Exploring this Job

Reading about history is a great way to find out if this career is for you. You might want to pick up a copy of Careers for Students of History, which is published by the American Historical Association (AHA), the National Council on Public History (NCPH), and the Public History Program at the University of South Carolina. The book profiles history-related careers in education, museums and archives, publishing, historic preservation, government, and consulting. To learn more about this book, visit the AHA Web site, https://www.historians.org/jobs-and-professional-development/career-resources/careers-for-students-of-history.

You can also learn a great deal about a career as a historian by talking to your history teachers or arranging interviews with historians working in local museums or universities. You can experiment with research in the field of history by developing your own history projects, such as tracing the genealogy of your family, researching the history of your neighborhood, or analyzing the development of a favorite sports team. By seeking the advice of your history teacher while working on these projects, you will get a good feel for doing real research and drawing conclusions based on the historical information you have discovered.

The Job

Modern historians are trained to gather, interpret, and evaluate the records of the past in order to describe and analyze past events, institutions, ideas, and people. Skill in research and writing is essential to their work, but scientific methods are also invaluable.

Some historians are college teachers; others write books and articles, do research, and lecture. Historians work for museums, special libraries, and historical societies, and they are often called on as advisers in such fields as politics, economics, law, and education. They also research the accuracy of historical details in stage, motion picture, and TV presentations. Most specialize in the history of a specific country or region or a specific period or industry. A historian may choose to become an expert in ancient, medieval, or modern times. They may also choose to specialize in specific topics such as Native American tribes of the Northwest, British law, World War II, or the Civil Rights Movement.

Some historians research the accuracy of historical details in stage, motion picture, television, and radio presentations. They authenticate such things as customs, speech, costumes, architectural styles, modes of transportation, and other items peculiar to a particular period of history. The research department of a film or television production company may be headed by a research director.

Historians who are called archivists identify, preserve, and catalog historical documents of value to writing, researching, or teaching history. They are really history librarians who have learned the technique of selectivity; they recognize which historical materials are worth preserving, since it would be impossible to save all material. Such historians may work in museums, libraries, historical societies, and also for the U.S. government, where they may collect materials, write about the activities of various departments, and prepare pamphlets, lectures, exhibits, or presentations on the Internet.

Curators work for a museum, special library, or historical society. They identify and preserve historical documents and other articles of the past. Often curators help scholars with research in the institution's collection. Historical society directors are curators who coordinate the activities of a historical society. They direct the research staff, review publications and exhibits, speak before various groups and organizations, and perform the administrative duties involved in running a historical institution.

Genealogists specialize in family histories. They use public records, such as birth and death certificates, military records, census studies, and real estate deeds, to trace connections between individuals. They are like detectives in a sense, but they must have the patience to continue following up leads in one historical record after another. 

Biographers specialize in writing about the life of an individual, usually a famous one. Research from library sources and through personal interviews is an important first step. Biographers must have an in-depth knowledge not only of their subject's life but also of the particular era or field in which the person was important. They must write with careful attention to detail, but must also have a creative flair for making the subject interesting to the reader.