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Historian on Holiday: Public History Edition

June 24, 2014

I’ve recently returned from a fantastic family trip to Germany. While on holiday, we took an impromptu side trip to my favorite city in the world: Edinburgh, Scotland. It was my fifth visit to this incredible city, and it felt so much like going home. So much amazing history, and this time I was able to appreciate it from a historian’s perspective for the first time. Another highlight from our trip was the ancient city of Trier, in Germany. Talk about layer upon layer upon layer of history: a Roman basilica, located within a couple yards of Germany’s oldest cathedral, itself situated beside a Gothic church; a Roman gate; a medieval marketplace; a 16th century palace and gardens. SO MUCH HISTORY!!! I’ll try to post more about these places as time allows, but I’m trying very hard to focus on my second dissertation chapter before autumn comes and teaching absorbs most of my time.

From a purely practical perspective, one of the highlights  for me was sitting down to chat with three civilian historians from the U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa History, Museums & Art Program, based at Ramstein Airbase. Among their many history-related jobs, they are tasked with sifting through tens of thousands of primary sources (many of them classified) and building a history of the Air Force’s European and African activities from year to year. I’m a medievalist; I’m used to dealing with written records, some of them insanely indecipherable. These historians have the benefit of working from plain modern English, which sounds wonderfully attractive to me! But beyond this, they are also writing from oral and living history: they actually experience history as it unfolds. When there is an international “incident” involving the units under their domain, the historians travel with troops to record everything they see, hear, and touch.

The historians I met with come from a variety of backgrounds: archaeology, Church history, diplomatic history, and cultural history. They even have a medievalist in their ranks! The one drawback to writing public history like this, they offered, is that it’s public; historians don’t “own” their own intellectual work, as academic historians do. They make their histories available to the public so that anyone can draw from them in writing their own intellectual works. Essentially, they are providing a service to other historians. The work they do has a very immediate, practical application as well: the histories they write are intended to guide Air Force leaders in making decisions based on accurate historical experience. It kind of blows my mind that there actually are “practical” jobs out there for medievalists like me!

I’m sharing all this publicly because I want to increase awareness of public history as a viable, exciting, and financially secure alternative to traditional academic careers. We all know how dismal the current academic job market is; so many recent Ph.D.s competing for only a handful of tenure-track jobs. This kind of public history offers all kinds of benefits: live in interesting places all over the world, put your degree to practical use, write history as it unfolds, apply your research skills in new and unusual ways. Additionally, the Air Force is keen to increase the number of female historians they employ. For me, personally, I don’t think I will know for sure whether this is the right career for me until I’m actually doing it, but it does excite me and it’s something that I will definitely ponder as I finish my dissertation and figure out my next steps. I am so grateful that I had the chance to talk to and learn from these historians, and I look forward very much to keeping in contact with them.

If you are interested, Air Force History jobs are generally posted here: https://www.usajobs.gov/

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