Public History Career

I had a conversation with Ken Swanson about a public history career. Ken has been involved in museums for over 41 years and has been a member of the Idaho State Historical Society for 31 years. He has held positions at every level in Idaho, from volunteer to the director of the Idaho State Historical Museum. Ken was the Executive Director of the Idaho Military Museum for five years before he retired, but still fills in as a volunteer when they are shorthanded. We talked about the job of a curator generally, but with an emphasis on smaller non-profit history museums.  Ken considers himself a “backdoor historian” who had a youthful infatuation with museums and artifacts. Because of this, he volunteered at local institutions eventually pursuing a degree in archeology.  He got his master’s at Idaho State University and while there, he also oversaw the university’s archeological collection.

I was impressed, or more correctly, intimidated by the breath of responsibility a curator in a small non-profit museum has.  In this position, you may have responsibility for presenting ideas to the board, fundraising, planning exhibits, building exhibits, publicity events, staging reenactments, bringing exhibits to schools and civic groups.  Furthermore, as the only full-time staff member in a small museum you need to understand museum collections, including conservation, storage techniques/environmental criteria, collections record keeping and how to work with conservators, specialists, technicians, volunteers, interns and obviously the board. Additionally, you have to know something about the legal aspect of accepting donated objects and the law concerning museum governance.  When I told Ken this sounded overwhelming to me and would scare me away from a career in a small museum, his reply was that it is one of the best training opportunities for learning about every job and position a museum has to offer, despite its grueling nature.

The biggest hurdle Ken identified for small museums is probably the same for all history museums—funding—seeing as it is easier for art or science museums to receive patronage than history museums. Art has a cachet for a certain social set and industry sees potential profits in supporting science exhibits. As a 501(c)(3), educational non-profit institution, all the museum’s activities, are entirely funded by charitable donations, gift shop sales and special events.  This is very common except for those organizations that are specifically designated as state or federal museums.  An indirect consequence of school funding cuts, in the last several years, has made it less likely that schools can go to museums. In order to provide children with the opportunity to learn about their exhibits the IMHM has gone to schools to make presentations increasing their workload and expenses.  I wonder how many other museums would be willing or able to go to schools, or what the rules are from a school’s perspective on allowing museum staff/volunteers/exhibits in their schools.  Ken said they even have gone to senior centers.  It seems to me this is a form of outreach, a going to the audience, rather than waiting for them to come to the museum that is participatory in one sense we have talked about in class.

In talking about the push since the 1960s to include voices that previously have been excluded from history, Ken told me that the IMHM had included more women’s exhibits to help bring women’s role in the military more to the fore.  However, he explained that any exhibit costs time, effort and money, resources that your organization wants to see a return on in terms of an audience who comes to see the exhibit, and your area may not have an audience to support such an exhibit.  While understanding Ken’s point of view I still believe it is incumbent upon us to include those voices that may not get a large audience.  And are we sure, say an exhibit on Mexican-American/Hispanic contribution to the military would not garner a large audience?  Or how about an exhibit on Japanese-Americans’ whose families were interned in Idaho, or were from Idaho who served in WWII.  How many people know the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of Japanese-Americans is the most decorated US military unit ever, and many were recruited from internment camps?  Ken’s experience was that sometimes the board or others would be the active agent for a project, but for the most part, he discovered that if he was proactive and brought ideas to the board, with a rough plan of how to bring a proposed exhibit to fruition, his ideas were endorsed.  Given this possibility, perhaps what might be perceived initially as a low interest event could be birthed with the right kind of preparation.

I saw Ken become most animated and enthused when we talked about the power of the internet to facilitate participation versus seeing an artifact in person.  He told me he still sees himself, even after 41 years in museums as a “carny barker” using an artifact as a “hook” to enthrall visitors with a history story.  His enthusiasm made me think again about how to get artifacts out of the museum and to people if they can’t or won’t go to museums.  Where is the artifact and the passionate storyteller in any museum that could leave the building to go to others and inspire them.

Ken’s advice to anyone interested in a public history career is get as much experience as you can through volunteering and internships. Firstly, this will help you assess whether it is something you really want to do; secondly, it gives you practical experience and knowledge in the field; thirdly, it helps you build your resume and fourthly it earns you recommendations from your supervisors. He also advised getting as broad an experience in all facets of museum work as possible because you never know where a job opportunity might arise.  Based on course readings, class discussion, and life experience this seems like reasonable advice.  In terms of formal education, his opinion is a BA or BS in history or anthropology/archeology is sufficient for entry-level positions,  a master’s degree for more senior positions, but not necessarily anything more advanced as it becomes too specialized, unless you are absolutely sure of your goal.


