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History Communicators - What They Are & Why We Need Them

For next year's National Council on Public History conference, I've introduced the idea of "HISTORY COMMUNICATORS."

I believe History Communicators will be vital to the future of the history and public history professions, and to ensuring history remains relevant in the 21st century. Below are some initial thoughts, and I'll be posting more ideas soon.

Interested in the idea? Send me an email; I'd love to hear your take. My original conference proposal is on the NCPH website.

What are History Communicators?

Just as science has science communicators, history needs history communicators. The explosion of media formats in the 21st century necessitates that the history profession cultivate a designated class of communicators who can share historical scholarship with non-experts, generate support for historical research, and inform policymakers and the public across these emerging channels. The profession needs specialists who are up-to-date on the latest technologies and digital platforms, are engaging public speakers, speak concisely, can communicate in plain English without abstraction, have proficiency with blogs, infographics, and video production, etc., and have professional networks within political, journalistic, and film, television and other influential circles. This new class of communicators will ensure that academic scholarship remains relevant to American life and that historians have a seat at the table during important conversations where history is invoked.

Why shouldn't traditional historians take on this role?

From my vantage point of working with hundreds of scholars per year at the Library of Congress, I do not see the emerging generation of historians able to take on this role. Academic historians today are overwhelmed: the job market is extremely competitive, the pressure to produce articles and books immense, the teaching workload significant, and personal life strained by low wages and career uncertainty. To produce new, sharp scholarship requires tremendous time and research on top of these demanding academic expectations.

Historians, then, should not also be responsible for promoting and explaining the significance of their scholarship to the public. That complex and political task of bringing historical research out of the scholarly communication cycle and into the mainstream requires a unique set of skills that must be cultivated, practiced, and applied across the wide range of media now available. It is a time-consuming process to produce web content across multiple platforms such as blogs, YouTube videos, and social media, translate hundreds of pages of research into digestible soundbytes, and cultivate relationships within political and media circles in order to attain a seat at the table.

This is what the new class of History Communicators will do.

Scholars should focus on conducting deep research, writing, publishing, teaching and working toward tenure--all of which America needs, is essential to our knowledge-based democracy, and is what most scholars prefer to do (or at least, that has been my experience). History communicators should operate at the edge and intersection of new historical scholarship and the constantly-evolving world of communicating it to the public in order to keep history relevant in the 21st century. They will be some part digital humanists, some part content strategists, some part marketers, some part historians, some part bloggers/journalists, some part YouTubers, and some part lobbyists. Yet most importantly, they will emerge from public history departments within universities, and be deeply committed to the field of history, conversant in emerging scholarship and disciplines, and embedded within universities, museums, archives, national parks, libraries, historic sites, and Federal, state and local governments. For the thousands of emerging historians graduating from PH.D. programs or public history Masters programs and disheartened by the academic job market, History Communicator positions will be an opportunity that allows young entrants into the field to use their enthusiasm for history and their 21st century skills to make an important contribution to the field.

I've heard from many in the profession about the History Communicator idea, overwhelmingly positive. I'd love to hear your reaction. What is the future of history communication in the 21st century--and how may we create a class of History Communicators?


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