Public History in Historical Perspective: Celebrating a Decade of Success

The Public History in Historical Perspective Series, published by the University of Massachusetts Press, has enjoyed many successes and steady growth since its inception in 2009. The significant achievements of the series have not only made it a cornerstone of the UMass publishing program, but have also inspired and shaped new generations of public historians. “I can’t actually believe it’s only ten years old–the series has accomplished so much in that time,” says Seth Bruggeman, the editor of Born in the U.S.A: Birth, Commemoration, and American Public Memory, and an associate professor of History at Temple University. “It has, most significantly, established itself as THE series for serious print scholarship in public history.” 

Books in the series provide critical perspectives to scholars who seek to understand the role of history and memory in public life. There are currently 23 titles in the series, including the just  published title The Genealogical Sublime by Julia Creet. As Edward T. Linenthal, a member of the series editorial advisory board explains, the titles explore topics such as “the history of history-making in the U.S., layers of remembrance of place and event, the power of material culture, and titles of great interest to me, that focus on remembrance of violence. To mention only a few: Erin Krutko Devlin’s Remember Little Rock, Memoria Abierta’s Memories of Buenos Aires: Signs of State Terrorism in Argentina,  Michael Scott Van Wagenen’s Remembering the Forgotten War: the Enduring Legacies of the U.S.-Mexican War, and James E. Young’s The Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art, Loss, and the Spaces Between.

Not only have titles in the series won numerous prizes, including the National Council on Public History’s “best book” prize four times, but they have become standard texts in Public History courses across the country. Some of the award winners were Susan Reynolds Williams’s Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America, James E. Young‘s The Stages of Memory, Andrea A. Burns’s  From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, and Michael Scott Van Wagenen’s Remembering the Forgotten War. As Mary Dougherty, the director of University of Massachusetts Press says, “The titles in this series do great work in advancing the scholarly conversation, and they are helping to shape the public historians of tomorrow.”

The idea of launching the Public History in Historical Perspective Series emerged in 2009, after author and cultural historian Briann Greenfield approached the UMass Press to publish her book, Out of the Attic: Inventing Antiques in Twentieth-Century New England. At that time, Clark Dougan was the senior editor on the Amherst campus, and he raised the idea of creating the series with Marla Miller. “[T]he vision for the series came out of Marla and Clark’s work on my book as both saw the potential for something more,” recounts Greenfield, whose book became the first work in the series. “I’ve been especially lucky to be associated with the series.  The books that followed have furthered our understanding of public history—what it has been and what it can become.” 

The series has developed and grown in relationship to the field of Public History.  “The series is truly remarkable insomuch as it has almost singlehandedly redefined public history historiography during the last decade,” says Bruggeman, a member of the series editorial advisory board. “I cannot imagine a meaningful conversation about public history today that doesn’t somehow reference Denise Meringolo, Amy Tyson, Andrea Burns, Tammy Gordon, and Lara Kelland.”

As Matt Becker, the editor in chief at UMass Press, notes, the books in the series “collectively map out key historiographical and theoretical foundations for the field of public history: Denise D. Meringolo’s, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, for instance, delineates the profession of public history, tracing its roots back to the nineteenth century, while Andrea A. Burns’, From Storefront to Monument offers an overarching history of the black museum as a political movement that began in the 1960s and 1970s. It is thus the most significant book series in public history because of this role of, essentially, defining the field.”

Many authors choose to publish their work in the series because of the exemplary support and insight they receive from the editors. The acquisitions editors who work on the Series provide detailed comments on manuscripts during the review process, and as some authors point out, help to develop scholars’ arguments.

Of course, the editorial feedback supplied by Marla Miller, Series Editor and Director of the Public History Program at UMass, has been crucial for the series’ success and shaping the scholarly discourse within the field. “I’ve benefited time and time again from my encounters with the series,” says Seth Bruggeman. “As an author, I’ve benefited tremendously from Miller’s editorial insight and her willingness to connect me with colleagues who, in the case of Born in the U.S.A. (2012), became key contributors. As a member of the advisory board, I’ve been so impressed by how quickly and how seriously great manuscripts get reviewed. And, as a teacher, I’ve filled my syllabi with series titles.”

Briann Greenfield tells Past@Present that what made publishing with UMass Press unique was the experience of working with the editorial team who “pushed my interpretive focus, asking careful questions and pointing out strengths and weaknesses in the argument.” “My book was a much better book for their insight and support. Marla, especially,” adds Greenfield.

In the same vein, Denise Meringolo, who published her first book in 2012 with the University of Massachusetts Press, describes her experience during the manuscript revision process as “incredibly positive.” She recalls that “David Glassberg encouraged me to submit my proposal to the press, and I was incredibly gratified to receive enthusiastic support from both the then Executive Editor Clark Dougan and from the series editor, Marla Miller. I found the revision process to be daunting, and I honestly might not have succeeded without Marla’s patient support. Not only did she provide detailed written feedback on early drafts, she also met with me on at least two occasions to offer guidance and words of encouragement. Since the publication of my book, I have had experience with a variety of platforms and presses, and I now know how unusual this level of author support is.”

“We are extremely proud to publish the series, Public History in Historical Perspective,” says Mary Dougherty, the director of University of Massachusetts Press. According to Dougherty, over 15,700 copies of series titles have been sold, including library copies available to borrow in electronic or paper formats. A number of the books in the series are routinely assigned in courses.  And the press and the series are now poised to drive innovation in the realm of digital scholarship, an area of keen interest among public historians.  A significant collaboration with Greenhouse Studios (at the University of Connecticut, led by series board member Tom Scheinfeldt), funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will research and model new approaches to peer review processes and  workflows for digital humanities, work that will support authors whose vision for their scholarship includes a digital component.

“With exciting manuscripts in various stages of completion, readers can look forward to a series of continued excellence,” says Edward Linenthal. “Such case studies transport us into the intimate and at the same time very public ‘predicament of aftermath.’ More generally, they offer stark evidence that the past remains forever dynamic.”

-By Mohammad Ataie

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