Interview with Professor John Lutz

On Friday, February 6th 2015, I was privileged to speak with associate professor John Lutz of the University of Victoria. Professor Lutz teaches Native History, but is also heavily involved in several digital public history projects. His story begins around 2000, when Professor Lutz began collaborating with colleague Ruth Sandwell about a historical murder involving Native and Black Canadians. As they shared knowledge and dove deeper into the research, they discovered that there was enough evidence available to question the outcome of the trial; perhaps not enough to make irrefutable claims, but certainly enough to list several other suspects. Over the next several years, Lutz and Sandwell would develop their research into a murder mystery series, targeted for school age students (but also enjoyed by the general public). The Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History website was born, including dozens of other mysteries researched by collaborators all over Canada. The website would serve to not only teach the public about their Canadian history, but also to teach critical history skills; such as research, analysis, comparison of contradictory sources, and deductive reasoning.



Professor Lutz has gone on to work with many other digital platforms such as Google Sketch Up, GIS, Wikis, and student published websites. He was fortunate enough to learn a coding skills before he began his tenure at the University and he has been a part of Web 2.0 from the beginning. I was delighted to have Professor Lutz’s expertise for this interview, because I am interested in doing exactly what he has already done. I would like to combine my teaching, historic, and digital skills to bring historic knowledge and methods to the general public. My questions to Professor Lutz focused on his interactions with the public and his involvement with digital tools.

Although he is primarily employed in the academic sphere, Professor Lutz has constant interactions with public entities. He emphasized the marriage of academia and public history, noting that history is not some frill to be kept in an ivory tower, but is instead a civic duty. It is a historian’s duty to educate the public and help fix misconceptions, but it also the civic responsibility of the public to deeply understand their roots and value the lessons learned from history. Professor Lutz is helping to develop a Public History Master’s program at his university, which will give practical experience in the community to the graduate students.

Professor Lutz encouraged me to develop several important skills to be a part of this field. A historian interested in digital projects does not need to be an expert in all technical aspects, but a certain level of comfort is necessary. He admitted that he has deficiencies in all the digital programs that he uses, but he has enough technical knowledge that he can recognize where he needs to go for help and who needs to be involved for the project to be successful. He also stressed how important pedagogy was. He encouraged me to tap into my experience as a teacher to become a public historian who could engage with the public in a real and relevant manner. He inspired curiosity. The digital world is constantly changing and if I want to be a part of it, I must be willing to get messy, make mistakes and try new things. His last piece of advice was really fascinating. He encouraged me to get in on the ground level of gaming technology in history. Simulated reality is one of the best methods for learning and the potential to develop history games has yet to be tapped in to.

Professor Lutz mentioned the difficulties of funding and encouraged me to seek many different avenues for finding money. He was fortunate to receive government grants for the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History website, but he was still required to raise additional funds. Although he warned that it takes work and perseverance, he was optimistic about finding money for these types of projects.

The Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History website has around 2,500 visitors every day, ranging from Canadian students, to English language learners around the globe, to Australian students studying colonialism. He has created a history tool that is not only creative and interesting, but also useful. I hope to emulate him in my future endeavors.

Alan Virta, Former Head Archivist for Albertson’s Library

Interview with Alan Virta, former head Archivist from Albertson’s Library and Special Collections

I met with Alan on Wednesday, his day to volunteer for 4 hours at the Albertson’s Library and Special Collections. I found him there, processing a manuscript collection from the now defunct McCall Mine. Although Virta retired from Boise State in 2011, after a nearly 24-year career, he is not ready to completely give up the process of creating beauty from boxes of chaos. Since I completed an internship there this past summer, I understand (and miss) the spell that working with archives and manuscripts can have on a person.

Alan Virta’s initial interest in archiving came from doing research as an undergraduate student at various archives and historical societies. Since he loved spending time in the historical environment and looking at primary documents, he decided to make public history his career. Virta began his own career at the Library of Congress after receiving a MLS. There, his principal role was that of descriptive cataloguer in the manuscript collection. This means that each year, he created a reference source of manuscript collections held by all the libraries at the time, which numbered about 2,000.

After 13 years at the Library of Congress, Virta wanted to expand his experience and applied for head archivist at Boise State University.   He got the job and went to work establishing the collections.   Then, the department consisted of only himself and an aide. The highlight of his career was being able to process the Nell Shipman collection and help teach others about her contribution to film during a time when there were few female filmmakers.   Virta feels that the best perk of archiving is that the archivist always learns something. Archiving is the introvert’s dream- mostly solitary work that requires “little heavy lifting or sweat-inducing work.”   Also, archiving attracts people with compatible personalities. He is careful to stress that archiving is not for everyone, and that people looking at the field need to determine their tolerance for taking boxes and boxes of disorganized papers and turning them into a coherent research tool.

