CRM Journal

Book Review

Benjamin Shambaugh and the Intellectual Foundations of Public History

By Rebecca Conard. Iowa City: Iowa University Press, 2002; 266 pp., photographs, index; cloth $32.95.


Museum and cultural resource management professionals in public history can readily point to pioneers and mentors dating back at least 100 years. Yet most scholars in the steadily increasing number of graduate programs in university-based public history programs tend to argue that public history, as it is practiced today, has roots no deeper than 1976—the year that the University of California, Santa Barbara founded what is considered the first academic public history program. This intellectual disconnect persists, in part, because the term "public history" is assigned to a broad, multidisciplinary range of activities and interpretive products from exhibits to documentaries and from cultural geography to museum studies. It rarely has been defined with any precision.

In Benjamin Shambaugh and the Intellectual Foundations of Public History, Rebecca Conard allows her subject to define the term. Conard makes a strong case that Shambaugh was a pioneer in the field of public history. Shambaugh was hired as a professor of political science at the University of Iowa in 1896, a position that he held through the 1930s. In 1897, he became a member of the Board of Curators of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and in 1907 he was formally named to the position of superintendent and editor. His long career placed him precisely in the intellectual space between the university and the public. As summarized by Conard, Shambaugh defined what he called first "applied history" and later "commonwealth history" as the practice of "collecting, preserving, publishing and using history for the greater good of the state." In other words, Shambaugh viewed the "public" primarily in terms of its civic nature.

Conard's biography of Shambaugh is framed to some degree as a response to Peter Novick's definitive study of the professionalization of history. In That Noble Dream, Novick pays little attention to the careers of historians working outside of universities, except to imply that their work embodies qualities he views as "pre-professional" or amateur.(1) Conard attempts to remedy this reading by viewing Shambaugh's work as a product of the "New Historians."

A product of Progressive-era thinking, New History took shape among a small number of historians between 1897 and 1912. Conard summarizes the four main contributions that New Historians made to historical study. First, they were interested in everyday life and local trends. Second, they advocated a broad view of political life, focusing more on diplomacy and civic action than military history. Third, they recognized history's potential to help cultivate broad-minded citizens. Finally, they sought to expand the scope of historical inquiry to include the life of ordinary people. While Novick argues that the New Historians were significant because they influenced a later generation of scholars, Conard demonstrates that their philosophy shaped the intellectual foundations of public history. Viewed through this lens, Benjamin Shambaugh comes into focus as a pivotal figure.

Shambaugh brought public history to the university. He made sure that the State Historical Society was housed on the University of Iowa campus and linked his work as a professor to his agenda as the director of the society. He was involved with the American Historical Association's Archives Commission as well as the Conference of State and Local Historical Societies. Over the years, he led the State Historical Society to a new level of professionalism. He revamped the Society's publications and insisted on the best methods for preserving the Society's records and ensuring their accessibility to scholars.

Shambaugh's two major contributions to public history were the Applied History Research Laboratory and the Commonwealth Conference. Through the laboratory, Shambaugh developed long-term research projects on Iowa history. He provided a select group of professional historians with research facilities and funds for travel. Between 1909 and 1930, this group published the Applied History Series, a collection of detailed studies of Iowa's economic, labor, and social legislation history. These volumes embody Shambaugh's belief that well-researched historical studies could be practically applied toward efforts to solve social problems.

Shambaugh successfully argued that applied history was a legitimate function of State-supported universities because "it is utterly futile for us to talk about high minded citizenship and ideals in public service without seriously endeavoring to provide that special training which will make men really capable and efficient public servants." Reflecting the same ideals, Shambaugh's Commonwealth Conferences, held between 1923 and 1930, brought together a broad cross-section of Iowa citizens to discuss policy and governance.

During the course of her research, Conard made use of an unpublished 1940s biography written by Jacob Swisher, a Shambaugh protege. The unpublished text posed problems because it tended to gloss over difficult periods in Shambaugh's career, and placed enormous emphasis on Shambaugh's personal and professional relationship with his wife, Bertha Shambaugh. Wisely, Conard uses the text like a diary, placing entire sections of the Swisher biography in carefully marked sections outside of her own text. She uses these lengthy quotations to emphasize what a Shambaugh confidante would recognize as important without losing her own perspective and critical distance.

By allowing Shambaugh to speak through Swisher to, and against, the echo of Peter Novick's historical study, Conard demonstrates in a masterful and meaningful way that public history has deep intellectual roots and a long professional trajectory. Yet her final chapter argues precisely the opposite. Why? Peter Novick's argument is grounded in an assumption that university-based scholarship ultimately represents the highest level of professional achievement. Accepting this premise forces Conard to gauge public history's professionalism as a product of its location in the academy. From this perspective, public history's logical development is nearly impossible to perceive. Conard argues that Shambaugh's career, while significant in establishing the roots of public history, has no tangible connection to the profession's fits and starts between 1930 and today.

But anyone working in the field of cultural resource management can attest that Shambaugh's work demonstrates the persistence of the same conflicts and issues decade after decade. Shambaugh felt the need to explain the public utility of historical research and the value of his programs to the university. He faced harsh criticism from academics who found the term "applied history" too vague, and who viewed the Applied History Series as lacking intellectual autonomy and a truly fresh perspective.

Conard's biography is well written and interesting, and her strategies for engaging in dialog with a variety of texts produce a fresh method for defining and assessing public history. However, Conard joins countless other scholars in viewing public history as merely a younger sibling of university-based historical scholarship. Public historians are expected to engage in a kind of heteroglossia—speaking on multiple levels, within multiple contexts—to audiences whom they can imagine and compose but never actually be certain they know. Viewing public history professionals strictly in terms of their relationship to academic history programs narrows our perspective of the field and places public history practitioners in an inherently untenable position. It measures public scholarship in terms of professional markers that only make sense in the context of the academy.

Denise Meringolo
The George Washington University



1. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).