An image of hands typing on a black laptop, next to an open notebook is shown. In front of the image is a green color block with white text that reads

Webinar: Writing for History Publications

Every project has a story, and the field want to hear yours! Public history publications offer a way to share your research and experiences with others, gather feedback from across the field, and make connections for future partnerships. But how do you get started? Join editors from AASLH, NCPH, and Nursing Clio to learn about sharing your work through magazines, journals, and blogs. We’ll cover the basics of submitting work to History News, the AASLH blog, The Public Historian, History@Work, and the Nursing Clio blog, with tips on choosing your platform and focus.

Readers across the country look to public history publications to gain ideas and inspiration for their own work, so sharing new techniques, hidden history, and challenges and opportunities in digital or hardcopy print is essential for a diverse and thriving field. Join us to find out how you can become a resource for the field and share your public history work by writing for history publications.


DATE: May 30, 2019

TIME: 3:00 – 4:15 pm EASTERN (Remember to adjust for your time zone!)

COST: $40 Members of AASLH and NCPH (NCPH members should contact NCPH for a discount code) / $65 Nonmembers

Closed captioning available upon advanced notice. Please contact for more information.


Description and Outcomes:

Participant Outcomes:

  • Learn about different kinds and requirements of publishing opportunities
  • Understand publishing outlets are accessible and that writing about public history is not just for professors, senior level folks, etc.
  • Know their work matters, and the field benefits when it hears from diverse voices outside the usual crowd
  • Be inspired to share to share their research on publishing outlets discussed


Sarah Handley-Cousins, Editor of Nursing ClioSarah Case, Managing Editor of The Public HistorianNicole Belolan, Co-Editor of The Public HistorianJohn Marks, Editor of History News, and Aja Bain, AASLH blog editor and Associate Editor of History News. Each brings a unique perspective on the world of history publications and the process for writers, which we look forward to having them share as presenters in this webinar.


AASLH has partnered with the National Council on Public History (NCPH) to produce this webinar. NCPH members can contact their membership organization and request a promo code to receive discounted pricing on this webinar.

New Year Update from the History Relevance Campaign


For the past four years, History Relevance has been creating united voice in the history field. Our ultimate goal is that people will value history for its relevance to modern life and use historical thinking skills to actively engage with and address contemporary issues. I am one of the volunteers from many organizations that help run the History Relevance effort, and I serve on its Executive Committee and Steering Committee.

The message below is an annual update about History Relevance activities.

-John Dichtl
AASLH President & CEO

New Year Update from the History Relevance Campaign

The value of history – both understanding historical events and the process by which we analyze them – has been demonstrated many times in 2016. The skill at the very core of the research process, critical thinking, cannot be overemphasized in today’s society. Evidenced-based inquiry and discussion is more important than ever.

The History Relevance Campaign was busy in 2016.

We held an evening event during AAM’s Museum Advocacy Day and introduced more organizations to our efforts.

We gave several presentations at state, regional, and national conferences.

In May we convened a gathering at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and heard from Richard Kurin, Acting Provost of the Smithsonian.


The History Relevance Steering Committee meeting at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, February 2016.
The History Relevance Steering Committee meeting at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, February 2016.

And in October we convened a meeting at the National Archives and heard from Archivist of the US David Ferriero who said he is a fan of HRC’s work.

Both meetings gathered representatives from organizations with national scope, including American Alliance of Museums, National Park Service, National Archives, Library of Congress, Smithsonian, National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Coalition for History, American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, Civil War Trust, National Endowment for the Humanities, Institute for Museum and Library Services, Center for History and New Media, National History Day, and others.

A direct result of the May meeting was a renewed emphasis on development of a template to measure impact of history organizations, and this effort became the primary focus of the October meeting.


The October 2016 History Relevance meeting.
The October 2016 History Relevance meeting.

We are exploring options for a grant to create this set of common metrics for measuring the impact of history organizations, and have been drafting proposals and speaking with national and local partners.

This month HRC will debut a new website that will serve as a clearinghouse for tools and news to share the work of HRC.

We continue to build a relationship with the National Governors Association.

We’ve begun a collaboration with LINK Strategic Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based communications firm, to create a communications plan to help the field be more strategic about how we talk about history. We’re grateful for LINK’s shared vision and generosity in donating their skills and time.

The HRC steering committee is comprised of sixteen members who represent a variety of history organizations that span the breadth of the country.  Several new members were added this past year.


John Dichtl and other members of the Historic Relevance Campaign Steering Committee meet in DC in October 2016
AASLH's John Dichtl and other members of the History Relevance Campaign Steering Committee meet in DC in October 2016

The number keeps growing.

