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History for the people

The field of 'public history' gains ground in Canada


It was last May, says Paul Litt, when he felt the unmistakable shift. A professor of history at Carleton University, Dr. Litt was an organizer of the 2007 annual conference of the Canadian Historical Association held in Saskatoon as part of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

The theme of Congress, “Bridging Communities: Making public knowledge; Making knowledge public,” was well-suited to his field of interest, known as public history. The field has been gaining attention in recent years, and indeed many of the history sessions touched on the topic. Dr. Litt has also been involved with the newly resurrected CHA Committee on Public History, which joins 14 other committees on topics such as women’s history and labour history.

But Dr. Litt says the point at Congress which stood out most for him was during a session on public history held by the Women’s History Committee. “A lot of interest was shown by the academic historians in what the public historians had to say,” notes Dr. Litt. “The ground shifted.”

The Rodney Dangerfield of its discipline, public history hasn’t always gotten much respect. The field has often been viewed as more of a craft, an applied pursuit, rather than a legitimate academic domain. But the tide may be changing, as shown by the increased interest at the CHA sessions and other milestones, such as last year’s launch of Canada’s first honours BA in public history, at Concordia University.

Dr. Litt believes part of the reason for this change is the general public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for all things historical, from Ken Burns to Pierre Berton, from A&E’s Biography franchise, to Mark Starowicz’s Canada: A People’s History.

The scope of public history is certainly large. The University of Western Ontario, which has offered an MA in the field for more than 20 years, describes the field, on its website, as “history … experienced by and interpreted for the public. It is history in films, on websites, in historical fiction, in museums, in popular books and magazines. It is a street corner commemorative plaque and a Steven Spielberg blockbuster. … And it is the name given to the study of all these.”

Carleton University, where a one-year MA in public history has been available since 2002, notes on its website that public history “also refers to the place of history in shaping collective memory, often in media other than traditional print scholarship. To study public history is to come to terms with the contested nature of history itself, and to situate narratives of history within a broader field of public memory, identity, and political/institutional interests.” A good example of this is the continuing, impassioned controversy over a panel at the Canadian War Museum that raises questions about the Allied bombing campaign during the Second World War.

A perceived crisis

The history of public history dates back to the mid-’70s, according to Bruce Craig, a public historian and professor in the history department at the University of Prince Edward Island. At the time, “there was a perceived crisis in the historical profession. … Fewer and fewer people were going into history, but of more concern, the people who were graduating with PhDs and master’s degrees in history were not landing academic jobs,” due in large part to cutbacks in government funding.

Robert Kelly, then a professor of history at the University of California Santa Barbara, noticed that many history graduates were applying their skills in a “more entrepreneurial way.” For example, they might conduct legal research for law firms, or work in archives, libraries or the U.S. National Park Service. “He felt that there needed to be a distinctive training program for these people,” says Dr. Craig. Dr. Kelly obtained a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and UC Santa Barbara began offering the first public history MA in 1977. Dr. Craig was one of the first nine students.

By 1978, UC Santa Barbara had launched a journal called The Public Historian and, by 1979, created an organization called the National Council on Public History, which serves as the professional organization for public historians in the U.S. and Canada to this day. Dr. Craig says that during the next few years, a small number of other universities launched public history graduate programs. About 80 offer such programs today.

Like any new endeavour, public history faced challenges, some of which still linger. “The movement got itself into a bit of trouble in that the people who were teaching at the graduate level in the early years, for example, were re-tooled rather than distinctively trained,” says Dr. Craig. These instructors, pulled from their traditional history domain, often returned to their areas of interest within a few years. Schools therefore began to rely on adjunct instructors, which Dr. Craig says was good in that these practising professionals gave students the hands-on skills and focus they needed, but bad in that they tended to be somewhat transient and not necessarily strongly involved in program building.

But a greater challenge for public history has been to defend the legitimacy of the field itself. “The major Ivy League schools will not touch public history at all,” says Dr. Craig. “Part of the problem is philosophical, in that when the public history movement began there was a belief of many in the academic realm that, ‘Well, if you can’t get a job in academia, you become a public historian.'” In other words, says Dr. Craig, public history is viewed by many departments as being “a craft,” “applied” and “second rate.”

That sort of bias has presented challenges to public history professors. Universities grant tenure based on a professor’s research output, which usually means academic books and journal articles. While many professors of public history do publish such material, they’re more likely to be engaged in activities that aren’t viewed as highly by tenure and promotion committees. “They do exhibits, for example, they do outreach, they do oral history interviews, they’re producing ‘grey literature’ [reports, corporate histories, legal briefs] that doesn’t count as being scholarly,” says Dr. Craig.

Carleton and Western, along with Université du Québec à Montréal, are the only Canadian universities to formally offer public history at the graduate level. Several others, such as Concordia University, offer standard graduate history degrees with a specialization in public history.

While the University of Waterloo offered a co-op public history MA “very successfully” from 1983 to 2005, it is now on hiatus. “It’s not likely to be resuscitated in the near future, but we don’t discount it in the long term,” says Waterloo history professor John English. The university suspended the program so that it could focus on its new interdisciplinary MA in international public policy offered in partnership with the Centre for International Governance Innovation. “We have been overwhelmed with applications” for the new program, Dr. English says. “We didn’t want the two programs to compete and didn’t have the staff to do both well.”

Meanwhile, a few more universities are planning to join the likes of Carleton and UPEI that offer at least one undergraduate course. Del Muise, a history professor at Carleton, says he knows of about 15 undergraduate history programs across the country (out of 52) which offer public history courses at the undergrad level.

Dr. Craig says there is a view that “before somebody goes and specializes in public history, he needs to be a well-rounded historian to begin with. They need to get that type of training and experience at the undergraduate level and only then specialize in public history at the graduate level.” But he argues that undergraduate public history courses are valuable for introducing students to the career options available in the field, which allow those who pursue it at the graduate level to immediately begin concentrating on acquiring the knowledge and skills they need to become practising professionals.

Singular degree

Concordia launched the country’s first honours BA in public history last fall. Stephen High, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Public History at Concordia, says the program has four key themes: oral history, digital history, memory and commemoration, and public policy.

Wherever public history is offered, it increasingly involves the use of new technologies. William Turkel, interim director of public history at Western, says the digitization of documents, artifacts and images in museums, libraries and archives makes this inevitable. Also, the public expects that “the devices and services around them be interactive and well-designed.” Excellent examples of the innovative use of technology in public history are the online “Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History,” based at the University of Victoria, and Concordia’s “Project 55” audio tour of St. Lawrence Boulevard (named after the bus route along that street).

Dr. High says that new technology is part of the reason for the growth of public history at Concordia. Through a $340,000 grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and $75,000 in other funding, “we were able to build Canada’s first oral history centre, which includes a digital oral history lab, a digital storytelling lab, a video conference room, an oral history training centre, a sound studio, an archive, and special project areas.”

All these developments suggest a brighter future for the field. It’s “a groundswell,” says Carleton’s Dr. Litt, adding provocatively, “Public history should be the norm, with academic history really the deviation.”

Treena Hein
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