Ask a Public Historian: Eric Frey

Eric Frey is currently a Park Ranger at Horseshoe Bend National Park. He has formerly worked as a Park Guide at Mammoth Cave National Park, Biological Technician at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and most recently worked at the Southeastern Regional National Park Office focused on partnerships and promotion of the Centennial of the National Park Service. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and a Master’s in Biology from Boise State University.


Why did you choose to enter your field?

I somewhat chose my path and my path chose me. I’ve always had a fascination with the National Park Service, which might have stemmed from a trip to Gettysburg NMP at the age of seven or eight. I always enjoyed the outdoors and camping yet also found myself fascinated with American history, especially the Civil War. My interests were quite varied and I think that fits in well with the National Park Service and its many roles. We preserve this country’s history as well as its invaluable natural treasures and landscapes. We strive to keep these things unimpaired for future generations yet we invite the public to use them quite freely and for a variety of different ends. It’s these aspects of the job that satisfy the biologist as well as the historian.


What was your favorite project?

I became really interested in the historic signatures that could be found on the cave walls at Mammoth Cave NP. After a little research, I realized that a handful of civil war soldiers carved or smoked their names on the rocks. I soon found myself on my weekends inside the cave scouring the walls for more signatures or down at the archives going through the cave hotel records searching for more soldiers that had visited the cave during the war. My finished product was a database complete with all of the soldier signatures from the hotel registers and a database with photos of all the signatures that I documented in the cave. I still continue to occasionally look online for soldier letters that mention their trip to the Cave.


 If someone wants to be “you” what advice would you have?

Volunteer. Volunteering in the NPS is a great way to gain skills and experience for your resume as well as show your work ethic and what you have to add to a park. It also exposes you to working for a federal agency, allowing you to consider if it is a right fit for you and your career goals. It also helps if you are flexible; being able to work in settings or roles that are not your 100% dream position but making them into a positive for your development.


Any good resume tips specific for the field?

Be familiar with the differences between a “private” resume and a federal resume. They are completely different and if you submit a resume following “normal private” standards, you have little chance of being chosen for a federal job. There is certain required information that needs to be included in your resume so be familiar with these requirements. Look at your federal resume as your first interview.


Ask a Public Historian: Keri Hallford

Keri Hallford is an Archivist at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery, Alabama. She specializes in maps, architectural drawings, posters, and oversized collections.

What led you to your field?

I have always adored museums and libraries since I was a young child. When I figured out that there was a library-like setting that would allow me to work hands-on with historical items daily, I was completely sold!

What is your educational background?

I have an undergraduate BA in History with an Art History minor from Auburn University. My master degree is in Library and Information Science with an information architecture emphasis from Florida State University.

What led you to the job you have now?

I spent most of my graduate degree joining and becoming active in professional organizations within my intended field. Those would be the Society of American Archivists, the Society of Alabama Archivists, and the American Library Association. This was incredibly helpful because I met people who would eventually be key to helping advance my career in some way. The archival field is very much about who you know and strong, professional relationships. I did an internship for my graduate degree that was forty hours per week with the Auburn Special Collections and Archives department for an entire summer. After that, I volunteered at the Tuskegee University Archives until I could be hired on as a processing archivist.

How do you define and engage with the “public?”

In my position, the “public” is defined as any person that is or was a citizen of Alabama or interested in Alabama that wants to interact with me. I answer complicated reference questions from government departments as well as the average citizen. Occasionally, I will do behind the scenes tours or travel to lecture across the state. There have also been many occasions in which I can produce an exhibit for the public. I like to think that I also engage with the public by making items “findable” through our online databases and search tools. If I don’t process it in a way that you can find it, how will you ever even know it’s there? I must put myself in the shoes of every sort of researcher when I do my work.

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to enter the field of public history?

Get involved! A degree will open the door but without experience, you will never be able to meet minimal entry requirements. You need to volunteer, do internships, and get involved in local and national historical and professional organizations. Employers want the well-rounded employee with field experience.

