actually on campus at that time.

Mr. Reeves also does off-campus work for the Wisconsin State Historical Society. He does training and workshops for them around Wisconsin, at their annual meeting and out of state such as the one in Nampa. He also works with different people who aren’t paid historians but who do oral history work ancillary to their jobs. Finally, he works closely with the full-time oral historian archivist at the vets’ museum. All of this exemplifies the campus ethos to get outside of campus and help others.

“Oral History Now and Tomorrow” was the topic of a panel discussion at the 50th Anniversary conference of the Oral History Association. Some current issues are:

  • Now that you can put digital audio online, should you? What are the ethics of doing so?
  • In an organization that prides itself on being egalitarian, who gets left out when there is a focus on degrees and professional development?
  • Oral history in crisis or contemporary settings, when is it okay to start doing oral histories?
  • Are there differences in the way a feminist may conduct an oral history project as opposed to someone not imbued with feminist history or feminist studies.

The oral historian techniques and methodologies should be in every historians’ toolkit.  Hearing and not just reading the words of those who witness history provides a bonus of information that may be otherwise missed by any student of history.

Informational Interview with a Consulting Historian

I interviewed Morgen Young of Alder, LLC. Morgen is a consulting historian based in Portland, Oregon.

Morgen received her B.A. in History, with a concentration in Latin American Studies from Furman University in South Carolina. She went on to receive an M.A. in Public History, with a specialization in Historic Preservation from the University of South Carolina. The main impetus to pursuing public history came to Morgen in the form of a job she held for one year between her undergraduate and graduate studies. She worked as the Cultural Research Coordinator for an Alaska Native Corporation in Anchorage, Alaska. While there, Morgen directed an oral history program to document subsistence traditions, and helped manage a language preservation project. In hindsight, Morgen realizes that that position gave her valuable experience working in the capacity of public historian as well as consulting historian. That experience convinced her to go to graduate school, where she initially enrolled in a traditional history M.A./Ph.D. program. Realizing she didn’t want to teach, she switched to the Public History program by the end of the first semester.

Morgen claims she owes her post-graduate success to being obstinate. Upon finishing grad studies she moved to Portland, and unable to find paid or even voluntary work, she convinced her former employer in Alaska to hire her on a freelance basis for a project. From there, she says, she “registered a business and slowly, but surely began acquiring clients. Now I work full time as a consulting historian.”

Alder, LLC provides a variety of services, from researching house, company, community, and family histories; working in preservation through National Register of Historic Places nominations and Oregon Special Assessment applications; conducting and transcribing oral histories; developing and curating exhibits and museums; writing and editing reports, articles, digital and web content, and marketing materials; educational walking tours, lectures, and workshops; as well as providing photography. Because of this broad array of services, Morgen doesn’t really have a “typical day on the job.” Some days she meets with clients, some days she conducts research in both physical archives and by utilizing digital resources, and some days she focuses on writing content. Morgen also noted the importance of devoting “a fair amount of time” to project management, considering that “on any given day, I’m focusing on anywhere from two to ten projects.” Because of the solitary nature of her work (she is the sole employee of her business), Morgen says her favorite part of her work is working directly with community members. She says that any opportunity to work directly with people is both wonderful and rewarding.

Morgen notes that her skills as a good public historian, namely research, interpretation, and educating outside of a traditional classroom setting have prepared her for a wide variety of work. While she doesn’t have specific technical skills in the digital aspects, she can populate an existing website with her content and appreciates the advantages of digital platforms and works with web designers to achieve them. She has experienced an ability to reach new audiences and interact with multiple generations, through web platforms and social media marketing, and by combining both physical and digital components.

As a last bit of advice, Morgen recommends that young public historians engage with the National Council on Public History. She has been involved since grad school and found it helpful when seeking employment and volunteer opportunities. She has served as a Co-Chair of the NCPH Consultant’s Committee, and is currently a candidate to serve on the Board of Directors.

* I learned about Morgen’s work through her Uprooted Exhibit, which is currently on display at the Minidoka County Historical Society Museum in Rupert. See the project website here:

Career Talk With The Barefoot Genealogist

During RootsTech 2015, I had the privilege of talking with Crista Cowan about her job as a Corporate Genealogist for Ancestry.

Crista majored in business management during college, as she was unaware that her passion for family history could be transformed into a career. After graduation, she took a position in LA as a software support manager. On the side, she continued learning more and more about genealogical research. Eventually, her hobby transformed into a career. She opened her own genealogy business and never looked back.

A little over ten years later, Crista was hired by Ancestry to assist both in research and in growing their brand. Some of her projects as a corporate genealogist and PR guru include recording a series of YouTube videos as the Barefoot Genealogist and doing behind the scenes research for TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? She finds the work extremely fulfilling and even gets enough autonomy to continue researching her own family while on the clock. This helps Crista stay up to date on all the new resources, techniques, and technologies available in her field.

Technology has made staying up to date in genealogy a difficult task. In fact, Crista believes that education is the biggest issue in her field right now. There is a great challenge in trying to help the public find their ancestors on top of teaching them how to use the new tools and documents as they become available. There is simply too much happening, too quickly.

