Aaron Marrs

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Interviewee: Aaron Marrs
Interviewer: Charlotte Adams
Date: October 27, 2016
Accession #: PHP 019
Length of Recording:
Sound Recording
Summary

Aaron Marrs, originally from Iowa, received his B.A. in History from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. After graduating in 1999, he went to graduate school to pursue an M.A. in Public History at the University of South Carolina. While at UofSC, he was a part of the dual degree program, studying archives in the Public History Program while also working towards a Masters in Library and Information Science. He worked as an archival intern at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison and completed his graduate assistantship at South Caroliniana Library the following year working with political collections. While in the master’s program, he decided to pursue a PhD in History at UofSC. After completing his PhD in 2006, he joined the United States Department of State’s Office of the Historian where he specializes in the history of sub-Saharan Africa. Interview includes discussion of his assistantships, internships, and the breadth of experiences he had at the University. He also reflected on how he felt a public history background helped him in his current position with the Department of State.

 

Keywords

Civil War History | Lawrence University | Library and Information Science | National Archives | South Caroliniana Library | Sub-Saharan Africa | U.S. Department of State | Wisconsin Veterans Museum

 

Transcript

Aaron Marrs: Should we- is this, am I ok with lighting and everything? Or do you need me to change anything on this side?

Charlotte Adams: Oh, you’re fine.

AM: Ok super.

CA: Ok so this is Charlotte Adams interviewing Dr. Aaron Marrs for the USC Public History Program Archive. It is October 27, 2016. So starting off, tell me about what led you to the University of South Carolina.

AM: Ok great. I was a history major as an undergraduate at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, and I had a really terrific advisor there. A guy named Michael Hittle, and he told me that I needed to obviously figure out what I was going to do when I graduated (laughter) and that I should not go to graduate school because of inertia, right? Some sort of sense that “Well it’s September so I should be buying books.” And starting new classes and all this sort of thing. So, he said that, “You know graduate school is fine but you need to take an intensive look at what programs you want and which you might be interested in as a career.” At that point, I mean I loved history, loved studying it, reading writing, the whole bit. I took a look at public history programs, specifically with regards to archives.

University of South Carolina and the University of Maryland both had very similar programs in terms of a dual degree with library science and history, and that appealed to me I think much more than just a straight up library science program. Which was- Which I did apply to but I would say the dual degree program was always in my top tier of interest. And then I think it was in January of 1999, I got a call in my dorm room from Connie Schulz [former director of the Public History Program], who offered me a comprehensive aid package, and so I- that seemed to seal the deal. USC was always one of my top choices, I’d grown up in the Midwest, I wanted to see a different part of the country, USC had an outstanding reputation and they were going to give me money! So, I that was a no- I’d no problem moving forward after that.

CA: Why did you think that archives would be a good fit for you? Archival work.

AM: At the time, I…that’s a really interesting question. I have to sort of go back and reconstruct what I was thinking. I think I liked the idea of working with documents, I liked the idea of the sort of reference type of work that archivists do, which is actually, I mean I’m not employed in an archives now, obviously, but I still do that type of…getting questions in, and figuring out the answers, and then responding. I think that was attractive. And it just seemed like a great way to be in touch with historical materials without taking the full dive at that time into a PhD program and- you know with the outcome being a professorship. It seemed like a good way to sort of get in, decided this is what I wanted to do, and it was more attractive to me I think than the idea of being in a museum or working in a historic house or preservation or any of those other things. So, there you go.

CA: And why- you mentioned you didn’t want to do just the library and information science, why did you want to go for public history rather than just that?

AM: Well, I really liked history (laughter). I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing history, I mean that’s a long-standing interest part. I was- I declared as a history major right away in college, I loved my history classes, and the library science programs tended to be- I want to say a bit more technical. Things like the chemistry of paper and that kind of stuff that actually, obviously really useful for archivists but not something where USC probably had a real strength, quite so much, at least at the time I was there. I mean I did take a class on preservation but it was a really broad overview, not highly technical. And so the- I think the attractiveness of USC’s program was the history degree and that it would sort of let me keep a foot in that part of the profession. Does that make sense?

CA: Yes!

AM: Ok, great.

CA: You started off just going for the dual masters and then- what changed that led you to a PhD?

AM: Well. A couple of factors. I guess probably the most significant was, I was having a really good time (laughter). I really enjoyed the process of writing my Master’s thesis, which was on deserters from the South Carolina infantry during the Civil War. And doing the research and the writing for that was obviously – at a thesis level was far beyond anything that I’d ever done as an undergraduate. And it was- it was great! I mean I went out to the South Carolina Department of Archives and History and I was there all the time looking at microfilm and tracking these soldiers, and I felt that I was really getting new information as the result of this research, which is always the goal.

