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:

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.

Tell the Whole Story

In watching many of the iconic events of the civil rights era on television; James Meredith enrolling in the University of Mississippi; Medgar Evers’ murder; the March on Washington, and the bombing of the Birmingham church that killed four girls, they became part of my own story. Slavery and Public History showed me the shortcomings of my public education, succumbing to the trap of thinking of slavery as an antebellum, pre-Civil War institution. The dichotomy of John Michael Vlach’s story captures the dilemma of public history with the dramatically different responses to “Back of the Big House.” Opposition and support for the project were not divided along racial lines. Neither were the emotional responses. The dialogue that took place from beginning to end demonstrated the best tool for treating such volatile topics.

I personally connected to Edward Linenthal’s epilogue.  Whether Linenthal was talking about Jim Carrier’s A Traveler’s Guide to the Civil Rights Movement or Richard Rubin’s Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South, I saw my own experiences in their stories of the ordinariness of the places where extraordinary things occurred. I lived in Memphis in 1971, three years after Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. I drove by the motel on a couple of occasions. In a dumpy part of town, it was so incredibly ordinary. While on a run around the old city of Charleston I stopped at plaques and historical markers, such as looking out Fort Sumter, or interesting looking antebellum homes. I unexpectedly came across a section of cobblestone street. Looking around I was startled to see a building labeled “The Old Slave Mart.” My first reaction was one of disgust, but when I saw that it was a museum, I looked in the windows and grabbed a piece of literature from the display outside.  This former slave auction house, in an otherwise nondescript location, was now a museum.

Old Slave Mart - Charleston, SCScreen shot from Google Earth, 2017

Not every event in history needs to become a NPS site, a museum or have a plaque. However, things which are recognized as important must have the whole story uncompromisingly told. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter or the “law and order” rhetoric, the events of the past year highlight our need to address this story, whether we want to or not.


This seems timely…

I am sure it is no accident that we are reading Slavery and Public History at the beginning of Black History Month. It has always perplexed me as to why the society we live in views rights and recognition as a zero sum game. The Nash article, describing the fight between local Park Service people, and historians highlights this point. It also, again not surprisingly, addresses some of the same issues highlighted in Letting Go? specifically the role of museums (but in this case, it’s a historic site) and whether it should be a shrine to past events, or whether it should be a forum to discuss those past events, and how they effect the present.

I had read “Southern Comfort Levels” previous to this, and it made me as mad then, as it did this time around. I understand the reasons for not punitively punishing the South after the war, but it is my humble opinion that it was the wrong decision. And things like “Monument Street” in Richmond is evidence of this point. No such monuments exist in London for Guido Fawkes, instead he is burnt in effigy every year. There are no statues of Cornwallis, Burgyone, or Benedict Arnold in New York City (which remained firmly in the British camp through the Revolution). Because they lost. For me it’s too close to those fascist $&@#%€£ who claim that everything is the Jews’ fault, or immigrants are a problem, or any of those other things that they say. These people/ideas need to be discussed, but in a way that shows them as they really are, not for what they pretend to be. (And I expect my own ideas and such to be put under the same scrutiny.)

Which brings me back to Black History Month, and the “zero sum game” theory. As historians we need to be willing to wade into these troublesome issues. But as Joanne Melish’s article about the John Brown house pointed out, we need to be able to do it expecting nuance and a more complex narrative.

It appears museums will do anything to improve their numbers.

Is the primary mission of history museums providing visitors with the opportunity to learn or keeping the doors open? If learning history is the goal, I think few of the museums included here are achieving it.  If getting attendance, membership, and donations up is the goal, there is almost no evidence indicating success.

Letting Go?  provides interesting ideas in how to move museums from being presenters of content to facilitators of learning.  Public Curation, finally provides an approach to validate whether or not new approaches accomplish the learning incumbent on all history museums. The authors ask the right questions and suggest these issues be fully researched.

Embracing the Unexpected shows the art-history dialectic taken in a more useful direction, not a shared-authority alliance as much as it is a more tightly-bound collaboration between artists and historians. The American Philosophical Society approach shows what can occur when there is meaningful conversation between, and useful boundaries set, for both participants.

Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum highlights the failure of the resident historians at the Maryland Historical Society. By juxtaposing various pieces found at the museum and utilizing various museum tropes, visitors confronted an uncomfortable reality regarding slavery and the relevance of that reality, today.  Why didn’t the museum curator think of a way to accomplish this?

The performance art pieces capturing the life and community of The Black Bottom and the individual stories of working class people captured by Story Corp and described in Listening Intently show where great ideas can take you. The materials collected in each effort may be invaluable to the historian, but both fall short in their own way. Chaotic pieces of performance art and personal stories with no context are of little use to historians.

Where would "Hamilton" fit in art versus history debate?
Where does “Hamilton” fit in art as history debate?

Where each succeed is in their ability to show the historian the “power of seeing history as stories.”[1]

For brevity’s sake The Fever Dream of the Amateur Historian, Sanford and Sun, and London Travelogue are lumped together as failures.  The The Fever Dream of the Amateur Historian wasn’t even a good idea and shows what can happen when an artist is given too much latitude. I have no idea why Sanford and Sun was included in this book and London Travelogue may be a wonderfully novel idea, but it would be one place I would avoid in London. There is no historical context to what I see and no one to provide it. Without context what is to be learned?


[1]Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Left Coast Press, 2011. Pg. 189

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.”