Ask a Public Historian: Ryan Blocker

Ryan Blocker is currently Collections Curator of Historic Textiles at the Alabama Department of Archives & History, The Museum of Alabama.  She has been in the field for 20 years and this position since 2010.  Ryan has a degree in history from AUM and certification in Collections Management from The International Preservation Studies Center, which provides training for museum, archives, conservation and historic preservation professionals.

Why did you choose to enter your field?

The love of textiles brought me to the field of museum education. Here I can combine my love of costumes and an affinity with textile collections.  I love to educate the public about textiles and the world and how clothing is put together.  I work with not only textiles, but with shoes, jewelry, and paintings as they pertain to the textiles.  The textile collections are scattered throughout the museum exhibits.  I also collect historic photographs of the mid- 19th century to augment my knowledge and passion for textiles.

If someone wanted to be ‘you’, what advice do you have?

Get your foot in the door.  Volunteer in museums and work with curators.  Keep learning!  Every institution deals differently in conservation and preservation techniques.  I volunteered while I was a student in 1993 for museum education and ended up learning the valuable skill of how to catalog artifacts for the museum.

What would you have done differently in the preparation for your career?

I would have focused my education on textile history and done more research into colleges that offered degrees in textile history.

What advice would you give current public history students?

Ask questions from people in the field.  Research what is out there.  Work with collections, whenever you can.  Learn how to catalog collections.  However, the most important point is to get your foot in the door!

Ask A Public Historian: Wes Garmon

Wesley Garmon is the Education Coordinator for the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH). He received a BA in history and secondary education with a teaching certification license from Athens State University and a MA in history with a concentration in public history, particularly museum and archival administration, from the University of North Alabama. Wes came to ADAH in 2014 after four years of teaching high school world history and government as well as adult programs for a local community college.

Do you consider yourself a public historian?

I see myself more as an educator, but the informal way I go about teaching leans more to the public history side.

Who is the “public” in your situation? How do you engage them?

K-12 parents, teachers and students, primarily 4th grade students because Alabama history is part of the curriculum.

How does your style of teaching differ from a classroom setting?

During tours of the Museum of Alabama, we strive for thoughtful, open-ended questioning that I believe further benefits the students than simply dictating the information to them. We also partner with Alabama Digital Learning through the Alabama Department of Education to conduct virtual field trips that engage and educate hundreds of schoolchildren on various themes in Alabama history through the comfort of their own classroom. We also create digital education resources and lesson plans for teachers. All of these things combined have allowed us to reach students the state.

What made you want to switch from being in the classroom to your position at ADAH? How does it differ?

The aspect of having to cram so much history in a short amount of time is not the most effective way to teach history. I wanted to find a more effective way to engage the students, and I wanted to reach a broader audience in order to have a larger impact.

Public history was a concept I was unfamiliar when I began my teaching career. I like to use the term “practical history” because I am able to do more things that are less passive.

Besides 4th grade classes, does ADAH reach out to other grade and age levels?

Most of our docents are volunteers or college-level student workers who have undergone training in both interpretation and historical knowledge. We teach the docents to be flexible in order to tailor to all grade levels. The elementary students are typically blank slates in which we try to give them an overview. We encourage the older students to think critically and to to relate the past to the present.

A great example would be World War II and the Civil Rights Movement. The older students are capable of understanding how fighting overseas and coming home to Jim Crow didn’t line up. With 4th graders we try to introduce the idea, with 12th graders we try to engage them and encourage them to tell us why it wasn’t fair to come home to racial divide after fighting for your country.

What is the best part of your job?

The best part of my job, and the reason I went into education, is being able to have an impact on people, especially students. I was fortunate enough to have had great teachers growing up, especially my 9th world history teacher, that instilled in me the love and importance of learning about the past and its relationship to the present.