I decided that I really wanted to try my hand at a, you know, larger more significant piece of research and I didn’t- I don’t think I had much of an end goal in mind which probably wasn’t very good move (laughter). But when I started the PhD program, I was like “Oh, well this’ll be fun.” And USC’s a great school; it’s got great archival resources at Caroliniana [South Caroliniana Library] and good library at Thomas Cooper, and had a great terrific cohort of fellow scholars working on the nineteenth century at the time. I don’t know how many of these people you’re going to talk to- Kathy Hilliard, Rebecca Schrum, Kevin Dawson, just a lot of great people studying early America, so it was a really nice time to be there, and my advisor Mark Smith was terrific to work with. I had – he advised my- was the first reader on my Master’s Thesis although Connie was obviously my advisor from the archival standpoint in terms of coursework and all that. And I really liked working with Mark. He was terrific, he was intellectually invigorating, and so I just wanted to keep that going. I thought I would figure out the end closer to the end (laughter). Which is probably not very good advice (laughter) for anyone else considering this, but it’s what I did.

CA: So, rewinding a little bit-

AM: Sure.

CA: Tell me about your actual experience getting your master’s degree. Were there any courses, any professors that were especially impactful in the process?

AM: Yeah. There were several. I mean USC was- just a terrific faculty. Let’s see if I can remember this- going back this long. The courses- some of the courses stand out with me. The first one maybe a little bit unusual, but the historical research methods that Public History students did their first semester- I never understood why everybody didn’t do that their first semester, because it was a brilliant class. And then when I took it, it was taught by Connie Schulz and Kasey Grier. And they really sort of took you around to all the different types of primary source documentation that historians use and you got a really good sense of what historical research was like in South Carolina. That was just a tremendously useful course.

I remember taking a class on documentary editing with David Chestnutt, the former editor of the Papers of Henry Laurens, just a giant in the field of documentary editing, and ironically I ended up working on a documentary editing project here at the Department of State, so the course- I was one of the few people- there aren’t a lot of courses on documentary editing. That’s a rare – a rare bird. And so I was fortunate to have that and one of the things about Dr. Chestnutt is that he was very forward thinking in terms of the use of computer technology in documentary editing. And so- one moment please. (Interruption). Let’s pause for a second. Sorry about that, my room reservation must not have been that convincing.

So, I actually got a great introduction to the computers in the humanities in that course back in 2000 which was I think pretty forward thinking. And then just on sort of the- obviously there was Connie’s class on archives itself, which was a tremendous thing and I’m trying to remember. Some of the courses run together because of course I then had to do coursework at the PhD level, but at the Master’s level, I took 702 with Paul Johnson; actually 702 would be sort of like the nineteenth century reading seminar, I don’t know, maybe it has a different number now. But I mean, talk about great faculty. Being able to meet someone like him and learn about the nineteenth century from him was terrific.

On the library science side, there is the core class on reference and I don’t remember the name of that professor who taught it unfortunately, but that was just incredibly useful to me as a researcher, just learning about- I’d say that class and the cataloging class were the two classes that helped me the most. I reference this in terms of learning about the universe of resources and how to find things. And cataloging- learning how libraries think about information makes it a lot easier to find information (laughter) when you’re looking for it, and so that was- both of those were tremendously useful. And I took both of those in the summer, so they were compressed down to one- and it was brutal. That was a brutal summer, but I survived (laughter).

CA: So you mentioned Mark Smith. Do you have any other professors that served sort of as advisors, mentors, just especially- had a big impact?

AM: Yeah, no, absolutely. Walter Edgar- I never took a class from him, but in his capacity as the director of Southern Studies, I worked for three years on the South Carolina Encyclopedia, which was published in 2006, and I think I saw is now available online through the Humanities Council.

CA: I think it was just published today? Somebody posted something about it.

AM: Yeah, I saw it on Twitter- last night I think? And that’s a- what a great thing- what a great thing for that to be more widely available. But Walter was incredibly kind and interested in my development as a student, and very supportive throughout my time at USC. So, he was tremendous. Mark, you know meeting Mark was one of the probably one of the probably one of the most important things that every happened in terms of my intellectual development. I mean he’s absolutely- have you had a class with him or?

CA: Well he came to our sort of introductory class yesterday and talked to us about publishing, so I met him.