Over 150 organizations and counting have endorsed the HRC Value of History statement, including the Smithsonian Institution and the National Archives, the Organization of American Historians, the Society of American Archivists, the National Humanities Alliance, and Conner Prairie. Check the full list at and please invite organizations to sign on.

We encourage you to challenge your colleagues in history to use the language in the Value statement. Please also share any successful ways that you have employed the Value statement.

Here are two elegant videos by state historical societies that incorporate the Value statement:

Made by History

History Is Essential

Happy 2017!

[gview file=""]

We Are at the Center of What It Means to Be Americans: A Letter from the AASLH Council Chair

katherin-kaneDear Members,

AASLH is helping lead our local and national discussions about the importance of historic context, the value of content that can be documented, and the importance of telling everyone’s stories. This content and these stories help demonstrate our country’s strength, while also encouraging us to listen to one another.

To meet these important responsibilities, AASLH needs your help more than ever. Please give to the AASLH Annual Fund.

Our history organizations save places, objects, and the ideas that go with them. Since democracy is about people coming together to share views and take action, we are at the center of what it means to be Americans.

You are seeing the needs in your work and in your own communities. AASLH brings history folks together for professional growth, to strengthen all our organizations, and to raise history’s profile.

Your financial support for AASLH is important. Give today.


Katherine Kane
AASLH Council Chair
Executive Director, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

History, Memory, and Disability Rights: Creating Inclusive Public Humanities Programs

“History, Memory, and Disability Rights: Creating Inclusive Public Humanities Programs,” a one-day public humanities conference and workshops that features current research on the complex and complicated historical narrative that is the disability rights movement in the mid-Atlantic region, will take place on Saturday, November 19, 2016, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at Rutgers University-pennhurst-1Camden. It is sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Humanities Center at Rutgers-Camden and affiliated partners. The program will focus on social attitudes and public policy efforts to marginalize individual citizens with developmental disabilities, as well as on the countervailing forces of institutionalization and deinstitutionalization. Afternoon workshops will address the use of history as a tool in community education and public advocacy pertaining to disability rights and interpretation of disability history at historic sites.

The mid-Atlantic region, comprised of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, and Delaware, played a pivotal role in the development and transformation of disability rights and public policy.  At the dawn of the twentieth century, new scientific and social theories (such as eugenics) were indispensable in a shift in social attitudes and state government policy. The result was a well-organized campaign to isolate and eliminate citizens stigmatized as “feebleminded” or in some way “defective.” The terminology was abrasive and dehumanizing, and it served to deny individuals their freedom, dignity, and rights. In addition to legalized sterilization and anti-marriage legislation, more than a quarter million Americans with an intellectual or developmental disability were confined in 300 public institutions, a practice that continued well into the twenty-first century. New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania—in fact, each of the fifty states—each had its own experience with this nationwide trend.


Three-quarters of a century later, the states of the mid-Atlantic region witnessed some of the greatest moments in the disability rights freedom struggle. Often neglected in the mainstream historical narrative, the disability rights movement touches on a host of contemporary social, legal, and public policy issues. The experiences of people with disability also serve to remind us that history is something that happens to people.

A content-based symposium that includes both formal and informal presentations, and two afternoon workshops, this humanities forum will address neglected aspects of American and mid-Atlantic history. The workshops will have the added benefit of assessing a) how museums and historical societies can be more inclusive in content, interpretation, and community education efforts, and b) the relationship of history to disability rights and community-based advocacy. The day-long program will conclude with a roundtable discussion that includes educators, museum curators, advocates, self-advocates, and the general public.

The target audience includes museum and historic site specialists, curators and educators, research scholars, advocacy organizations, people living with disabilities, caregivers, and anyone with an interest in learning more and raising awareness about this important history.

Registration is $20 and includes lunch. We are able to offer 10 “scholarships” that waive the registration fee to people with intellectual, developmental, or other disabilities; self-advocates are encouraged to apply. Funding is available for the first 10 individuals who apply. Please send name, address, and email address to Tamara Gaskell, at, by October 31.

Register by November 11! Visit


Morning Sessions

8:00 a.m.    Registration and Coffee

8:45 a.m.    Welcome
Introduction: Jean Searle, Disability Rights Network and PMPA

9:00 a.m.    Dennis B. Downey, Millersville University
“From Exclusion to Inclusion: Disability and Public Policy, 1880 to the Present”

9:45 a.m.     Ruthie-Marie Beckwith, City University of New York
“Disability Servitude: A Legacy of Abuse and Exploitation”

10:30 a.m.   Deborah Spitalnik, Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
“Institutions and Community: The New Jersey Context”

11:15 a.m.   James W. Conroy, Center for Outcomes Analysis and
the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance
                   “Historical Memory and the Disability Rights Revolution: Creating a Pennhurst Museum and Interpretive Center”

11:45 a.m.    Conversation

12:15 p.m.    Lunch


Afternoon Workshops 1:30 p.m.