I also enjoy working with various committees, particularly the Alabama Bicentennial, where my miniscule amount of input pools with other educators, scholars, and community leaders to create meaningful programs that reach students of history from all ages and education backgrounds. Lastly, every day is different.

What do you wish you knew before you started your public history career?

I wish that I had known of a straighter path to becoming a public historian. I would have never heard of public history if not for my wife enrolling in the master’s program at the University of North Alabama. I took a public history 101 course soon after and decided to enroll in the program as well.

What advice would you give to those looking to get into the field?

Volunteering and internships are crucial. The contacts you make and the experiences that you build are every bit as valuable as the education. A solid grounding in history doesn’t hurt either.

Attending various conferences and talks are also important. By attending conferences, presenting papers and posters, and visiting ADAH as a student, I was able to meet the staff and network with other professionals. It was because of those connections that I was made aware of the position in 2014.

Ask A Public Historian: Dr. Brown

Dr. Tommy Brown, an archivist at Auburn University Special Collections and Archives sat down and answered a couple questions about public history and his career as an archivist.


What led to the career that you have now?

I am an archivist now, but for eleven years I taught public high school. I enjoyed the teaching part of it and quite frankly I enjoyed most of the students, but teaching public school was becoming more and more challenging. I’d always wanted to work on a Masters and PhD in history, and so after teaching for about a decade. I decided it was time to work on my PhD here at Auburn after I received a Masters while I was teaching. While teaching was the usual route for most PhDs, I chose the archives. I came over to the Auburn Archives and did an internship. I was actually going to use the archives track as a fallback if I could not get a teaching position. I did my archive practicum and I enjoyed it so much. Then I got an assistantship here and that just kind of sealed the deal for me. I thought, “This is really cool and I like this.

Who is the “public” in your public history?

The public in my public history is Auburn University students, both undergraduates and graduates, professors, administrators, and finally the general public.

What advice would you give someone who would like a job in your field?

Specifically in archives, the old way of doing it was to get a PhD in history and you go into archives. A lot of historians in 50s, 60s, and 70s, when they couldn’t get teaching jobs then they would work in archives, But if you want to do it now, you would need a Masters of Library Science. There are very few jobs in archives that don’t require a Masters of Library Sciences, which I have mixed feelings about. I think a good historian makes a good archivist. Good librarians may or may not make good archivists. I mean, its not rocket science don’t get me wrong, but I’m biased.

What’s the relationship between any formal training you received and the job you have now?

My archives training at Auburn prepared me specifically for this job. Now again, I don’t have a Masters of Library Science degree but the people who are getting those degrees now have to concentrate. If you concentrate on archives, that in theory prepares you to be an archivist.

In many ways, it has the feel of a profession but also that of a trade, meaning that you can take all the classes you want but when you start doing it your say now that was not quite the way I was trained. I feel like the people who I took courses from here at auburn were archivist, or had formerly been archivist; I got really good training that was valuable for what I’m doing here.

Feeling Close to the Past

I interviewed my friend Mona, a twenty-year-old, second-generation immigrant who was born in Buffalo New York and is currently a Junior at Auburn University. While administering the questions, I kept to the exact wording of the survey asking 80% of the questions in section I. As the interviewer saw no reason to veer from the line of questioning because the follow-up questions that were asked were diverse and thorough. However, starting in section II (Trustworthiness of Sources of Information About the Past) the questions were formatted in a close-ended scale format, based on the responses that were given by the subject, I made the decision to ask follow up questions because, as I found to be true, it prompted the subject into deeper thought about their answers and the justification behind it. On section IV (The Importance of Various Pasts) minority samples were asked additional questions about the importance of various pasts. Even though my subject would not be considered a part of the minority sample in the original study, she would be considered a minority if the study was to be done in Auburn, the subject being an Iraqi Muslim. Regardless of people’s ethnic or racial identity, there is considerable data that is being missed because this line of questioning is only being asked if the subject is a minority. There are people that don’t feel like they have a common history with other Americans and might more identity with another countries history. It would be interesting to see what, if at all, people that don’t Identify with the United States history would say. What county’s history do or don’t they identify with and why?

