I just read a post from Liz Covart on her experience going to her first NCPH (National Council on Public History) conference recently in Nashville. Having been trained in a public history graduate program and gone to a few NCPH conferences myself, I really appreciated her perspective. She writes about public history as a distinct discipline — Public history is about how we work, not just where.
She also uses the term “hybrid historian,” which I kinda love. My BA is in history and my public history graduate program was housed in a history department which meant I had the great privilege of access to both communities. Internships gave me access to museum exhibits, archive/collections, and visitor interpretation. Conferences provided wide exposure to multiple sub-disciplines. Fortunately, my professors and mentors also stressed this goal of flexibility and I also spent time studying oral history, cultural resource management, and historical archaeology. From the perspective of a few years, there are even more subjects I wish I had been introduced to in college. A Strengths Finder test I took recently listed ‘learner’ and ‘adaptability’ as two of my strengths, and my educational choices definitely supported that tendency. I think I’m going to own the term “hybrid historian” because I do feel hybridized. I feel conversant in multiple fields within history writ large without a firm allegiance to any.
The field of public history is, generally-speaking, one of short-term projects. In my current early professional life, I do five to twenty different things in a day and most major projects cycle off my desk after six months to a year. The research is varied – churches, agricultural resources, commercial/retail, residential construction, plains settlement… Day to day, I have to (try to) effectively communicate with colleagues, archivists, administrators, IT staff, property owners, city managers, developers, realtors…
Overall, I like jumping topics and learning something new. But every strength is also a weakness. Every so often, I wonder if habits created by my work (along with other factors) are affecting my ability to concentrate on a single project. In school, I used to enjoy the confidence of knowing one subject really well after a major research paper. I miss that and try to devote some of my spare time to research on a single subject but it has yet to reach the same level of immersion that I remember. And as much as I like theory of the public history field, the day to day turntable is incredibly distracting and my current work environment is antithetical to reflexive analysis.
Hybrid historian. Always connected, but also, always on the edge. We’re like bridges. We’re not always on the firmest ground… but the connective role we play is important to the larger network.