Regarding problems in archiving, the most pressing problem is that of electronic records that have never been on paper in the first place.   Technology changes so fast that it is difficult to know what to do with those cassette tapes that have been donated for study     (and have no transcript or a list of key words).

While watching Alan process the mine collection, I got the sense that he is a practical and sensible person. He is not the type of archivist that keeps every single thing that arrives to the archives in ratty old boxes – only that which he feels will be beneficial for researchers.

Virta is practical with his advice for students hoping to break into public history.   First, his suggestion is to get as varied as one can in internship opportunities.   Also, being able to write grants is a bonus.

Virta is realistic about job prospects for budding archivists in Boise. Unfortunately, jobs in this field are in greater demand in larger states such as New York and California. He suggests looking for jobs with USAjobs to find work within the National Park System or the American Museum Association.   The AMA is a good resource because it will only have jobs with accredited museums.

Virta admits that knowing other people in public history and being able to show off a skill set are imperative to breaking into the local field. Also, applicants need to be open to working part-time, if staying in the Treasure Valley. If an applicant is open to a cross county move, then there are great opportunities out there for those interested in the collections field.

Interview with Doug StanWiens

I interviewed Doug StanWiens, a local high school teacher who is both a public historian and a digital humanist.  Doug StanWiens is a very involved member of the Boise community.  On top of teaching at Boise High School, he runs the Boise Architecture Project, and he is Vice President of Preservation Idaho.  I tried to focus my questions on his work with the Boise Architecture Project (BAP); but, I soon found out that Doug StanWiens’ many positions, teacher, preservationist, public historian, digital humanist, and  head of BAP, often mix.

The BAP is “a student-directed new media project focused on architectural history and preservation in the Treasure Valley.”  The primary part of the project can be found at  Here historians, preservationists, and interested citizens will find pictures, architectural descriptions, and building history for over 350 buildings in and around Boise.  One of the great parts of this project is the diversity of the buildings the students choose to research and report on; one can find buildings over 100 years old, and one can find buildings that are relatively new on this student programmed website.  Students do most of the work for the BAP!  Students take photos, conduct interviews, and write a research paper about the building they select for their addition to the BAP.  On the website, a short summary of the building’s history and architectural style is accompanied by select photos.  Some auxiliary functions of the BAP include “conducting architecture walks, blogging, documentary film making, volunteering for local history related events, and working with local preservation organizations.”  The BAP is becoming a rather inclusive organization and certainly serving the local community.

Doug StanWiens explained that the BAP has many goals, and that the majority of the goals are student oriented.  He hopes that the BAP will help students learn about local history.  He also hopes that the BAP will help students understand and appreciate different architectural styles as well as their connection to history.  Of equal importance, Doug StanWiens hopes that the BAP will allow students the ability to contribute their research to the greater Boise community.  This project is a win-win for all the parties involved.  Students are able to learn beyond the classroom by studying architecture, acquiring historical knowledge of their city, and meeting the community. Students are able to “learn important project skills such as architectural photography, oral interview techniques, and digital project management through participating in the BAP.”  The BAP truly is a digital education project.

Doug StanWiens is in his 17th year of teaching.  He started the BAP as a Spring Project to fill the gap that follows the AP tests towards to end of the year.  He wanted to do something fun as well as meaningful with his Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) students.  His inspiration for BAP was a class in architecture history he took as an undergraduate.  Doug StanWiens informed me that he took this class for fun, because it was the “cool class all the seniors took and you got to get off campus to look at awesome buildings.”  At the time, he never thought the class would have such an impact on him.  In effect, he tried to recreate his architecture history class, without the field trip aspect of course, for his APUSH students.  Because the field trip aspect was such a vital part of the project, he split the class into partners and had them visit their historically and architecturally significant buildings in order to create PowerPoint Presentations.  One of Doug StanWiens students offered to put the PowerPoint Presentations on a website and Doug StanWiens said that sounded like a great idea.  The project started with ten students choosing buildings they saw as historically or architecturally significant, and it has transformed into an ongoing project with over 350 projects.

BAP has grown a lot over the years.  Doug StanWiens informed me that he has a list of buildings that individuals throughout the community have asked him to add to the BAP.  This means that the project has gained widespread public support, and that students have a ready and reliable list of buildings to choose from.  The BAP was picked up by Preservation Idaho, something that is mutually beneficial for both organizations.  Preservation Idaho fulfills BAP’s need for funding and BAP fulfills Preservation Idaho’s need for education and advocacy.  The BAP also received a grant from Boise 150 that is allowing them to create fourteen documentary films explaining the building of Boise.  In these films, Doug StanWiens, with the help of students of course, hopes to explain the architectural and historical significance of buildings throughout Boise.  He also hopes to put the buildings in Boise into a national context, thereby demonstrating how national culture can be illustrated and exemplified through national architecture.