AM: Oh ok, well he’s the one to listen to on publishing. So, I- just absolutely invigorating, and one of those people who has incredibly high standards but at the same time it just sort of makes you want to work harder. It’s that you don’t get bitter about the high standards, it just makes you want to do more. And so, I’m always really grateful for his guidance. You know Connie is just a wonderful person, a dear friend, a titan in the field of early American studies and archiving and every other field that she touched, so being able to meet her and work with her was simply tremendous. I don’t want to take up the whole time talking about this, but it’s like when you’re giving an acceptance speech, you’re worried you’re not going to mention someone.

So I don’t want to make this an exclusive list, but in the interest of time the last person I’ll mention is Larry Glickman who has since I think moved on to Columbia University, but he was a reader on my dissertation, taught a course on the history of consumerism which was incredibly powerful to take and to really feel- you know with that class and Mark’s class on the history of time, those are two classes where- and even probably Kasey’s class on material culture, those were classes where not most universities in the country are offering those types of courses. And to be able to do that all in one institution at USC was really phenomenal. Larry was a great guy, great mentor, he was director of graduate studies for a stint while I was there. And I think always- I mean it’s a difficult position to be in, but he definitely- I always felt like he tried to treat us fairly even if some things in terms of financing, resources were ultimately beyond his control. So anyway, great coterie of professors at USC and that’s not an exclusionary list but those are the people that sort of come to mind now.

CA: Yeah, definitely. So did you have an internship requirement when you were in the program?

AM: I did. I did my internship at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison. I attended- I think it was Double ASLH (AASLH) one year and- American Association of State and Local History, and met the director of that museum at the conference, and he mentioned that they had an internship for their archives which was a paid internship of all things, and so I had a friend who lived in- well I still have a friend who lives in Madison. And so I slept on his floor for a summer and worked at the Veteran’s Museum and it was tremendous. It was a very interesting experience. Wisconsin has veterans going all the way back to the Civil War, so they- it was a- they had a wide range of fascinating historical material that they worked with.

I got to work on some Civil War manuscripts for them, some posters, they had this whole series of- I forget what they’re called, but they are photographs that are kind of panoramic photographs, but like from the nineteenth century. So, they were all rolled up really tightly and you had to like work to sort of like get them to a stage where they could be flattened out again very slowly over time just to not damage them. I answered some reference requests for them; they occasionally had researchers come in.

So, it was a museum, but they had an archive, serviced researchers, and so that’s the part that I worked in and it was great. It was a great- the museum probably about- the museum in total probably had about eight or ten employees altogether so a nice small group of people. It’s right on the capitol square, Madison’s a fantastic place to be, so the internship aspect of the program worked out very well for me (laughter).

CA: Great. Did you do a graduate assistantship as well?

AM: Yeah- I’m sorry you broke up a little bit there.

CA: Oh sorry. Did you do a graduate assistantship as well?

AM: Oh yes. That was…obtaining a graduate assistantship was I think at the time one of the main ways to get in-state tuition rates for graduate students. And of course coming from- I attended college in Wisconsin but I was a resident of Iowa. And so of course initially coming in I wasn’t a resident. But I think by having an assistantship, that’s what got my tuition down to a more manageable level. I had an assistantship every- either an assistantship or I taught my own course every semester while I was in school.

So I TA-ed- in fact my first assistantship was a TA-ship. So I’d just graduated from college, and so three months later, I’m only a year older than some of the students in the class. I TA-ed for 101, ancient history survey, which I had not studied in years (laughter). But I quickly realized that as long as you did the reading, you were ok, so I was able to keep up. I had good mentors from the other teaching assistants.

I had an assistantship for one year in the Modern Political Collections portion of Caroliniana and then I had an assistantship for either two or three years with the South Carolina Encyclopedia doing fact checking. So back when all those articles were being written, there was a group of us who were fact checking every article. Under Tom Downey who was the managing editor and that was a blast. I mean that was a great- that was a great assistantship. And then when I went to the PhD program, I returned to being a TA and then ended up teaching my own class for at least one semester there at the end. Yeah, so assistantships all the way through.

CA: Great.  So having- do you think having the opportunity to do sort of hands-on experience with your internship and with the assistantship you had in the Political Collections- do you think that was really important for preparing you as an archivist even though you sort of strayed?

AM: Yeah, I did stray, didn’t I? I think so. I think the- both of those experiences gave me a good sense of what the profession would hold. Both in terms of the good things and the bad, and so I don’t want you to think – well not you- I don’t want someone reading this to take away from this that like “Oh he worked in these two places and didn’t do the job, it must have been terrible.” That wasn’t the case. They were both good places to work. When I was at Modern Political Collections they had recently acquired the papers of Robert McNair who was governor of South Carolina I think in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and working with those was tremendous. I also got to work on a series of several hundred political cartoons done by a guy who’d been a cartoonist for The State newspaper.