“Public Conversations, Advocacy, and Disability Rights:
The Role of History in Promoting Dialogue and Social Change”
Led by David Mack Hardiman, People, Inc., and Museum of disABILITY History

Can knowing the past helps us understand the present and (ideally) shape a better future? How can history, and an understanding of history, enfranchise citizens with disabilities and their communities and help the public, museum educators, and advocates better address current policy issues?  David Mack- Hardiman of the Museum of disABILITY History will facilitate a discussion on the importance of preservation of disability history to provide relevant contextual information for current policy debates.  For example, information about institutionalization has often been presented without the background of the moral model of treatment. How does our understanding change when the segregation of people who were disabled is framed by awareness of the prevailing theories of eugenics? Participants will engage in a dialogue that examines the relevance of history in regard to current service delivery systems. This discussion will clarify links between the past and the present and inspire participants to build awareness and advocacy in their own communities.

“Accessible Museums, Accessible Objects:
Interpreting the Material Culture of Disability for Contemporary Audiences”
Led by Nicole Belolan, University of Delaware

What was it like to be disabled in early America, and how can we incorporate this history into our interpretation of museums and historic sites in accessible ways? In this workshop, Nicole Belolan will outline how museums and historic sites can take low-cost steps toward making their venues more accessible for all audiences. She will also share what we can learn about the material experience of disability in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. How can we address the history of physical disability in early America in museum settings, including when it “overlaps” with other types of impairment, through well-known artifacts such as easy chairs and lesser-known objects such as adult cradles? Participants will also have a chance to examine and discuss some examples of historical material culture of disability.

3:00 p.m.     Discussion and Conclusion

Web link:

More info:


Pond-Hopping: How Working Abroad Can Improve Your Local History Practice

Would you like to travel the world? Not for one or two weeks, but for a year, or possibly two. It’s possible to cross the globe as a public historian. Currently, the National Council for Public History’s job board lists five openings in Canada, two in the United Kingdom, and one in Saudi Arabia. Last month, NCPH advertised openings in Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. But why am I writing all of this here?


You probably joined AASLH because of an interest in local history and may be wondering why I’m writing about international employment. Anytime we find ourselves working long hours in a specific locale, we risk losing the creativity and clarity that comes from being an outsider. It benefits you professionally to observe other local historians at work. In foreign countries, differences in professional practice can seem more frequent and pronounced. Working abroad is a learning experience, and I’m not the only local historian who believes an international perspective would benefit our work in the States. Noted columnist Carol Kammen, in the Autumn 2015 edition of AASLH’s History News, discussed “Doing Local History Across the Pond.” Let me take an example from my work experiences abroad.


Ethan at work in the UK
Ethan at work in the UK

For much of this year, I completed an internship with England’s National Trust, one of the UK’s largest historic preservation organizations. I accepted the internship because of my interest in fundraising. In graduate school in Middle Tennessee, I helped several local organizations raise money for additional exhibits and programs. In most cases, organizational budgets were small and the donors lived in the community. I rarely gave serious thought to applying for something as large as a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. An NEH grant seemed too complicated, and the organizations I worked with did not have the staff or resources necessary to apply for and implement an NEH grant.

Work in England, however, gave me a new perspective. While in the UK, I helped a local organization apply for a national grant. The National Trust wanted to make where I worked, Seaton Delaval Hall, a model of community involvement. The Trust threw the weight of the national organization behind the initiative, and I had the opportunity to work with the Trust’s grant writers on a £7.5 million ($10 million) funding bid to the national Heritage Lottery Fund. I never dreamed that I would get to learn about writing national grants while working at a small historic home. Yet, the Trust’s national administrators are extremely connected to their regional and local staff. It was an opportunity I don’t know I would have had if I had remained in the States. It gave me a depth of knowledge I can put to good use as I return to the States to continue helping local organizations raise money to achieve their goals. While I benefited from the experience as a fundraiser, I’m sure public programmers, curators, archivists, and others can benefit from the experience as well. The only way to know is hop on a plane and find out.

Re-Imagining the Historic House Museum: A Workplace for Women

In recent years, discussions about the future of the historic house museum have ebbed and flowed. A watershed moment may have occurred with the May 2015 issue of The Public Historian devoted entirely to the topic of “reimagining the historic house museum.” When I received this issue I was excited to see what the authors and reviewers had to say.

