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Origin and Development of Public History

Origin and Development of Public History

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Published by Angela J. Smith

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Angela J. Smith on Apr 17, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Origin and Development of Public HistoryA Critical Essay
Angela SmithOctober 3, 2007Introduction to Public HistoryRebecca Conard
Origin and Development of Public History: A Critical Essay
History has not always been the province of professional practitioners as it is today.In the late nineteenth century, a slow but steady shift to create a historical professionfavored professionally trained historians over amateur writers and collectors of history.Before this period, no collective standards defined the training of academicians or those practicing history outside the academy. The establishment of the American HistoricalAssociation (AHA) in 1884, however, was the impetus for a governing structure and afocus on methods for research and “New History.” This professionalization has raisedthe standards for the practice of history and increased the authority of those in the field, both inside and outside the academic arena, but it has not come easily. The change has been – and remains – controversial because of what is at stake in historical interpretationand who has the power to control it.It can be said that the debate over authority preceded the profession, though the practice of history certainly did not stop because of the conflict.
As early as the 1850s,the work of men such as Hubert Howe Bancroft and Lyman Draper foreshadowed the practice of what we now describe as public history. Bancroft, for instance, opened a SanFrancisco bookstore in 1856. The unmistakable success of this venture gave him theopportunity to invest time and money into historical collecting, his passion. In 1859, he began collecting Californiana, an effort that resulted in a rich library of sixty thousandvolumes. Even before the collection was given to the University of California in 1905,
Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, eds.,
 History Wars: Enola Gay and other  Battles for the American Past 
(New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 1-7.
Bancroft was determined to share his collected works with the public; with the assistanceof hired writers, he published nearly forty volumes in the 1880s and sold them bysubscription. This venture, too, was successful, though Bancroft’s critics complained thathis pieces on famous men were self-serving fluff pieces written by the subjectsthemselves. Bancroft’s application of an entrepreneurial mind to collecting andinterpreting historical artifacts was a pioneer effort of what we now call public history.
While Bancroft concentrated his efforts in the American West, Lyman Draper wasengaged in a public service effort in the Midwest. He was instrumental in establishing astate charter for the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1854. Draper had minimal statesupport, but by his 1887 retirement, Draper had built the Wisconsin society into anational model for historical organizations with “110,000 volumes, a magnificentcollection of manuscripts and newspapers, a museum, and portrait gallery,” according toLarry Gara.
 Bancroft and Draper, like others who were soon to follow, worked ouside theacademy, and by the 1880s extensive changes were occurring throughout the field. TheAHA was organized in 1884, and chartered by an act of Congress in 1889. The foundingof the organization coincided with some American universities, such as Johns Hopkins,offering for the first time doctoral degrees in history. Higher education shifted its coremodel and began to implement the German seminar structure in graduate classes. Socialsciences promoted the idea that research should be based on empirical evidence followingthe scientific method and should use interdisciplinary studies as tools in research
John Walton Caughey, “Hubert Howe Bancroft: Historian of Western America,”
 American Historical Review
50 (1945), 461-470.
Larry Gara, “Lyman Copeland Draper,” in Keepers of the Past (Chapel Hill, NC:University of North Carolina Press, 1965), 40.

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