The field of public history offers professionals interested in historical study an opportunity to work with historic artifacts and collections, interact with researchers and academics, and present innovative and exciting historical interpretations aimed at a broad audience. While I find everything about this profession fascinating, many people are unaware that such a professional field exists. When friends and acquaintances learn that I am pursuing my Master degree in History, I usually get a response that sounds something like, “Oh, you want to be a history teacher.” I sigh, and reply, “no…” Based on this oh-too-familiar conversation, it seems as if the general public is unaware or unable to disassociate history from the profession of teaching. In an effort to shed light on the importance of the field of public history, I have conducted an interview with Keith Schrum, Curator of Archives for History Colorado. I hope to use the information gained through this interview to expand my own knowledge of public history while at the same time increasing the general awareness of public history as a professional field of study.
Although it was my childhood love of history that encouraged my decision to major in history in college, I understand that not everyone follows that trajectory. In fact, as a young child, Keith only had a “passing appreciation of the subject.” This was due to the fact that he grew up in Virginia surrounded by an abundance of Colonial Era and Civil War history. Although this early interest in history was not enough to sway his interests away from religious study, it eventually inspired his decision to add history as a second major.
After college, knowing that his passion was working with the ministry, Keith pursued a Master of Divinity with Religious Education. As part of his training for both pastoral and educational work, Keith had opportunities to study “organizational behavior, administration, as well as counseling and some psychology.” With these experiences under his belt, Keith, at the age of 38, decided to return to higher education to pursue a Master of History degree with a focus on Public History and a concentration in Archives and Records Management.” Keith’s previous experience with education spurred this “minor mid-life change” and he intended to use this history degree to get into teaching. After having an opportunity, however, to intern for History Colorado, Keith decided to “turn his attention to a more business-related approach to history.” His initial work as a graduate student eventually led to an opportunity for full-time employment. Keith is now celebrating twenty-one years of work within the Archives Department, the same department that hired him as an intern, more than two decades ago.
As the Curator of Archives, Keith relies heavily on his training and education; however, he also draws on experience from past professions. Over the years Keith worked in the ministry, retail, sales, and in managerial capacities. Through these experiences Keith developed and maintained “people skills, communication skills, and customer service skills.” He also learned the importance of having an eye for detail and he understands the importance of maintaining product knowledge. In the museum world, Keith explains that these skills translate more directly into “knowing the collection, where it is, its condition and how to access it.” Keith explains that the Archive at History Colorado currently manages sixteen formats of material, including microfilm and sound recordings, and he estimates that their collection holds over “eleven million pieces of something.” This expansive collection is managed in a way that encourages a “collaborative approach to collection building.” Keith explains that this method in turn allows for “better and more efficient use of space and resources.”
In spite of the many success accomplished through this collaborative effort, Keith is also very aware of the challenges he, and his team, face on a daily basis. Many of these challenges stem from a lack of sufficient financial funding and a backlog of work. Keith also acknowledges the difficulty of staying on task with an assignment, especially in light of the fact that History Colorado places an “emphasis on providing service in a proactive, timely manner.” As Keith explains, “the biggest challenge is remaining focused on the long-view of things and not getting lost or too distracted by minutia.”
Although Keith recognizes that his training for and experiences in the archives usually revolve around material things, he urges young professionals to be aware of importance of relationships and people within the field of public history. Keith explains that history “will always be about relationships.” Keith appreciates that “working with objects, archives, or photos calls for a relationship with the material world.” But he also reiterates that “those things do not exist for themselves – they exist to serve people.” Keith explains that “people want to trust you with their “stuff”- the evidence of life, memory and heritage.”
Having had the opportunity to peer into the experiences of Keith Schrum, I can honestly say that I know I am pursuing a career in the right field for me. With this newly acquired knowledge I look forward to honing my skills and completing my training as a public historian. As Keith so poignantly states, “our work keeps human memory alive,” and that is definitely something that I am honored to be a part of.