However, technology has also helped open up family history to new audiences. Crista recalled that many of the people she interacted with ten years ago were American women over the age of 55. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to receive e-mail from a teenager or a European asking for assistance in their research.

Crista mentioned that there are two main paths for those who are looking to make a career in genealogy. For those who enjoy academia, the first route requires attending a Family History program at a university. The largest of these programs is stationed in nearby Provo at Brigham Young University.

As Crista’s career path demonstrates, there are still great opportunities in the field of family history that do not require a formal degree. Getting in the door as a self taught genealogist requires becoming ingrained in the family history community. Typically, this is done by attending conferences such as RootsTech or by attending intensive genealogical institutes.

Crista has learned a plethora of information from these genealogical institutes. In fact, when she first began taking on clients she ran into a little turbulence when many of her clients came to her asking about their Jewish ancestry. At the time she had no experience tracing Jewish lineages, but by attending an institute or two and asking her cohorts, she was able to answer her client’s questions. Eventually, she gained enough skill in researching Jewish families that it has become one of her areas of expertise.

There is decent money to be made as a genealogist. The amount a professional genealogist will charge their clients depends on the intensity of the work completed. For fulfilling simple requests, which only require a quick visit to an archive to obtain a document unavailable on the web, most genealogists charge about $15 per request. Genealogists working in a niche part of family history can charge upwards of $150. An example of a niche genealogist would be an individual who have the ability to read and access documents in an uncommon foreign language.

Crista’s job is funded through Ancestry subscriptions, but most independent genealogists run their own businesses and earn their wages through completing freelance research for clients.

A big thank you to Crista for granting me an interview! I learned a lot and have even begun looking into upcoming genealogical institutes.

Proving Your Worth – the Museum Educator’s Story

The role of formal education departments and programs in museums is rapidly expanding as these institutions continue to realize their duty to serve the public in this manner. As the Education Outreach Coordinator for the Idaho State History Museum, Ellen Morfit knows this, and is working with the rest of the Education Department (Kurt Zwolfer), to continue to improve the museum’s education programs.

Ellen’s journey to the Idaho State History Museum (ISHM) begins with a passion for history and a desire to work in museums. When she moved to New York, she took the opportunity to begin volunteering with the Brooklyn Historic Museum and the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and soon decided to go all in and obtain a degree in Museum Education from the prestigious Bank Street College of Education. Her program included weekly museum visits, six weeks of student teaching (she also obtained a teaching certification), and a semester-long internship with a local museum. Ellen was determined to work at an art museum – the MET in particular – but her advisor refused. She insisted Ellen apply for an internship with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Her advisor won. It was the perfect fit. During her internship, Ellen was able to gain experience in visitor evaluations, program development, and teaching. One of the programs she developed is still running and engages visitors of all ages in discussions on sweatshops, labor movements, and immigrant experiences. Ellen recalls, “When I worked at the Tenement museum, it was on the verge of exploding into something amazing…I mean it was amazing, but they, since I left there, and that was twelve years ago, they’ve just blossomed.” The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is now part of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and is a leader in the field for integrating the past and the present and engaging visitors in dialogue around difficult and important issues.

Fast forward to the present and Ellen is in her third year at ISHM. She began by volunteering for the museum while she was a stay-at-home mom raising her daughter and helping her parents. After eight years of volunteering and paid summer program work, Ellen was offered the opportunity to take and shape a part-time position running the outreach program for the museum. In discussing her different experiences in education programs, Ellen highlighted the importance of the time students are in the museum and participating in individual programs. In order to truly engage with the subject, Ellen would like to see the museum’s current twenty-minute programs extended to 45 minutes, in a manner similar to those now offered by the Discovery Center. This would allow the students to engage with the material on a more meaningful level instead of feeling like a “‘dog and pony’ show, because you don’t have the time…you have to somehow figure out how you can make those twenty minutes worthwhile for the kids.” Ellen is also working on expanding the outreach program by incorporating different technologies, such as live streaming lessons, in order to serve students across the state. While Ellen and I did not get a chance to discuss this, the live streaming would not help students engage with the actual objects often used in museum programs, however, many of these students have not had the chance to engage with the museum at all so this is certainly an improvement.

Ellen recognized the value of her experience at Bank Street in light of one of the current issue in the field of museum education – museum studies degree or museum education degree and the pursuit of a job. Ellen pointed out that her program provided basic overviews for all areas of museum work, but focused on education. Museum studies programs do the same, but lack the specific focus or ‘this is where I’m going’ factor. Many open positions require an education degree of some sort and/or teaching experience. Advice from Ellen for those entering the field includes involvement in social media of all forms and continued professional development and education. While a drawback of living in a smaller city, such as Boise, has been a lack of resources for such development, Ellen regularly participates in webinars by the American Association of Museums and maintains contacts with museum friends back East. Ellen believes educators should enjoy working with children, be team players, be a resource for teachers, be flexible, be willing to learn, have a solid sense of humor, and did she mention enjoy working with children?

Ellen’s Bank Street professor once told her, “As an educator, you’re going to have to continue to prove your worth, over and over again.” That was over a decade ago. Many museums recognize the value of well-trained, experienced educators and the role they play in fulfilling the social contract museums have with the public. As the field of museum education continues to grow in importance, educators must remember their purpose is to support and nurture life-long learners.