I was impressed by the work and thinking that is going on in this corner of the museum world.

But something was missing, something left unexplored.


Image 1
Frances Willard in her office at home. Image Courtesy of the Frances Willard Historical Association.

I come to this discussion with some background, having served on the board at the Frances Willard house museum in Evanston, Illinois. The house museum is filled with the furnishings of Willard and her mother, as well as the remnants of the museum created by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to memorialize Willard, their long-time leader.

Though Willard lived there, its real significance lies in how she used it as a workplace and informal headquarters for the WCTU during the years of her involvement in the organization (from its founding in 1874, through her Presidency beginning in 1879, and until her death in 1898). Though the WCTU always had official headquarter buildings in these years, Willard viewed her home as a “branch” location. Often there was a handful of WCTU workers living in the annex portion of the house, and many more came to work there each day.


Francis Willard on her bicycle. Image Courtesy of the Frances Willard Historical Association
Francis Willard on her bicycle. Image Courtesy of the Frances Willard Historical Association

But back to the current discussion about house museums and that missing link.

Several assumptions animate this discussion, as revealed in the May 2015 Public Historian, including that:

  • house museums need to recognize that their sites have a “core function as shelter” and they need to have some connection to this original/primary use to have meaning for visitors
  • house museums need to emphasize “positive aspects of the domestic realm” - providing visitors with feelings of “comfort, welcome, engagement and belonging.”

Knowing the story of the Willard House, I began to see what was missing: any discussion of the reality of how these houses truly functioned for women.

For women like Willard, who consciously used her home as her workplace, the house was an extension of her activism and reform spirit. Many other women activists, writers, artists, etc, would have had much the same relationship with their homes, especially in that time period. But even for women who were not like Willard at all, those millions of women who were “simply” daughters, sisters, wives and mothers living at home, the house was to varying degrees a place of work. And then certainly for servant girls and all the other women on the staff, their working life defined their inhabitation of the house.

The current discussion on house museums needs to consider that for thousands of years, the home functioned not only to shelter women (some would say to entrap them), but as their primary workplace.


Francis Willard House & Museum, photo credit: Donna Wesley Spencer.
Francis Willard House & Museum, photo credit: Donna Wesley Spencer.


For the most part, the labor required at this workplace was hidden and the story of the women who did it was left untold and devalued. The current discussion also carries with it an underlying nostalgia for “home” - the lost home of our childhood (if it was a good one). But for the most part, this nostalgia could only be felt by those who didn’t have to work to create this home - the men and children who inhabited the space but did not work there.

The desire to make the historic house museum feel more “homelike” - with smells of baking bread, beds to sleep in, couches to sit on - is forgetful of the fact that someone had to work to make the home and that someone was most likely a woman.

I believe we are truly at a watershed moment.

If it is true, and I believe it is, that “the veil between past and present is at its most permeable in a place where families lived and loved, thrived and died” then we must also be sure to show how the work of these places happened. We need to uncover the true story of women’s lives at all historic sites but especially at the houses where they lived, and more importantly worked.

Nostalgia for a lost home will not bring us there…

By Lori Osborne, AASLH Women's History Affinity Group Member, Evanston Women’s History Project Director and National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites Vice President.

Review: Zen and the Art of Local History

Note: In 2014, AASLH and the British Association for Local History (BALH) began steps to make common cause in the pursuit of local history. While we’re in the very early stages of this partnership, and do not know what it’s going to ultimately look like, we are excited to offer this review of one of our books, Zen and the Art of Local History, by Alan G. Crosby, the editor of The Local Historian: Journal of the British Association for Local History.

Alan’s review originally ran in the journal’s April 2015 issue (Volume 45, no. 2): 92-96. We are running this review as originally printed, complete with British spelling and punctuation conventions.


"Zen and the art of local history: reviewing some transatlantic perspectives"
Alan G. Crosby

ZEN AND THE ART OF LOCAL HISTORY edited by Carol Kammen and Bob Beatty (Rowman & Littlefield/American Association for State and Local History 2014 332pp ISBN 978-1-4422-2690-6) £27.95 details at


Since the early 1980s Carol Kammen has been a leading voice for local history in America, and since 1995 has written regular editorial essays about the subject for History News, the quarterly journal of the American Association for State and Local History. This book brings together, and builds on, that reflection and experience and comes to BALH as one of the first fruits of its recent link-up with AASLH.

