Public History

What is Public History?

Public History is the use of historians, and the application of the historical method, outside of academia in both the public and private sphere. Central to the difference between Academic and Public History is the idea of audience. Academic historians are motivated by their own particular interests and their sense of where the profession’s knowledge is incomplete or needs improvement. They write for other historians, students of history and support humanity’s general need to understand its past. Public Historians pursue a wide variety of career options but, in all cases, answer specific questions posed by an audience that exists outside of the historical profession, often in the capacity of a consultant, professional, or staff member. Because they work for others, Public Historians enjoy a unique relationship with their customers who are, at the same time, clients, visitors, and partners, and must always present their work in a way that their target audience can easily use and understand.

Source: Robert Kelly. “Public History: Its Origins, Nature, and Prospects”. The Public Historian. Vol. 1, No.1 (Fall 1978).
Heather A. Huyck. “Twenty-Five Years of Public History: Perspectives from a Primary Document”. The Public Historian. Vol. 21, No. 3 (Summer 1999).


Public history is a growing career field for history graduates who do not wish to go into teaching. It requires training however. The history department offers several courses that introduce students to its theories and methods.

Students who enroll in “Introduction to Public History” will be able to do semester-long field work at either the Southwest Virginia Museum, the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail or do archival work in our own Special Collections.

For more information, contact Dr. Tom Costa.



Virginia-Appalachia History Links