Thomas Cauvin, Public History: A Textbook of Practice (Routledge, 2016)

by howkins

Introduction: Historians’ Public Roles and Practices

Part 1: Collecting, Managing, and Preserving the Past

  1. Collection Management: Archives, Manuscripts, and Museums
  2. Historic Preservation
  3. Collecting and Preserving People’s Stories: Oral History, Family History, and Everyday Life.

Part II: Making Public History: Media and Practice

  1. Public History Writing
  2. Editing Historical Texts
  3. Interpreting and Exhibiting the Past
  4. Radio and Audio-Visual Production
  5. Digital Public History
  6. Immersive Environments or Making the Past Alive

Part III: Collaboration and Uses of the Past

  1. Teaching Public History: Creating and Sustaining University Programs
  2. Shared Authority: Purposes, Challenges, and Limits
  3. Civic Engagement and Social Justice: Historians as Activists
  4. Historians as Consultants and Advisors: Clients, Courtroom, and Public Policy.

 

This is an excellent book and one that I plan to use in my future teaching.  More than just being a “how to” guide for public history, this book offers fascinating discussion of the practice of history more generally and the role of historians in public life, broadly defined.  It begins with a discussion of the development of the history profession, and looks at how “public history” has developed as something of a separate field.  There are a number of “origin stories” to public history, ranging from Benjamin Schambaugh’s early twentieth century idea of an “applied history,” to Raphael Samuels’ History Workshop movement at Ruskin College Oxford, to oral histories conducted by the WPA and Allan Nevins at Columbia, to the work of the historians in the National Park Service and other federal agencies.  The field in its current form emerged at the University of California Santa Barbara during the academic hiring crisis of the 1970s under the direction of Robert Kelley.  This idea of public history as an “alternative” or “plan B” perhaps helps to explain some of the stigma still attached to the field.  It also helps to explain why public history as currently practiced is rooted in US academia.  Cauvin’s approach is as thoroughly international as possible, but his discussion remains focused on the United States.

The introduction contains a short discussion of the question of what public history means by “public,” but generally the book doesn’t get bogged down in theory and uses a definition of public history based on what public historians do.  The idea of practice is central to the book, and this is very much a practical guide.  Some of the chapters will be of more interest to individual readers than others.  For example, the text editing chapter was less interest to me than the digital history chapter.  But there is fascinating and useful information throughout.  The chapter on “shared authority” is central to all that public historians do, and it would perhaps have made a better concluding chapter than the discussion of consultants and advisors, which seems to bring the book to a somewhat abrupt end.  This is a book that very nicely captures the state of the field of public history (at least from the perspective of an outsider) and it will reward frequent re-reading.