Carol’s writing arose from a growing frustration that in the early 1980s History News was concerned more with the management of historical agencies and organisations, with education programmes and the technicalities of the practice of history, and less about history itself, and what made local, regional and state historians tick. She penned an irate letter and (while living on the Rue de Pontoise in Paris) wrote what she describes as ‘a screed’ entitled On doing local history: reflections on what local historians do, why and what it means.

She is a skilled and stimulating essayist, her success being in no small measure the result of her own intellectual personality, having ‘grown from a young woman attempting to be sure of herself into an older woman not so much sure any longer and still seeking’. Her progression towards enlightenment came through being self-taught, arriving in a new place as a woman of 28 with two small children and needing something to do. In her case, this was to write a pamphlet, commissioned by the local history society, about the founder of the community, and then to offer a course on local history at the community college. From the outset, she perceived the need to include the excluded—those who had been to a great extent written out of history. This meant paying proper attention to women, African-Americans, Greeks, Italians … the people who hitherto had scarcely figured in the narratives of the white Anglo-Saxon males of the American story. In a revealing phrase, she says that she ‘ignored railroad lines and focused on people’.

This refreshing determination to stretch boundaries and create new frontiers for local history research, writing and teaching, combined with a down to earth approach which harnessed the developing enthusiasm for new aspects of local history (such as oral history, the preservation and conservation movement, ‘small is beautiful’, and the awareness of the rich diversity of American history which stemmed from Bicentennial celebrations of 1976) became the hallmark of her work. She recognised that local history takes many forms, and that research and practical activities are diverse and varied—more so, perhaps, than in mainstream history twenty or thirty years ago: ‘I [found] my way around archives, wrote some books, and had the opportunity to run workshops, consult with numerous historical agencies, meet interesting people, and travel here and there’.

She is driven by an insatiable curiosity for discovery and for the exploitation of neglected or underused sources. Her ideas and methods are not rigid, and they have changed over time. She eschews parochialism and narrow research topics and seeks connections and linkages, sifting out truth from fiction, verifying realities rather than accepting received wisdoms. Her experience led her to think widely about the ‘issues’ which we encounter in undertaking local history research and writing, challenges such as the debunking of entrenched but incorrect mythologies, the need to escape from the familiar and to be more imaginative and adventurous, and the necessity for approaching the past with sympathy and understanding, avoiding judgmentalism and censoriousness. We should all think about our role in relation to those who come after us, and our duty to future generations for whom our research and analysis will be a foundation stone in their own further explorations.

Her editorials since 1995 address an extraordinary variety of subjects which will be familiar to anyone involved in local history on this side of the Atlantic. There are important universalities, of methodology and approach, of the frameworks of public and private sector involvement in local history and heritage, and in the abstract issues of why, how, where and when we work. Zen, as a path to enlightenment, is a very good analogy for much of what we do: as Carol writes, ‘I am more Zen than anything else. Not with a constant ohm but more like an ever-expanding sense of understanding. Because while the place about which I have researched has been pretty much the same, I have come at it differently each time. I have shifted my ideas about locality—what it means, how it works, my place in it, and everyone else’s too, for that matter. Zen promotes self-exploration, a self-realization. It is intuitive rather than academic’. Dangerous words to some, perhaps, but maybe all local historians should aspire to understand not only the subject, but what it is that draws them to it. For most of us, it is a calling, not an obligation or a dull necessity.

Zen and the art of local history was published last year with the assistance of Bob Beatty, Carol’s indefatigable editor, who writes that ‘it has been an absolute professional and personal joy to work with Carol … helping her shape the clay of her original idea, to draw out her thoughts and observations about our work and collective passion in history … we both want her essays to spur thought and dialogue, to offer new ideas or modes of thinking’. The book is a compendium of 65 editorial essays, described as ‘calls’, each accompanied by a response from a reader, giving a different perspective on the topic in question and emphasising the value of civilised debate and discussion.

The first section, ‘About being a local historian’, considers a range of pertinent points. The essay ‘Not for a test, but history for life’ notes the fact-based approach formerly (?) so prevalent in school history teaching but then suggests some important messages for local historians: ‘We are not high school teachers to the community ... We are not just guides to the facts and we are not just the people who find answers. Rather, we are Diogenes with a map, wading into the past, touching that which interests us. We are at our best when we take our community by the hand to allow others to experience what it is we do when we think about and research the local past’. One way of doing this is discussed in ‘Perambulation’, a call for local historians to walk and explore. With characteristically strong and effective prose, Carol notes that Lambarde’s 1576 history of Kent was entitled a ‘Perambulation’ and that almost 450 years later ‘In good weather, I too perambulate my historical kingdom ... I walk the streets looking at the domestic architecture, plantings, the evidence of renewal, the loss of community facilities, the uprisings or down-goings of an area ... Knowledge of place, an understanding of where we live, brings pleasure [and] is also a crucial factor in our sense of responsibility ... for to understand the past of an area is to foster concern and care’.

