I Have to Ask You: A Historian in Local Government

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week Larry DiRe, Town of Cape Charles, VA, writes about how a history degree leads to a local government career. 


“What are you going to do with that?”  The words cut to the very essence of one’s being.  The question posed by well-meaning loved ones to every inquisitive-minded youngster upon declaring “mom, dad, I’ve decided to major in history.”  I was once that youngster, and this is my story.  My name is Larry, and I’m a recovering historian working in local government.

No doubt university history departments and college fair recruiters are keenly aware of this domestic scene played out annually in living rooms across our country.  A common pitch among academic history departments is promoting the wide array of career choices available to, and pursued by, their students and alumni.  It is true that a fair share of our number will pursue careers in teaching and law.  I’ve been an educator and my brother (a double major in poli sci and history) became a lawyer.  Much to his credit he spent the majority of his legal career in municipal and county government service.   

You can believe that the expectation of a diverse working life is instilled in us by our elders at that rite of passage known as new student (called “freshmen” in my day) orientation.  Barbeques and games, sure.  Forced comradery through get to know you activities, of course.  Formalized and institutionalized peering into life’s deep, dark, truthful mirror, you betcha’.  While those alpha extroverts receiving orientation over at the college of business administration were on the first steps of their life of glamor and wealth (insert gross over-generalization here), those of us similarly situated at the college of liberal arts were just setting out on an interesting life path.

The life of the undergraduate history major means thinking, and research, and reading, and writing, and speaking.  Remember the first time you had to lead a subject matter discussion with a skeptical expert in the room ready to critique your every word?  I do.  It was in a junior year seminar.  I remember the last similar experience – last week’s Town Council meeting.  Then, like now, the approach is simple: prepare the material; organize your thoughts in descending order of importance to the audience; have your written report ready for reference; upon finishing the prepared comments ask for questions.  It was common for students in my day to submit outlines of their semester papers weeks in advance of the paper’s deadline.  That simple process of outlining thoughts and information is, in my experience, one of the best transferable skills from history class to local government service.  Perhaps you have been surprised by the muddled nature of some colleague’s presentation to staff, the governing board, or the community.  I know I have.

The study of history broadens your knowledge of the human experience and prepares you with effective (and dare I say sneaky marketable) skills.  My college dean, historian of Ireland and the Irish-American experience John Brennan, told the truth when we assured us that our liberal arts education was both important for itself and valuable to the world around us.  Given the chance to do it all again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

When I think about how a history degree can help someone in their local government career I consider the historian as public administrator, and the historian’s practice applied to local government administration.  I hold graduate degrees in history and public administration.  My graduate history program was strong in the public history subfield.  If historic preservation and local historic district planning, museum and library management, clerk’s office, or community development are career goals, then I recommend the formal study of public history.  This is the path of historian as public administrator.  While individual course content matters and varies, public history as a discipline puts a premium on research, presentation, and public participation.  Public history can be fairly stated as the most democratic history subfield.  Public history is inherently locally-oriented.

We, whether in the field of history or in local government service, don’t immediately classify our skills into hard and soft categories.  “I’m good at researching the minutes books and amendments to the city charter, therefore regression models terrify me” is a binary assumption worth testing.  Historians at all stages of professional development are familiar with cliometrics, the application of economic theory and quantitative methods to the study of history.  And historians at all stages of professional development are familiar with oral history methods and the value of first-person narrative.  In my local government career, and probably in yours too, I’ve addressed matters of public interest involving both critical evaluation of a variety of quantitative data, and active listening to a variety of affected stakeholders to determine community buy-in.

In closing it helps to remind ourselves that every place, every project, every regulation, every organization, every culture (however vast or narrow), every relationship has a history.  That is, they all have context.  They all exhibit continuity or change over time.  They are the product of human experience, and reflection on those experiences.  This is the stuff of the historian’s practice.  And this is the day to day stuff of local government service.