Intimate Interview

I administered The Presence of the Past survey questions to my husband of 40 years.  His recent retirement as Materials Manager at a large national factory has forced him to look back at his working life history.  As Valerie Yow argues, in an oral history interview, the researcher and the subject will share equally in the process of discovery, and I found this to be the case.  This survey hit a verve with my husband. He felt the answers to the questions revealed part of himself he had never shown to me.  The follow up questions in the survey worked the best. In these questions , he found experiences he had fit into the history motif and he wanted to embellish on them.  Scaled questions did not work well, he lost interest in the shortness of the question. There was nowhere on the format to ask for more information when the subject wanted to tell a story on a topic that excited him.  On the randomly selected sample question of Part IV, he gave some deep and soul searched answers that I would have liked to have more prompts in order to get him to give more spontaneous and unexpected answers.


I subjected my extremely supportive boyfriend to the questionnaire, and he took it in stride, answering my questions as honestly as possible. The questions themselves didn’t seem to have much depth to me, and sounded more like a psychological study than a tool to collect historical data, and I was surprised by the questions that had additional parts to African American and Mexican American individuals only. The questions were also not very emotionally stimulating, but required you to think about specific examples from certain times in your life when you felt this or that over a certain subject. The survey also covered random bits of information, which I assume was to gauge the general sense of the public’s interest in history of late. War seems to be a popular subject, going off of what popular culture is producing lately, and was reflected in my subject’s own interest in history. However, certain parts of the survey did not suit this purpose. For instance, why include financial information in this survey? Or marital status? Sex and ethnicity I can understand, but these things did not seem relevant to the collection of historical data to me.

How Present is the Past? An Interview with my Roommate

During the process of interviewing my friend and roommate using the survey questions from Roy Rosenweig and David Thelen’s Presence of the Past, it became apparent that certain aspects of the interview were successful. My chosen co-narrator is someone that I have lived with for a year-and-a-half, and have known since we were both freshmen at Auburn University. This level of familiarity with my interview subject allowed for conversation to flow naturally between us, guided by the questions from the survey. However, our familiarity made it difficult for the process to remain professional, and we occasionally found ourselves straying from the assigned questions.

Facets of the interview process that I found to be less than successful were the questions that asked the subject to rank either how connected they felt to the past or how credible they thought certain sources were on a scale of one to ten. When answering the questions, my co-narrator would often respond with similar or the same numerical ranking for different subjects. However, when asked if she could explain further, her answers revealed that she felt markedly different toward subjects that she had ascribed the same or similar numerical rankings. Perhaps the questions could have been asked to the same effect without the numerical rankings.

This interview is the first time I have formally interviewed anyone. I think that my chosen subject was perfect to practice survey questions with, because our familiarity with one another allowed for our conversation to go beyond the assigned questions. This familiarity was distracting at times, but overall was an advantage to this interview process. I look forward to the opportunity to conduct interviews in the future, and will utilize what I learned during this process.

Restructuring the Survey

Although some of the survey questions were awkwardly worded, I did really enjoy how thoroughly the survey went through all possible definitions of the past, like familial, ethnic/racial, etc. Some of the questions took on a different turn with the advent of the cell phone like the questions about “have you looked at photos/taken them?”. With the cell phone, those have become instant and mobile so I feel like they happen all the time compared to looking a physical printed photographs and the survey could incorporate this distinction in some way. Because of how often we are online, I would have added is question about mobile sites for news and their credibility; like, what do you think about the credibility of Facebook or reddit as a source for information about the past? Another area the survey didn’t cover is how often these people interact with various media sources about the past. For instance, Ian, my survey-ee is a chemical engineer and doesn’t have to take a collegiate history class which may have led to him feeling that high school teachers are more trustworthy than collegiate.