Another essay wittily comments on how internet access and emails have led enquirers to assume both that the information is ‘there’, readily accessible, and can be provided instantly, and that the enquirer does not need to bother doing the work himself or herself. In other words, Carol writes, there is ‘a spate of questions that I can only call inappropriate’. She cites, for example, the somewhat peremptory demand: ‘Searching for information on reasons for increase in deaths in your surrounding cemeteries at several peak times. Send all information about epidemics between 1800 and 1870’. Her instinctive response to another question, asking for information about ‘any battles, massacres fires, widespread disease or other catastrophic events’ over a 40 mile radius, was “Is this your research project or mine”. There is much here that is familiar to many of us. I particularly relished her assessment of journalists and their role in disseminating information (or misinformation) about local history: ‘All too familiar to the local historian is the telephone call from a nearby journalist ... I like journalists (and yes, some of my best friends are members of the fourth estate) [but] we and they operate differently’. This section includes pieces on local knowledge and the importance of context, the choosing of topics for research, and the importance of looking at the work of earlier local historians. The essay ‘Water buffalos, wildebeests and gazelles’ challengingly addresses the all-too-familiar perceived divide between ‘academic and ‘non-academic’ (or professional and amateur) local historians, while another explores the idea of history workshops (noting the English antecedents of this approach) and the notion of developing an apprenticeship system for local historians to ensure continuity and the passing on of skills and knowledge.

The next section, ‘The clay for our wheels and the pots we make’, is primarily about sources and how we deal with them. It begins with a powerful essay on the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, arguing that recording and documenting the local manifestations of such immediate and unexpected events is very important (the parallel with, for example, the death of Princess Diana is obvious) but then moving on to the need to continue such recording in the more ordinary and everyday world around us. What we do with the ‘stuff’ we accumulate is the subject of an entertaining essay called ‘Out of the closet’, but Carol moves on to more controversial topics—buying documents and archives privately on, for example, eBay, and the complex issues surrounding their ownership, provenance, and ultimate fate and destination. She laments the quality and accessibility of archival material in ‘semi-public’ custody (in a specific example, the legal records held for many years at the county courthouse and now inaccessible in an out-store). A very relevant essay examines the manifest weaknesses and inadequacies of the 2010 US Federal Census, with its badly-worded and extraordinarily limited range of questions, and almost complete uselessness for future historians of any persuasion or specialism. United Kingdom citizens beware – campaign for quality now that the 2021 census is confirmed!

‘Mingled yarn’, the third part of the book, considers the catchphrase ‘community education’, the process whereby local history organisations can work towards presenting the past by exploring sense of place, change over time, and the contexts of the lives of groups and individuals. The essay ‘Seeking diversity’ addresses a highly sensitive question, in which ‘our sympathies pull us in one direction, our historical sensibilities in another’. It focuses on the preparation of a Wall of Fame in the museum of science in Carol’s community, Ithaca in New York State. Names were put forward, but then representatives of the county and city governments said ‘it needed minorities, people of color, people who were anything but living (or dead) white males. “The list is full of them,” muttered one lawmaker’. A problem was at once apparent. Carol was expected to produce names but ‘we do not have what everyone wanted me to produce. We do not have a nineteenth-century African American scientist who happened to be female. Some places do, we do not’. She pleads for realism rather than false expectation, for a recognition that (in this instance) ‘the nineteenth century was not an era—at least not in my community—in which many minorities had the opportunity to achieve something noteworthy in the field of science’. The response to this, from Patricia Williams Lessane, the executive director of the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History, is a succinct and moving statement in support of that view, arguing that deliberately seeking diversity is a dead end, an outdated and ineffective strategy. Lessane suggests that instead collective and community history should accept a commitment to making the past ‘accessible to all people and inclusive of all our unique contributions [and] embracing the premise that our collective history is storied, complex, colorful, inspiring, and yes, sometimes ugly and difficult to accept’. By doing that, she suggests ‘we free ourselves from the albatross of race, and thus empower ourselves to see ourselves and the world through new eyes’.

