In two weeks, I will be in Bogotá (Colombia) for the 2016 annual conference of the International Federation for Public History. As participants come from different backgrounds and different parts of the world, I thought it may be worth discussing the definitions of Public History.

Defining Public History is certainly one of the most challenging questions public historians may have to answer. This is, also, the most frequent question we hear when we present our field.

After explaining that historians’ public practices are way older than the terms Public History (coined in the 1970s in the United States), I will enter the difficult game of defining Public History. I would appreciate your comments.


What is Public History?

Initially defined by what it was not (not the history taught in the classroom), Public History received more “positive” definitions. Based on my work for the Public History textbook, existing definitions, and some prep for the conference, here are some defining criteria.

If we ask public historians how they define PH (Public History), we find 4 main aspects. But, not every historians would accept the 4 criteria altogether.

-1 ) History first
.PH is a process of doing history
.a process more than a product
.PH is part of the overall historical process

-2 ) Communicate history to non-specialist audiences.a process of communication
.a move from mostly academic to broader audiences
.variety of audiences
.communicate the methodology (opinion different from knowledge) as well
.most of historians could accept that

-3 ) Process of production
.share the production of history with the public (shared-authority and collaboration).
.some historians may be more puzzled, not used to sharing authority
.it implies theoretical thinking on the role of historians

-4 ) Process of application of history
.history is useful
.historians produce a usable past
.they answer a demand
.history is important for present-day issues
.sometimes called Applied History
.this is the point that raises most of the debates (especially – but not only – between North America and Europe)
.not necessarily for broad audience (private companies: private archives; historians as experts working for attorneys)
.sometimes for profit, without any obvious educational purpose
.not every public historian accepts this


These different criteria make any definition particularly problematic.

I am well aware that defining PH could limit its scope and could raise more opposition than agreement, however, I still believe it is necessary when discussing with audiences and practitioners who may not be familiar with the terms).


-My ongoing definition would be:

.Public History is a historical process (1) informed by the historian’s consideration for the variety of audiences. The process communicates history and historical methodology to non-academic audiences (2), encourages public participation (3), and/or applies (4) history to present-day needs and demands.

What do YOU think?