Response to “Whose Public? Whose History?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, in trying to define public history, Grele, Meringolo, Howe, Karamanski, and Conard end up writing histories of public history. Grele focuses on the relationship between public history and history within the academy while Meringolo highlights the emergence of public history within government institutions. Howe focuses on the field’s origin in the job crisis in the 1970s and then traces the creation of professional associations and publications. This post focuses mostly on Grele’s and Meringolo’s work, as they are the most interesting texts.

Grele offers the most ambitious, idealistic vision of public history and its goals, and I really like it (apologies for the lengthy quotation – this is the best summary):

“In addition, what we know about public historical activities as they now exist points to a similar correctness in Carl Becker’s view that every man can become his own historian; that relatively ordinary people can seek and find knowledge of the world they have made or that was made for them, and that since history always has a social purpose-explicitly or implicitly-such knowledge shapes the way the present is viewed. Thus the task of the public historian, broadly defined, should be to help members of the public do their own history and to aid them in understanding their role in shaping and interpreting events” (Grele, 47-48).

He does temper this a bit:

“This is not to suggest that once a correct view of the past is reached, through the aid of benevolent, anti-corporatist public historians, history immediately becomes a weapon in the arsenal of those who struggle for social change […] But it does mean that local or community history projects can play an important role in moving people to a clearer sense of the possibilities of social change and social action and their roles in such change” (Grele, 48).

This last sentence is key for me, with its emphasis on learning and historical thinking as empowering for individuals and communities. Much of my library scholarship deals with how discursive practices within the library community, particularly around ideas such as “the future” and technology reify the world we currently live in and work to render systemic change unimaginable and impossible. It is very important to me to think about ways to work against these sort of discourses, which aren’t limited to libraryland.  

Meringolo expands on Grele’s definition, but does not lose the core of it. Public history is fundamentally multidisciplinary and collaborative, but that collaboration is not limited to working with historians or other academics: “In reflective practice, public historians engage in active collaboration, constantly reframing questions and improving interpretations in conversation with themselves and with their stakeholders — employers, audiences, and so on” (Meringolo, xxiii). The addition of “employers” here is interesting, especially given Meringolo’s emphasis on public history within governmental institutions (and given the sorts of historical narratives you’ll find in something like the Foreign Relations of the United States), but also accurate. The ideas of “shared authority” and “shared inquiry” are key to this vision of public history, and play into public history’s goals of empowering individuals and communities (Meringolo, xxiii).  

Grele notes that this means that there is always negotiation between the public historian and the public: “Sometimes this merely means helping to bring to the front the information, understanding, and consciousness that is already there. More often it means a much more painstaking process of confronting old interpretations, removing layer upon layer of ideology and obfuscation, and countering the effects of spectacularized media-made instant history” (Grele, 48). Meringolo, too, sees this tension as central to practicing public history: “By acknowledging these emotional attachments, public historians can open up dialogue and foster a mutually educational experience, allowing public historians not only to educate their audiences but also to learn something about the ways in which average people understand, use, and value the past” (xxv).

This tension and the reflective nature of public history means that it is also interested in how historical narratives are produced, communicated, received, and interpreted, which I don’t necessarily think is as central to history more broadly. There is also a much more prominent and explicit educational element to the practice of public history as described by these authors is less crucial to history (whether that is a good thing or not is debatable). Grele’s understanding of the pedagogical element of public history is more one-way than that of Meringolo, who is more interested in understanding the relationship between the public and the public historian as one of exchange, negotiation, and recursiveness. In the quotation above, Grele really portrays the public historian’s role as exposing truth. In my definition, Meringolo’s description comes closer to what should be the practice of public history: thinking through a variety of historical narratives and interpretations, considering the work that those narratives perform, and empowering through education.

My definition of public history would include Grele’s expansiveness and idealism around the ultimate goals of public history and would incorporate Meringolo’s emphasis on public collaboration and public engagement. Education is crucial and multidirectional; it is not the public historian revealing the correct historical interpretation but rather opening up spaces in which the public can question, analyze, and interpret. In contrast to some of the definitions that Meringolo cites that locate the difference of public history in the communication methods and audiences, I would suggest that the reflective nature of public history and its interest in how historical narratives are created are distinct from (some) traditional historical work.

The authors of these articles primarily focus on the origin of the field of public history (wherever they locate that origin) and don’t discuss/unpack “the public.” My definition of public history includes the caveat that publics vary widely by institution and have different needs. Part of doing public history is being aware of who your specific public is, and what its needs are. This is a key element of librarianship, and I think it applies here as well.

Finally, my definition of public history rejects the notion of a division between “academic” history and practical/applied/public history. It is more productive to think of historical work as having particular goals and stakes depending on its contexts in which it is produced and received. This division is reductive and can slide into anti-intellectualism (I see this all of the time in librarianship).


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