One of the things that shocked me about all the things BAP has accomplished is that it is not a class at Boise High School.  APUSH students work on it after their AP exams in May, but students are also working on BAP related activities throughout the year.  Doug StanWiens hosts meetings before school, at lunch, and after school.  He also has a teaching assistant that helps him with the BAP, but the BAP is not a class in it of itself.  Many students offer to help raise funds for BAP, give architectural tours downtown, and otherwise help the BAP as part of their service learning hours.  Judging from all the work the BAP has to do, I would not be surprised if it becomes a class in the near future.

As an educator, I was very interested in how Doug StanWiens tied architecture into his everyday curriculum.  He said that the BAP “changed how he teaches APUSH” as well as his other classes.  He encourages students to see the links between history, art, architecture, and national culture.  He strives to tie all of these things together in his curriculum.  He strives to use architecture, particularly buildings in Boise so that students can easily relate to them, to explain culture and identity.  In essence, Doug StanWiens is bringing history alive for his students.

At the beginning of the interview, Doug StanWiens said that he was surprised I was interviewing him as a public historian.  He said he was a digital humanist and an educator, but he did not see himself as a public historian.  After a short explanation on my part, we continued the interview.  At the end of the interview he said “You know, you are right, I am a public historian.”  He said he became a teacher because he wanted to help students get out into the public.  He wants his students to learn by experience and thereby benefit society later in life.  As for advice, Doug StanWiens said that I should take all of my classes seriously, because I never know how they will affect me later in life.  He also reassured me that education is a very fulfilling career choice.

An Online Interview with Stepanie Milne

For my interview, I chose to speak with Stephanie Milne. I met Milne in 2009 after she moved to Boise to attend Boise State University. Milne is a graduate of the Masters of Applied Historical Research program at Boise State and she continues to work as a historian for Stevens Historical Research Associates in Boise. Milne is a prime example of how hard work and creativity can open up opportunities for budding historians. In addition to her current work Stephanie will be presenting research in November on the history of Nursing programs in Boise.

Below are Stephanie’s responses to the assignments questions:

What path did you take to get to your current position?

A native Washingtonian I graduated with a BA in History from Eastern Washington University. I had a public history internship at EWU working for the Cheney Normal School Foundation. Essentially I was able dig into the history behind a 100-year-old one-room schoolhouse that was moved to EWU’s campus. It seems so small now, but it was that internship that really sparked my love of public history. I moved to Boise in 2009 and graduated with my Master in Applied Historical Research from Boise State University in May of 2012. Part of my program was a collaborative internship between the Boise City Department of Arts and History and Boise Parks and Recreation. Looking back two factors during my graduate work were extremely beneficial to me once I graduated.

I was fortunate enough to get small contracts for several semesters while working toward my master’s degree.
This experience really helped in getting bigger contracts (not huge by any means!) later. I had experience creating invoices, selling my capabilities, and most importantly being assertive. As is typical with the MAHR program I completed a project and analytical paper instead of a traditional thesis. I would argue one of my biggest assets when I began applying for jobs in the field was that I completed a project instead of a thesis. It takes some explaining to employers (so practice!) but you can sell it as “project management.” Some of the best advice I can give is to use “work place” language when describing your history work. Don’t be afraid to say you have experience budgeting—You have to budget time constantly in graduate school—How much time are you going to spend on reading a book? Writing a paper? Researching? Organizing?
What kinds of projects do you work on?

After I graduated I became a history consultant/contractor. By July 2012 I had three contracts
1. Boise City Department of Arts and History
I managed several different projects including writing historic interpretative signs for a walking tour, reviewing and editing a book, and transcribing oral history interviews.
2. Boise City Department of Public Works
I was hired as Project Manager for the Boise 150 Infrastructure Project. Participating organizations include Bureau of Reclamation, United Water, Idaho Power and Boise City Public Works. The project seeks to celebrate the development of Boise’s infrastructure, specifically utilities and includes a photo gallery, blog, and brochure.
3. Stevens Historical Research Associates (SHRA)
SHRA specializes in environmental litigation support. Areas of specialties include: Water rights and irrigation history, mining history, CERCLA/Superfund, Clean Water Act, Roads/Rights-of-Way, Forest History, and Tribal Claims. In 2012 SHRA hired an Architectural Historian and has expanded its services to include Cultural Resource Management and Historic Preservation.
After 4 months as a contractor, SHRA hired me in October (2012) as an employee. Right now I work approximately 30 hours a week while I finish my remaining contracts. That same month I was able to travel to Washington DC and research in National Archives I ( just off the National Mall) and National Archives II (located in College Park, Maryland) for a week for one of SHRA’s projects.