Among Carol’s great strengths as an essayist is her talent for drawing an important principle from a specific and focused point or fact. Two articles entitled ‘Travel at home’ look at cultural tourism, linking the international passion for travel with the message that a local historian should be a tourist and traveller in his or her own place, and then discussing a day trip to a town thirty miles from Ithaca which markets itself as a tourist destination because a battle was fought there in the Revolutionary War—Carol’s comment is that ‘this site is now being promoted as a major battle of the war (which of course it was not)’. But her argument is that this apparently unremarkable place actually has a complex and diverse history and that ‘the small places, the ordinary hometown places near you ... have an intricate past that can tell us a great deal ... for those of us who do local history, we know that what seems ordinary is not but it is, with explanation, sometimes extraordinary’. This theme is reprised in ‘Acts of nature and other disturbing events’, assessing the attitudes of local historians to the one-off dramas which punctuate the history of almost any community, from fires and floods to epidemics and spectacular crimes. Kammen argues that local histories should pay full attention to these, but that they should be used as pegs on which to hang larger themes—drainage and river management, rebuilding in fire-proof materials, the longer-term economic consequences of disaster. Local history, she implies, is a blend of the generally unremarkable, ‘the normal, the small, the repeated task or story’, with the startling events. Both have their place.

‘Truth and consequences’ deals with the highly charged issue of accuracy and reliability in historical research and writing, and whether or not it matters, the first essay being entitled ‘When not being wrong is not good enough’. Carol recounts being asked to vet the text of a series of historical markers (or signboards) to be erected in a nearby town, a text laden with poor grammar, meaningless abbreviations, incorrect terminology, historical misinterpretation and an anachronistic perspective. We have probably all encountered such material in our own explorations. She pleads instead for ‘careful investigation, balance, discretion, thoughtfulness, fairness, context, and finally, clear communication’. The next essay, ‘Ducking, bobbing, and looking away’, homes in on an awkward consequence of truthfulness—that it may require the researcher or writer to address unpalatable, unpleasant or highly contentious matters. She introduces the questions of partisanship, political correctness, and the demolition of mythologies, and follows this up with an essay setting out the unforeseen results of newspapers and journalists latching onto one aspect of the history of a place, distorting the story and taking it out of context, and then publishing it as a sensational news story. The moral: be careful what you say and to whom you say it, and treat journalists with great wariness! This leads seamlessly to discussion of historical fiction and fiction in history, the blurring of the distinctions and the validity of using fiction, or imaginative reconstruction, as an element in our investigation of the past and its meaning and reality.

‘Words in stone’, the fifth section of the book, considers recent local history, and its relationships with, for example, environmental history and family history, and then puts the audience for local history under the spotlight, asking provocatively about the real purpose of local history publishing and questioning whether much of the output is ever actually read (‘I believe that few [local history books] are’). Carol makes the perceptive point that people buy and really read books on subjects that positively appeal to them (on themes such as the American Civil War or railroads) but that in contrast local history books are primarily for reference. This essay was written eleven years ago: today, with print on demand and electronic publishing, the issues she raises are even more relevant. And what of the other topics, beyond wars and railways and other perennial favourites? In ‘the things we ignore’ she admits to keeping a list (called the Anti-Index, those nouns that don’t appear in indexes) of topics that local historians avoid or overlook, ranging from excise laws and their local consequences, via the detail of local politics and party rivalries, to strikes, childhood, business failures and the process of law (rather than the sensational crimes themselves). In the British context some of these may be addressed, but we can readily see themes which on this side of the Atlantic are usually overlooked ... supermarkets, multiples and chain stores, bus services and their social and cultural impact, and the local history of landscape conservation are three which come to my mind.

And finally, ‘Work and play in history’s sandbox’ sets out agendas for the future. This sequence of fourteen essays concerns how we organise and manage local history, what fundamental changes are in progress and what challenges and opportunities lie ahead. There’s so much of interest here, and so much that is of global relevance, that it is going to be the subject of a separate assessment in the next issue of The Local Historian. Much of what Carol Kammen writes is simple common sense, but she has a gift for putting into crafted simple prose the thoughts that many of us have floating around rather vaguely in our minds. Zen and the art of local history is a constantly stimulating read. I have rarely seen a better book about local history, or been more impressed by the combination of wisdom, humanity and practicality which it offers.

ALAN CROSBY is the editor of The Local Historian, and has a special interest in the practice of local history in other countries including Denmark, Ireland and Poland.

Public History Employer Survey


Even as job prospects for historians have improved with the passing of the Great Recession, questions about the overall health of public history remain.  To address these concerns, the National Council on Public History has organized a task force that includes AASLH, the American Historical Association, and the Organization of American Historians to examine how the current and future needs and expectations of employers of public historians match up with the training provided by public history programs.  As an initial step, the task force has developed this online survey for public history employers. We urge AASLH members to take the survey.  The task force needs a large pool of responses for its efforts to succeed.  Put simply, we need to hear from you.

