February 23, 2009
By Jessica Pritchard
In part one of this interview we introduce Matt Wasniewski, historian in the U.S. House of Representatives. He explains how he got into the history field and his current job, what his regular duties include, and more about his background.
As many AHA members and history professionals already know, a degree in history teaches students solid research techniques, analytical thinking, and writing skills applicable in many jobs. Take Matt Wasniewski, for instance, who works on Capitol Hill for the U.S. House of Representatives. He, like many in the discipline, completed his PhD in history and decided to pursue research and writing outside of the academy.
Though originally an aspiring sports journalist, Wasniewski never lost sight of his love for history. While he made a go of sports writing after his undergraduate work, he ultimately came back to history, finishing both master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Maryland. Wasniewski got his foot in the door with the Capitol Historical Society while working on his PhD, and continued to work there for four years until landing his current job with the House of Representatives. I recently sat down with Wasniewski to learn how he got involved with public history and how he has made a fulfilling career with a liberal arts background.
What do you do here?
My official title is a mouthful: I’m the historian for the Office of History and Preservation under the Clerk of the House from the U.S. House of Representatives, and I’m also the deputy chief for the Office.
Our office is unique in federal history in that we kind of combine functions that typically aren’t all put together under one roof. I’m in charge of the publications and historical reference side of our operation. In the last three years, we’ve published a big volume along with the Senate Historical Office. In 2006, we published the update to the biographical directory of the United States Congress, which is a print edition of a biographical reference database that’s online; it’s been online for 10 years. This is the 16th print edition. It goes all the way back to the 1860s. [This biographical directory] compiles information on all the members who have served in the House and the Senate since 1789. It also includes the Continental Congresses, so it’s more than 12,000 people total. We handle the House side of the biographical entries, and the Senate handles members of the Senate.
In 2007 we published a congressionally mandated book, Women in Congress, which was an update to a series that began in the 1970s. This was the third edition [that] we greatly expanded. Of course there were a lot of women to write about because the last edition of the book came out in 1990-91. If you broke the number of women in Congress in half, which is above 250 at this point, that is the halfway point. More women have served post 1990 than had served in all history up through that point. Just a couple of months ago, we published the third edition of Black Americans in Congress, a book that also goes back to the 1970s. These two volumes are now part of a series of four books on women and minorities in Congress. We’re just now beginning to turn our attention to the last two books in the series: a book on Hispanic Americans and a book on Asian Pacific Americans in Congress. All of them cover not just the House but also the Senate side, so we work pretty closely with the Senate Historical Office.
We answer a lot of reference questions, deal quite a bit with member offices, and get a number of reference questions from the general public. In fact, the general public is probably our number one inquirer. We also deal a lot with press questions.
In 2004, we started up the House’s first oral history program where we interview long-time staff members—people who worked on committees, people who work on the floor. Our first interview was a reading clerk in the House who actually read the roll call for the Declaration of War on December 8, 1941. So he had all these memories of people on the floor, he had memories of Jeannette Pickering Rankin, who cast the lone no vote against war. It’s been interesting. We’ve now got roughly about 100 hours of recorded memories [from] a couple dozen folks. We’re really looking forward to expanding that program.
Oral history is a very powerful tool for kind of putting a human face on an institution. I think part of the public’s misperception of Congress is [that] people don’t understand it; it’s an intimidating thing to study. The presidency is kind of at a human scale—we’ve had 44 presidencies. The House and Senate combined are in excess of 12,000 people—it’s a huge institution. One of the challenges when I got interested in studying Congressional history was to take that to an individual level, to be able to understand the institution, to humanize it. That’s a little bit of what we do, that’s what oral history is. [We] try to put a human face on what goes on here—scaleable history so that an individual can kind of connect with it.
How did you get involved with this job?
I actually used to work at the Capitol Historical Society. I was in graduate school at the University of Maryland, working on a degree in 20th century U.S. history, minding political and diplomatic history. I finished with my coursework and decided that I needed to have some financing to support me working on my dissertation. I wanted to move outside the department to get some practical experience. There was a job posting for a part-time position at the historical society for an associate historian who would do research, and so I applied and got the job. [I] did some historical work [and] also handled their publications. I have a background in journalism, and so I was responsible for the newsletter and catalogues and talking to the press.
When this office was created in 2002, I saw the job advertisement and put my application in. [I] was very fortunate that it worked out.
What led you to study history?