I don’t want someone to come away from this thinking that I must’ve had some sort of horrible experience at these places and didn’t decide to so it. I think it was more of a pull factor than a push factor in terms of being pulled toward, continued research and writing because it was clear, I mean, it is the case of my current job is that there aren’t necessarily a lot of opportunities for that level of research and writing in that profession. Some people can pull it off and do a great job but it takes concerted effort, it isn’t necessarily easy to do. And I wanted to make sure I could maintain those opportunities, at least for a little bit, and so I think that was probably one of the lessons I took away from these experiences.

This- if I could say one other thing about this, and this may prejudge another question but I do want to get it out there is that. While I was at USC I worked in a museum, I worked in an archive, I taught, I was a research assistant- and so and then I worked on the encyclopedia. I feel very strongly that more so than other programs that I could’ve attended that USC gave me a very good breadth of understanding of what the possibilities are in the historical profession. And so I think it is to USC’s credit that when I was looking for employment, I didn’t just look- I mean I certainly applied to colleges and universities, but because of my experiences at USC I was well aware that that wasn’t the only possible outcome or even necessarily the best outcome.

I think meeting other people in my own age group at conferences or here at work or whatever, it’s clear that USC did an outstanding job (laughter) of sort of giving its students a sense of what the possibilities were because of that breadth of experience that I had in terms of the work that I did while I was there. I have a lot of friends that just did TA-ships and that’s fine, I mean the world needs TAs. But I’m really glad that I had more opportunities to do different types of work because that really opened my eyes to the possibilities that were out there. And so that’s- there’s no question that that’s a direct result of Public History’s influence on the department as a whole. I mean that’s just hands down the incredibly positive thing about what the Public History Program does. So, thanks for that.

CA: Do you- so it helped you sort of broaden your horizons in terms of the job market- do you think that USC’s reputation I guess was helpful to you when you were looking for jobs?

AM: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t- my sense is that at the time that I was there in the early 2000s, my sense is that USC’s reputation was sort of rising, but at the same time when I…USC’s the only doctoral program I applied to, right? I mean I wanted to stay there and work with Mark and work with the records at Caroliniana and do this project and so on and so forth. So I didn’t apply anywhere else. But I obviously did that with the knowledge that, it’s not, doesn’t have Berkeley’s or Harvard’s or Yale’s sort of name recognition immediately. Except within the context of public history, right?

I mean there USC definitely stands in good regard and so I think I had the sense that the reputation of the department was increasing and the person who was the chair at the time, a fellow named Pat Maney- I think that was definitely something that was important to him and that was bringing in new faculty with big name recognition, people like Dan Carter, people like Paul Johnson, people like Dan Littlefield, and those people coming in and talking up our accomplishments more. And so I think I benefitted from some of that. But I was also aware that you know the name wasn’t going to necessarily open all the doors immediately. Now, having said that, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I mean the name can only get you so far. If you have a well-regarded degree attached to your name but then you show up to a job and do crap work, that’s not going to- the name won’t save you there. So I think I was aware of what I was getting into, but I was also, I think benefitted from the fact that Dr. Maney was aggressively trying to build the brand recognition of USC at the time. Does that make sense?

CA: Yeah!

AM: Yeah. Ok.

CA: So, you only applied to USC for your PhD program-

AM: Yeah so, I’m glad I got in.

CA: Do you feel like Columbia was- as a city was helpful in studying history?

AM: Oh Columbia…let’s see. Columbia was… Helpful as a city in studying history- that’s a really- I’m not entirely sure how to answer that. What I liked about Columbia was that it was fairly livable I mean it certainly, I mean you do sort of need a car to get around, that’s tough. But it was nice that most of the resources, a lot of the resources I needed were there. So you’ve got the State Library, the Department of Archives and History, Caroliniana, all sort of centered around the city. So it’s not- I mean the weather is awful, and you can’t, you know it’s not very walkable and this sort of thing, but all the resources were around and that was nice. I actually went back to Columbia in the spring for the first time in many years and it was nice to be back, walk around Five Points and just sort of see what was going on. I definitely have good memories of living there, but I don’t miss the humidity, that’s for sure (laughter). That was not conducive to studying history. Actually, maybe it was- I wanted to stay inside and work (laughter) instead of walking outside.

CA: So how do you feel like- you’ve mentioned that your reference classes have certainly helped you in doing research and figuring out how libraries work and where you can find things. Can you think of any other sort of applicable skills that you’ve learned that help you in your current career?