Anyone involved in hiring public historians is eligible to take the survey.  Respondents do not have to be responsible for final hiring decisions, only involved in evaluating applicants.  Public history, for our purposes, encompasses the traditional fields of archives, museums, historical interpretation, historic preservation, and historical consulting as well as emerging areas of expertise such as digital media.  If you think of someone as a public historian, whether or not they self-identify as one, they probably are.

Please take the survey at your earliest convenience and share it with friends and colleagues.  The data collected will assist historical organizations in formulating policy, advocating for historical programs, and advising public history educators.  The survey is an important part of a comprehensive effort to chart the current landscape of public history training and employment.  For it to succeed, we need your participation and support.  Please help us understand where public history is going.  The results will benefit us all.

Take the survey here.

Carol Kammen to Speak at Local University

Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN will be hosting an after-hours conversation with noted author and local historian Carol Kammen on Wednesday, May 27. Carol is a visiting public historian leading a Maymester course for MTSU history graduate students. She will also be our awards banquet speaker at the 2015 Annual Meeting in Louisville. This event is open to the public, and we encourage AASLH members and local historians in the Middle Tennessee area to attend!

Since 1995, Carol’s column, “On Doing Local History,” has appeared regularly in our magazine, History News. Her books include On Doing Local History, The Pursuit of Local History: Readings on Theory and Practice, the Encyclopedia of Local History, and Zen and the Art of Local History.

Wednesday's talk will be moderated by AASLH's Bob Beatty, and we will be there with copies of Carol's latest book, Zen and the Art of Local History. Hors d'oeuvres will be served at 4:30, with discussion beginning at 5:30. The event will take place in the New Student Union Parliamentary Room (Room 201) at Middle Tennessee State University.

RSVP to Kelle Knight at

Driving directions available here.

Sponsored by the Public History Program, Department of History, MTSU



Public Historian, Corporate Historian

When I was invited to guest-write a blog post relating to corporate history, my first thought was: am I a corporate historian? Or am I a public historian? Let's briefly consider the case for each.

Public Historian

I'm the historian of the United States Postal Service, one of the oldest federal agencies. The Postal Service dates from 1775, when the Second Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin as the first American Postmaster General. As the first communications network, our postal system not only facilitated commerce and strengthened the bonds of family and friendship — it united a nation. Newspapers exchanged through the mail helped forge our national identity and advance national policies.

Benjamin Franklin, First Postmaster General
Benjamin Franklin, First Postmaster General.

The Postal Service also has always been one of the largest government agencies, in terms of number of employees and geographic reach. Historically, in many communities the Postmaster was the federal government, and the regular arrival of U.S. Mail was citizens' most tangible government benefit. Contracts for the transportation of mail subsidized new transportation routes — overland, by water, and air — which helped the nation expand and develop.

Today, the Postal Service's domestic retail network is larger than McDonald's, Starbucks, and Wal-Mart, combined. Federal law directs the Postal Service to provide "prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and . . . postal services to all communities." Even in this digital age, these services are considered so essential that any proposed changes are highly scrutinized and circumscribed by Congress.

So, the Postal Service is a government agency, and I am a public historian. But . . .

Corporate Historian

The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 transformed the U.S. Post Office Department into the U.S. Postal Service, an "independent establishment of the executive branch of the Government of the United States." Like a private corporation, the Postal Service is expected to operate in a business-like manner, sustaining its operations and growth through its own revenue. Today, it delivers 40% of the world's mail, using zero tax dollars.

So, I'm a public historian, and a corporate historian.

As the historian of the Postal Service, my customers include the Postmaster General, the Postmaster of your city or small town, and . . . you.

That includes you, Postmaster X, who called me last Thursday at 2:00 p.m. asking for the history of your 215-year-old Post Office to share with a local historical society at 7:00 p.m. that night.  And you, Citizen Y, who emailed me last month wanting to know how much small-town Postmasters were paid in 1920. And you, Professor Z, who wanted copies of source documents to inform your next scholarly article.

Of course, responding to inquiries is just one part of my job. Like other public/corporate historians, I also manage a records collection, manage webpages with our organization's history, and oversee periodic historical publications. I also manage a collection of artifacts and counsel field employees on the disposition of weird items they sometimes discover in basements, storerooms, and in the bottoms of their desk drawers.

My full title is "Historian and Corporate Information Services Manager."
I also manage the USPS Library. But that's a subject for another day.

Postal artifacts in the USPS collection.


Jenny Lynch is the Historian and Corporate Information Services Manager for the United States Postal Service.