As I explained in my previous post, I believe we need working definitions of public history. Defining public history remains one of the most difficult questions we may have to answer though. Public historians constantly have to explain to colleagues, partners, students, what it is and how it may differ from “regular history”. I asked myself what public history is when I started my public history textbook’s project. The definitions and approaches of public history have an impact on how it is taught, learned, and practiced.

  • An Umbrella of Practices

Defining public history has been part of long discussions since the rise of the movement in the United States in the 1970s (see the next post on the history of the public history movement) but it is still subject to debates. The reasons why defining public history is difficult come from the fact that the terms “public history” is largely an umbrella for a variety of different practices. The practices under this umbrella have changed over time and locations. Doing public history may be quite different in China, Ireland, Brazil or the United States. Another obstacle to a shared global definition of public history derives from its translation. The term “public history” was coined in English and any translation implies adaptation. For example, the Master of Public History at the University of Paris-Est Creteil is the first example of a public history program in France. The term is translated into “Histoire Publique”, partly because the use of English may have been confusing and may be seen as an imposed American concept. The problem is that “histoire publique” can, in French, also be understood as the historical study of the public system. A different choice was made for the first Master in Italy. Instead of translating the term, the Master is using the English expression “Public History”. Master-in-Public-History-500x240One reason here is that the term “Storia Pubblica” does not make much sense in Italian. Besides, the use the English expression might help to avoid local controversies among the different historiographical currents. These examples do not mean we cannot provide a working definition.

  • Public History Defined by What it is Not

The recent conference of the International Federation for Public History in Bogotá (Colombia, July 2016) has been the occasion to recall the difference between public history as a movement that emerged in the United States in the 1970s and historians’ public practices that are much older. Doing history in public is an old process. We can find lots of examples of historians who participated in public activities long before the 1970s. awards-robert-kelleyWe could go back to the first historians in Classical Greece who practiced history in public. The term “public history” is way more recent and was developed in the 1970s by Robert Kelley at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and other scholars involved in public policy. According to Kelley “Public history refers to the employment of historians and historical method outside of academia.” (1978, 16) Public history was initially defined by what it was not; it was not history done in the classroom. The spatial dimension – where history is done and practiced – was key to identify the new ways of doing history. Apart from that, the definition was pretty vague.

However, we should bear in mind that one main objective was to gather and empower those history-makers working outside the academic system and who were denied the title of historians (curators, archivists, consultants….). The definition had to be wide enough to include the different profiles. The Wikipedia page on public history similarly starts “Public history is a broad range of activities undertaken by people with some training in the discipline of history who are generally working outside of specialized academic settings.” (Accessed August 22, 2016) This very general definition of public history has the merit of not creating too much controversy. The more precise the definition is, the more public historians may disagree about it (as shown by the debates that followed the 2007 NCPH draft definition of public history. This is perhaps why the National Council for Public History’s website only provides a basic definition that stresses “public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world.  In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues.”

  • A Working Definition of Public History

It is now time to define public history and propose a basis for discussion. I think that:

Public History is a historical process (1) informed by a 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.

1) Public history is history first. Public historians are not second-zone historians not good enough to get positions in academia. I would even argue that, due to the non-traditional skills public historians need to learn and the “risks” they may have to face while confronting to present-day issues, public history may be one of the most challenging processes of the humanities. Public history is based on traditional research methodology. For examples, as a recent graduate from my public history program stresses, public history programs can prepare students to highly demanding academic standards. But public history is not a product as much as it is a process. It is best defined by how it is done.

2) Public history is a process of communication for a large range of audiences. The fact that public historians may have to communicate with academic but also non-academic audiences is very specific to the process. Public historians wish to open the gates of the historical production mechanism. Although most historians would accept to share and discuss their work in public (on radio, TV, public lectures….), they need to know that it affects the manner historical knowledge is transmitted. No public historian would explain his/her research on TV as (s)he would in an academic journal. The consideration for audiences – whom are we talking to? – is key to public history. We can even go further and say that public history not only intends to communicate historical narratives but also historical methodology. This is best done through public participation.

3) Collaboration and public participation are at the core of public history practice. Public historians are, first of all, collaborators. Public historians may not only do history for large audiences, but also with them. This results in major redefinition of the role and duties for historians. Greatly explained – 26 years ago – by Michael Frisch through the concept of shared-authority, public participation has enriched public history’s practice. Historian’s changing role – also because of the digital boom – is shared by historians all around the world, and this aspect is often where historians newly introduced to public history feel more connection with. Besides, sharing authority and collaboration can help spread historical methodology to non-academic audiences. Through some crowdsourcing projects (digital public history), historians may be able to train non-academic audiences to critically assess texts and sources.

4) Public history may be applied history. Often used interchangeably, public history and applied history have a lot in common. In fact many history programs do not have public history courses but propose some on “Applied History” or the “Uses of the Past”. (see for instance Alan Gordon’s course on the use of history link). Actually, the current NCPH’s definition of public history focuses on the application of history, as highlighted by its bog History@work. Some public historians insist on the need to produce a history that can be used by different actors (community, State or Local governments through public policy, ethnic minorities, lawyers and attorneys, cultural institutions…). In most of those cases, public historians answer present-day issues and demands. The fact that public historians may not be the initiators of their research questions has puzzled some other historians. For instance, Peter Novick was critical towards this trend and explained that there is very little “public” dimension for historians hired as consultants for private companies and whose job is mainly to produce a usable historical narrative (Novick, 1988, 513).

  • Defining Public History: An Assignment in the Introduction to Public History course

I am well aware that any attempt to define public history can create more questions than answers. However – as for public history itself – the process matters as much as the product. This is why I ask my public history students to come up with their own definition of public history at the end of the semester. Defining public history forces us to consider the historian’s changing role and his/her relation with our societies.


-Thomas Cauvin, Putting the Public in Front of History”, Historically Thinking, Podcast, December 2, 2015

.“What is Public History?”, KRVS Radio program, August 25, 2016.

.Public History. A Textbook of Practice, New York: Routledge. 2016, Introduction

-Robert Kelley, “Public History: Its Origins, Nature, and Prospects” in The Public Historian, Vol. 1 (1978): 16-28.

-National Council on Public History, “How Do We Define the Field?“ NCPH website, Accessed August 22, 2016,