With what kind of people (demographics, occupations, etc.) do you typically work?
1. Lawyers
2. Archivists
3. City/County/State Employees
4. Librarians
5. People who work in “history” jobs
6. County Clerks

• As far as demographics, I would say I deal with an equal amount of men and women. However, I am usually the youngest person, especially when working on litigation projects.
Do you have autonomy to pick your own projects, or are projects generally assigned to you by others in your organization or elsewhere?
• As a public historian, you usually take any project(s) that come your way. Specifically in regard to SHRA projects, if you are not the principal of the company (like Dr. Jennifer Stevens) you pretty much work on any case given to you. The caveat comes when you are given autonomy to bring in projects to the firm. I’ve been fortunate to be able to bring in an oral history project to the firm, which is a nice change up from litigation.
What are the current issues in your field?
• I can’t really think of any real “issues.” I guess my gut reaction would be to stay relevant. As historians (at lease for me) sometimes its easy to get wrapped up in research and writing. Staying current with social media and new trends is really important, especially when selling yourself to clients.

What skills are expected of applicants for an entry-level position?

• Research—Specifically archival research
• Writing
• Attention to detail
• Entrepreneurial capability
• Database Skills (navigability)
• New ideas regarding platforms for projects (digital, print, social media)

What is the current starting salary for entry-level positions in your field?
• Part time = $20,000-$30,000
• Full time = $40,000-$42,000

How is your position funded? Is this typical for positions in your field or organization?
• Obviously the majority of my work comes from litigation, so companies-people-organizations-states-counties-cities-etc…suing one another, that’s how my position (at SHRA) is funded.
• My other contracts are funded from municipal funds. I consider myself extremely lucky that I was able to work for Arts & History while in graduate school, so I’ve made connections for the past two years. I am also lucky that Boise is celebrating its 150th year and history is “hot” right now. 

Interview with Dr. Frank Thomason

For my public historian interview, I spoke with Frank Thomason, PhD.

Dr. Thomason has an impressive set of credentials, having earned four degrees in history (a goal for all of us to aspire to!). He was also a Fulbright Scholar. He currently serves on both the Eagle and Meridian Historic Preservation Committees. He is a published author of several books, including histories of Boise and Meridian. Dr. Thomason is also the owner, editor and publisher of The Valley Times, a weekly newspaper serving the western Treasure Valley. I am extremely grateful that he took time out of his very busy schedule for this interview.

Please describe your educational background.

Following high school, I earned four degrees, all in U.S. and European history: B.A., The College of Idaho, 1970; M.A., University of Utah, 1972; M.S., The Johns Hopkins University, 1974; and Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University, 1979.

I also have teaching experience at the college or university level at the University of Maryland, West Berlin, 1974-76; The College of Idaho, 1977; and University of Southern California, 1980.

Please describe your role on the Historic Preservation Committee.

I am the Chairman of the City of Eagle’s Historic Preservation Commission, responsible for preparing and e-mailing the monthly agendas and sharing the workload with other Commissioners on various projects including the Quarterly Speaker Series (I brought Lincoln historian/author David Leroy to Eagle last January; I have also been a member of the Meridian HPC for over 20 years and am happy to announce that Leroy will reprise or repeat his presentation in May in Meridian) and historic signs for the National and Municipal registers of historic places.

What do you see as the primary challenges that historical preservation groups face?

Ongoing degradation and demolition of historic buildings, especially outbuildings and houses on former farmsteads; lack of funding for various projects; and bringing in newer and in some cases younger Commissioners to carry on the work.

Please describe other historical work you’ve been involved with.

I am a published author of three history books, The Berlin Police in the 19th Century, Tabletop Publications; Boise by Arcadia Publishing and Meridian by Arcadia Publishing.

In the mid 1970s I spent 25 months as a Fulbright Scholar to West Berlin, where I was enrolled full time as a graduate student, taught classes in European and Russian history in the evening and conducted a program of graduate research at archives and libraries in West and East Berlin and Germany.

In the early 1990s, I devoted two years as a volunteer officer of the Friends of the Historical Museum, a statewide group based in Boise. Our major project was an update of biographical sketches with photos of Idaho’s First Ladies. I was and remain the only male officer of that organization.

What advice would you give to “new” historians?

Specialize as early as possible and become a foremost authority on that specialization. At the same time, remain a generalist in your increasing knowledge of different fields and approaches. This may result in synchronicity at some point, e.g., you might find work in a related field even though it’s not your primary one.

