December 23, 2008
By John Dichtl, Executive Director, National Council on Public History and Robert B. Townsend
Thanks to the support and interest of almost 4,000 members of the profession, our survey of public history professionals was a terrific success. In the end, we received 3,888 responses—almost one-third more than the last survey, conducted in 1980. The surveys were sent out to public history members of ten associations (the NCPH, AHA, the American Association for State and Local History, American Association of Museums, Association of Personal Historians, Australian Historical Association, Canadian Historical Association, Oral History Association, Organization of American Historians, and Society for History in the Federal Government).
We are just beginning to tabulate the results, but it appears the responses will provide detailed insight into the rich diversity of the public history field. The respondents represent a wide range training backgrounds, employment possibilities, and outlooks on the field. Even though the vast majority of the respondents live in the United States (89 percent), we also received information from historians in Canada and 29 other countries. This should provide some comparative information for practices here and abroad.
Even at the most superficial level, the survey offers an interesting profile of the shape of the public history profession. A plurality of the respondents (24 percent) were employed in museums, while 21 percent in government agencies, 10 percent in consulting, 9 percent in historical organizations, and 5 percent each in non-profits and research centers/archives/libraries. Another 17 percent of the respondents were employed in colleges and universities.
The most visible change occurred in the gender balance in the field, which has flipped in the past thirty years. Sixty-five percent today are women. When the last survey of public historians was conducted in 1980, 65 percent of the respondents were men. And public history practitioners across the field today are an older group as well, with 30 percent over the age of 55, compared to 11 percent in the 1980 study. Today, 25 percent are 35 years or younger, compared to 42 percent in 1980.
This is only a small, and cursory sampling of the results. Staff and committees of the ten organizations involved will continue analyzing responses to the more than 40 survey questions in the coming year. Of particular interest will be responses to the open-ended questions, “What do you view as the biggest challenge in your current work?” and “What do you see as the most serious issue(s) facing public history today?”
Those who responded to the survey will probably be most immediately interested in whether they won the drawing for two $100 book gift cards. By time of the December 1 deadline, two thirds of the survey respondents had entered the drawing. In the end, the two winners were John Krugler at Marquette University and David McKenzie at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.
Congratulations to them, and many thanks to all the rest of you who participated.