Evolution of a Concept

In summer 2014, Jason Steinhauer introduced the idea of History Communicators as a session proposal for the National Council on Public History (NCPH) annual meeting and on his personal blog. Just as science had science communicators, Steinhauer suggested, history needed history communicators. “The explosion of media formats in the 21st century,” Steinhauer said, “necessitated that the history profession cultivate a class of communicators who were able to share historical scholarship with non-experts, generate support for historical research, and inform policymakers and the public across these different channels.”

Historians had long engaged with the public and communicated historical scholarship: through books, lectures, in the classroom and in the press. As media and technology had evolved, historians adapted, venturing into podcasting, blogging, websites, videos and social media. Yet there was no unifying field, discipline, instruction, best practices or training for historians to do this work. There was also no community around which historians venturing into this terrain could come together, connect and share ideas. And there was no sustained and united commitment within the field to support and fund this type of work. Additionally, the communications landscape was continuing to rapidly advance and historians were only selectively partnering with communications departments and media to train historians to communicate well across emerging platforms. Hence the need for a dedicated sub-discipline: history communication.

Steinhauer was soon joined by historians Rebecca Onion, of Slate.com, Julie Golia, of the Brooklyn Historical Society, and Nicole Hemmer, of U.S. News & World Report, in creating a session at NCPH 2015 to introduce the idea of history communicators to the profession. Simultaneously in November 2014, Steinhauer and Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, published an article in AHA’s Perspectives on the role of historians in public culture, calling on historians to become “history communicators,” or “history mediators,” of historical knowledge in civic life.

In January 2015, the idea and panel of History Communicators was formally announced on the NCPH blogHistory@Work. Building on the notion that the profession needed an active cohort of communicators who communicate new historical research to non-experts in a populist tone, and engage policymakers and public debates, the blog post also stated that public historians “must develop household names and engaging personalities who communicate about public history in popular culture and who have credibility in communities beyond our own.”

The panel at NCPH on April 16, 2015, featuring Steinhauer, Onion, Golia and Hemmer launched History Communication as a sub-discipline of public history. A year of conversation has ensued, replete with Twitter chats, articles in a variety of publications, and a presentation at AHA 2016 in Atlanta. Momentum began, as well, to create training for historians to do history communication work, as Jason Steinhauer pointed out in his post on History@Work, “History Communicators: The Next Step.”

A History Communication Summit at UMass Amherst in March brought together leaders from a variety of fields–including history, journalism, filmmaking, digital humanities and activism–to determine what the opportunities and challenges for history communication might be in the 21st century. From that summit, an initial sketch for history communication coursework was born.

In August 2016, a smaller group of historians, media scholars and science communicators convened in Washington to create an Introduction to History Communication syllabus. In September 2016, the History Communication website and YouTube channel were born.

The future of this idea is being collaboratively shaped by stakeholders inside and outside the profession. Join the conversation on Twitter: #histcomm.

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