Find another field and develop it along with your history studies as a practical matter of adaptation and survival in this very tough economy. Actual jobs for trained historians are scarcer than ever, so it behooves budding historians to branch out and add one or more fields to their resume. Examples might be computer software programming, English (also not very practical in a direct sense), journalism or even anthropology or archeology, which involve approaches similar to or compatible with history.

If there was one skill you wished you had learned earlier, what would it be?

Computer programming and web sites, as well as social media. They are all the rage now but in 1979, nearly a decade before the advent of personal computers, I typed my doctoral thesis for Johns Hopkins on an IBM Selectric typewriter (the one with the “flying ball”).

Thank you again to Dr. Thomason!

Steve Barrett, State Archivist

I interviewed Steve Barrett, an archivist at Idaho State Archives. Since I am currently interning at the special collections in Albertson’s Library, I thought it would be interesting to look deeper into a career in archiving. He was extremely helpful and I learned so much while talking with him.


What path did you take to get to your current position? 

Steven Barrett has his PhD in American literature and obtained the position of archivist through unexpected channels. After following his wife to Boise when she got a job as a professor of literature at Boise State, Barrett started out volunteering at any location in which he might want a job. After starting out as a volunteer with the Boise library he eventually climbed the ladder there while still volunteering at Idaho State Archive in their research center. Climbing the ladder in the Historical Society in Boise, he worked as management assistant for the entire historical society for three years and then back into the Archive where he has been for the last few years. Barrett explained, “You don’t necessarily have to be a history major to work for a state archives. And in my case you can’t understand American Literature if you don’t understand American History.”  Most people in the research center have library degrees or backgrounds and the workers in the archive usually come from history backgrounds.


Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years? Is there anything that stands out?

Barrett explained that every project he is currently working on tends to be his favorite. One special project, however, is the Abraham Lincoln collection belonging to David Lee Roy who used to be Lieutenant governor under Cecil Anders.  Roy has been collecting Lincoln artifacts for decades and Barrett commented that his house is essentially a museum. Roy has donated a section of his collection to the State Archive who plan to create a five room exhibit out of it. Barrett plans to work with a volunteer who has an MA from King’s College in London to build Lincoln’s cabinet room as well as four other rooms featuring documents and artifacts from different eras in Lincoln’s life.


What kind of issues or problems do you see occurring in the archive or historical world?

            Barrett surprised me with his first ‘issue,’ he explained that one problem the archive world is by 2017 Idaho wants to go completely digital. Federal and state documents will never occur outside a digital form. As Barrett explained, “That’s great as long as the power is on.” It would then be up to the archive to store the digital document in perpetuity. Like we discussed in Digital History, the constant migration of the documents causes degradation and there’s also the progression of technology that may cause issues for preservation. How do archives store the massive amount of material then? Hard drive on shelf? A server? “Paper is still the most enduring record. Will we have records created today 100 years from now when they’re created digitally? No body knows. I call it the second Dark Ages.”


You mentioned Business Model, which is something that we have discussed in our class. Do you see anything positive in moving towards a business model?

            Barrett is a believer in the “public service model” when it comes to the state archives where “…we’re not nickel and diming everything that we do. It alienates people, it alienates me!” He does, however, find one positive feature being implemented with the business model approach. This approach forces the archives to be efficient.  He explains that agencies with plenty of funding and money get ‘sloppy.’ Informality means that different ideas and goals may or may not get done. The business model approach may not be as friendly, but it certainly gets things done. He commented that in his perfect wold they would have a public service business model because, “Right now we’re losing public service.”


Is there anything specific you’re looking for when hiring for a position in the archives?

            He explained that the big thing he sees is you need to have to have masters. He explained that when you apply for a position at the archives you could have a high school diploma and still do a lot of what they’re doing. You could have bachelors and definitely do what they’re doing.  However, when you are part of a pool of 70 people applying for a position that is as basic as it gets, you’re competing with people with a masters and maybe PhDs. “That’s the economy, and that’s the economy it’s been for 10 years now. It’s just the numbers.”


Any recommendations or advice for a person looking to break into the business?

            He suggests we look for project management positions where you’re working on and creating exhibits for one project. Look for those because the more experience you have the better of you’ll be. Always volunteer. Volunteer at museums, archives, libraries, anything, and get that experience so you can talk about your experience when applying. If you get a chance to work on a project like the Lincoln exhibit as a volunteer then jump on it. “If you’ve been project manager on stuff like that in a couple different states then you show that you’re willing to move around the country and that you can do diverse work, have leadership skills, so that then you’re going to be a strong candidate when a position opens up.”