It was probably a combination of things. Like a lot of people who go into history, I’m pretty math-challenged, but I love to read, so I read a lot of history books as a kid—a lot of books on World Wars I and II, and the Civil War. We kind of bounced around a couple locations in northern Virginia, but we were never really far from Civil War battlefields and historic sites. My dad, in his spare time, had a metal detector, so we would go metal detecting on a private farm field and find these Civil War bullets, and that really got my interest going.
I actually went to college thinking that I wanted to write for a newspaper and worked for the college newspaper my entire four years. I went to James Madison University and realized that I could do a double major fairly easily. My roommates were history majors, so by sophomore year they had talked me in coming to take a few history courses. I went, realized I could do a double major, and signed up for it. I think probably the one [undergraduate] course that really got me hooked was a methods course taught by Skip Hyser*. I think that was kind of the turning point where I got hooked.
What was your master’s in?
It was in U.S. history. I wrote a master’s thesis on Walter Lippmann, who was a journalist. He was a critic of U.S. Cold War policy, and so I focused on kind of a narrow range from 1945-52 and his criticisms on American policy. I followed that up with a [PhD] dissertation, [which] looked at Lippmann from 1945-67 when he retired as a critic of particularly American policy and southeast Asia. The archives [National Archives II] at the University of Maryland are pretty much right on campus, and so you could go over to the archives after class and dig around for these documents. We’re spoiled here in the D.C. area because we have so many resources—the Library of Congress right next door, the National Archives.
A lot of graduate schools (a lot of the history departments I should say) don’t always do a good job advertising their ability to place people in public history jobs, and I didn’t know it going into Maryland. I kind of thought, Well, I’d go in, get my PhD, and teach somewhere. It was only kind of gradually through association—going to these different archives, getting involved in organizations, and meeting people who had graduated from the program at Maryland who had public history jobs—that I realized there was this whole network out there of people who had these great jobs where they’re doing all histories, they’re writing, they’re doing research, they’re answering reference questions. I only learned about that gradually at Maryland, kind of through my own poking around. I found that there was a real network of folks in federal history offices from the National Archives to the State Department to here on the Hill.
What do you like the most about this job?
I like a couple things. The job, day-to-day, is always fresh. You just can’t predict what’s going to happen. It’s a learning process, especially through reference questions or interviewing folks through the oral history project. We learn little nuggets we previously didn’t know. The House hasn’t had a history function for very long. There was a Historian’s Office in the 1980s created for the Bicentennial. The House had been around for roughly 200 years prior to that. The Senate historical office has been around a bit longer, but only since the mid-1970s. So there’s a tremendous amount of institutional history that is out there for us to collect, whether it’s objects or whether it’s stories and anecdotes; I find that very exciting. The fact that we were here—the core group of us who came in 2002—we really could start from scratch and create a program that we thought would be most useful and that we could advance the mission and history of the institution.
I also work with a great group of people. We’ve got folks who come from archival, curatorial, and history backgrounds, but there is a lot of synergy between those three departments. We’ve always received tremendous support from the Clerks of the House. The Clerk’s position is that of a chief records keeper of the House. They’ve always had a tremendous interest in what our office does and that makes our jobs exponentially easier, so we get great support too.
Is there anything you would change or improve with your job?
If I had more time for research, I think that would be my number one wish. I find a lot of time gets spent in meetings and more management stuff. I definitely like having time to go out to the library and go to the manuscript collection. To work here on the Hill, even in the history office, you have to be flexible; you have to be willing to pick something up on a dime and go with it. I enjoy that aspect of it. I don’t really see that as detrimental.
Do you have a favorite era you enjoy studying?
Well, my background in graduate school was definitely 20th century. Although in making the transition to study Congress more than a decade ago, I really came to appreciate the 19th century. In particular, I hadn’t been so acquainted with political science before studying Congress, so that’s definitely a field I’ve been reading a lot more. I’ve come to appreciate the political scientist; they’re a different kind of cat than historians. We like to tell stories, and that’s how we educate people. We’re anecdote people, storytellers and writers. They’re kind of quantifiers [and] definitely love their numbers. I find a lot of what political scientists do provides a great roadmap for what historians need to do when they think about an institution this large.
I’m part of a book group and read kind of broadly about U.S. history and some international history. At some point I’d like to turn my dissertation into a book, so I have an interest in diplomatic history as well.
Check back for part two of this interview, where Matt Wasniewski will discuss his thoughts on the public’s view of history, advice for history students, and more.
*Previously incorrectly spelled as Heiser.