Barrett then gave me the advice that he said was most influential in his life, “When I was in the 8th grade in my algebra class, of all places, my algebra teacher said, ‘The most important lesson you can learn here, in life, is change and adaptability. You are going to experience so much change in a lifetime that being able to adapt to whatever comes down the road is the most important skill you can developed. And I’ve worked with a lot of people who did not learn that, who did not have that skill, and I don’t work with them anymore. This would have been in the 70’s and look at what I’ve seen since… I just think, thank God she said that to me and thank God I heard it… I just want to pass on this incredible bit of wisdom I got in the 8th grade and that’s adapt, adapt, adapt.”



City Historian, Brandi Burns

For my interview I chose Brandi Burns. Brandi is the Historian for the Boise Department of Arts and History. I have had the opportunity to work with her in developing some of the pieces of the Boise plat walk tour in July. Since Brandi is so well spoken, I shall let her responses serve as their own introduction.

ZB – You are a city historian which means you are involved in lots of stuff. If you could boil down what you do in a sentence or two—or a paragraph—what would you say?

BB – I serve as the Boise City Department of Arts & History’s Historian, which means that I see to the day-to-day operations of the History Division of the Department, as well as work on a variety of projects, including overseeing the publication of a weekly article for the Department’s blog; various projects for the BOISE 150; answer research questions from the public and other City departments; and maintain the oral history collection at the department.

ZB – What types of projects do you work on? Are there those that you feel are more successful? How do you measure the success of a particular project?

BB – Some of the projects I have worked on in the last six-nine months include a large digital tour of historic locations around Boise, which will be unveiled in April 2013; preparation and planning for a walking tour of the original Boise City plat for July 2013; a lecture about the love lives of Boise residents that I presented in February 2013; and preparation for an exhibit in the BOISE 150 Sesqui-Shop in April 2013. I’ve also worked on oral histories, content for the website, other exhibits, and collection management. The most successful projects in my opinion are the ones that the public and/or participants enjoys the most—I like oral histories for that matter because the narrator always seems liking having someone sit down and listen to their stories. Our blog has been very successful as well, and I attribute that to our writer’s voice, the sound historical research, and the medium the content is delivered through.

ZB – What issues do you run into in completing, or initiating a project?

BB – One of the biggest issues is that every project takes longer than you think it will, and you are often juggling several projects at once. It’s important to have progress deadlines, and to report about the tasks that you have completed. A project can also become more complicated when you have more than one person working on it, but it is so wonderful to be able to have interns at the Department to help rely on. We get to work on such a variety of projects that it also helps interns gain the experience that they are looking for.

ZB – While we’re on the topic of projects…do you get to pick your own, or are they assigned, or a blend?

BB – Projects are a blend of being assigned and picking your own project. So far I have not worked on a project that I haven’t enjoyed, even if it was assigned. I have also had the ability to work on projects that I have specifically picked, including a series for Preservation Month about the Homestead Act, presentation topics, and the blog.

ZB – Do you work with a particular demographic, social class, or an occupation?

BB – We try to have a wide appeal and tell inclusive histories. But I think we tend to appeal to the traditional history crowd, which tends to be a little older, while the twenty- and thirty-somethings are not as engaged. I think we are widening the crowd however with the great things we are doing with the BOISE 150. The Sesqui-Shop appeals to many groups and we are reaching people who didn’t even think that they would like to become engaged with local history. Our Think & Drink event in February drew a large crowd, and our big event planned for July 7th to commemorate the founding of the city will bring in a big crowd. Our Sesqui-Speaks lecture series is also bringing in people we have never seen at our other events, so the BOISE 150 project is really reaching new groups in the community.

ZB – What would be your ideal project? If you could choose (and had the money for) any project, what would it be?

BB – Remnants of Boise, the project that will be unveiled in April, has been my ideal project. It has combined digital history, research, interpretation, and traditional experiences like exhibits. It has been exciting, and I can’t wait to see what everyone thinks in April.   

ZB – How is your position funded? how are your projects funded?

BB – My position is funded with money for the BOISE 150 project right now, as are many of the projects that we are working on.

ZB – I know you work a lot with digital history. What do you see as the future for public history in the digital realm?

Digital history is very exciting! We have this great opportunity to create new ways to engage with audiences in meaningful ways. It makes public history easier to disseminate, and to help the audience engage with during their busy schedules. But it is just another tool for historians—we can’t forget the traditional tools of brochures, and interacting with a human being who can tell the stories of a place during a tour, or an engaging presentation. Everyone does not have a smart phone, and who can tell how long QR codes and other things of that nature will remain popular? Just as an example, I went to Spokane for a conference, and I really wanted to experience the city as a heritage tourist. But I could only find one brochure for the downtown core that was a self-guided walking tour. They had other tours online but I had no way of getting to the brochures while I was on foot, and when I tried to print them, they would not print in a usable way. It was terrible and frustrating. I kept thinking “how would someone not familiar with how to find resources like these tours experience the history of Spokane on their own?” “What would they do? Where would they go? What if they were like me and incapable of accessing online material on the go?” For me it was a real lesson in making sure our online content can be supplemented with paper, and thinking of how our paper can be supplemented with online content. We need to remember to create content for these two types of ways to experience history…much of it can be the same, but it should be presented in a way that each audience can gain something from the experience, and preferably not get frustrated.

ZB – What does your organization look for in hiring for a position such as yours? What level of education do they require?

BB – I know when I look for interns, I like to see an interest and a passion in local history (and that local history does not necessarily have to be Boise). If they have this interest and passion, than the skills that they bring can be transferred to create really great projects about Boise. Being an intern/part-time employee or contractor, you need a BA in history or some related field, and an MA/MAHR can really set you apart. My position needs to be filled with someone who has a Master’s.

ZB – Any advice for someone entering this field?

BB – Be flexible. Be flexible with both where you work (location and/or institution) and even where you volunteer. You never know when or where your volunteer hours could lead to a more permanent position. Concerning where you work, history positions can be anywhere, even if they do not specifically call out history in the job description—you have to really watch this in positions that appear to be doing digital history work. Historians can be great content providers in the IT field. I also like to remember, and it applies equally to anyone entering the field, that I don’t have to be trained in everything—like GIS mapping, or how to code a website, etc.—I’m a historian, and I can provide special analysis, interpretation, content, and point of view that may have been overlooked. Historians are great to have around, even if they are not fulfilling a traditional role. Your skills are marketable beyond the history field, so don’t sell yourself short.

Carolyn Ruby, Research Coordinator

I interviewed Carolyn Ruby, the research coordinator at the Idaho State Archive research center. During my interview, I asked Carolyn questions ranging from her description of her job to the recent issues presented by certain materials found within their archives. When Carolyn first began working at the state archives, she began as a library assistant whose focus centered on research. By this I mean her primary job was to be able to answer the questions that individuals would bring before her. Within a short span, her job rapidly changed due to budget cuts. This meant that the research center went from employing eighteen employees, to just five. Fortunately for Carolyn, during this rough transition she was eventually promoted to research coordinator due to her higher education, as well as her vast experience in the field. After having earned her bachelor’s degree in history and completing a master’s in library science, she worked for thirty years mostly in research centers ranging from Micron to a short stint at a law firm.  Like so many other students though, she gave immense thought as to what she wanted to do in life, this question also raised the question as to what good does just a bachelors in history do for her. Before her final semester of her undergraduate degree, Carolyn discovered a love for public history and that provided her motivation to earn her Master’s in Library Science. Thanks to all of the experience and skills she has developed over the years, she has managed to maintain a sense of job security in a world under the continual threat of lack of funds or budget cuts.

When the state archives experienced their horrific budget cut that left the institution with a dismal number of employees, Carolyn discussed how her role in the research center drastically changed. She learned the immense value of becoming a highly flexible employee. No longer could employees merely concentrate within one area of the archives, she and her fellow workers learned the skills required to work within multiple areas of the research center. From this experience, Carolyn described to me the major skills that are important to have currently within the archives. The largest skill or ability an individual could have when working at the archives is being flexible. This skill, important in all fields of work, allows an individual to show importance to the employer. Such as in the case of the state archives research center, when the amounts of employees are cut, those whom remain employed must become flexible in order to succeed in their new environment. As Carolyn explained it, “You must not only be able to pick up the slack or new responsibilities created, but be able to both multi-task and step-up your game.” You do not wait for someone to tell you what to do, you seek out work.

On an educational point, in order to gain employment at an institution such as the archives, individuals need to have some sort of educational background that provides them with the basic tools in understanding history. Like Carolyn, all of the employees at the research center have either a master’s or a PhD; most of their degrees are either in history or library science. When asked if there had been employees with degrees outside of either history or library science, Carolyn answered that to the best of her knowledge there had only been a small number of those employees. Of the current employees, one employee has their PhD in literature.

At the research center, Carolyn explained to me that all employees there stress that “it is a research center and not a research library.” This is mainly due to how it changes the view of state legislators toward the institution depending on the word used. More legislators have fewer issues funding a state research center than they do a state research library. Wording is paramount at the research center; it has the ability to drastically alter the potential future budget of the institution.

At the end of the interview I gained a much greater insight into public history. Three key points I felt were greatly stressed throughout the interview with Carolyn were the financial budget, employee flexibility, and the importance of wording on behalf of the research center.

Linda Morton-Keithley: Archivist Extraordinaire

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.