AM: Huh. That’s really interesting. I think that- so for my job now I’m a historian in the Department of State and I serve mostly an internal audience. People in the department have questions about history of the U.S. foreign policy with regards to sub-Saharan Africa, those questions come to me. And I think that the Public History Program- you know a couple of things that I’ve learned, either in the Public History Program or the PhD program. One is sort of the question of audience- know your audience and just sort of knowing- or I’d say the importance of knowing your audience and what their interests are and sort of what they are going to- how you can communicate to an audience in a way that’s going to be meaningful to them if that makes sense.

So in public history, whether it’s a archival finding aid or a website or wall text in a museum, you’ve sort of got to figure out…we’ve got all this historical material, far more than we can ever communicate- how do we select the salient points and communicate that in a way that’s going to be meaningful to the person receiving this historical information? So that’s definitely that’s part and parcel of my job. I’ve got to figure out, how much information are these people going to want in answer as a result. I think there’s also a research aspect- I mean in graduate school you have to learn when to stop researching (laughter) and write. I mean when do you effectively reach the reasonable end of research? Yes there are ten more collections of letters we could look at, but do we have enough now to answer this question?

And that’s really important where I’m working now because sometimes the turnaround times on requests are short and we do a lot of research in Department of State. Cable traffic, the sort of official correspondence between embassies and Washington, and there are millions of cables that have been written over the decades, I mean just million and millions and millions. And so, we’ve got to be able to figure out you know, ok. Yes, there’s this huge mass of information out there, but this is enough to actually answer the question in a way that’s meaningful to the person who asked the question.

And I think that comes out in graduate school work as well, just sort of knowing when to stop. And not everyone- there are definitely people who take- I mean the average time to complete a dissertation is something like eight or nine years. It’s a long time- or I mean graduate school as a whole, right? From the start of a PhD program to the end, and so I didn’t want to be in that situation (laughter) when I started and so I guess what I’m trying to say that not everybody learns that lesson or they don’t all learn it the same way but that’s definitely something I picked up on.

CA: So, you are working with- your area is sort of sub-Saharan Africa- that is not what you studied in school, correct?

AM: Yeah, I mean I was… I studied American history at USC, I mean I had a minor field in African-American history so I sort of had the diaspora side of the story and now I’m back with the continent itself. So it’s been… one of the interesting things about being a historian in the federal government is that we get asked questions that we have to answer them and if the Secretary of State wants to know something, we don’t say “Well I’m sorry, we don’t have a specialist on nineteenth century Finland, so we just can’t answer that question.” You’ve got to figure it out.

This is actually another thing probably from graduate school, and working on the encyclopedia which required just this huge breadth of research and figuring things out…you’ve just got to figure out how to dive into a topic and pick up… figure out the relevant secondary literature, do the primary research you can and give the answer. And so that’s actually one of the intellectually invigorating things of being in the federal government is there’s a huge variety of material that I get to research. It’s great. I’m learning new things all the time which is pretty much I think the best thing you can ask for in a job is to be intellectually engaged. So yes, the work I’m doing now is not the result of my studies but I’ve tried to prove over the time I’ve been doing this that I’ve got the ability to (snaps) get in quickly, figure it out, write it up, and then on to the next thing. So, I do my best.

CA: You mentioned your Master’s Thesis you wrote about deserters in South Carolina and then for your dissertation you wrote about the antebellum railroads in the South.

AM: That’s correct.

CA: Can you tell me about some of that research? It just sounds fun.

AM: Oh, it was a blast. I mean- so when you look at the historiography of antebellum transportation, most of it concentrates on northern railroads and southern railroads were assumed to be sort of like the poor second cousins of northern developments and so I decided to take a look at southern railroads sort of on their own terms. Just figure out- it turns out there was a lot of sort of basic research that needed to be done in terms of where they went and how they were developed and that sort of thing. The research was really pleasingly eclectic. The South Caroliniana had a whole run of printed railroad reports for railroad companies mostly in South Carolina which was terrific and a lot of times these reports had been mined for their data on finances, like how railroads were funded, did they pay dividends, that sort of thing.

But it turns out if you really, you know if you read all the way through these reports, there’s a ton of material on social history in these reports as well because they would print the minutes of shareholders meetings. And this is were shareholders would argue about “Should railroads employ slaves?” “Should railroads own slaves?” “How do we deal with communities that don’t want us to build through their property?” “How do we deal with communities that complain about noise?” You know all kinds of things. And so- I’m not claiming I was the first person to do this at all, but I think in sort of a systematic way going through a lot of these reports, mining them for their social and cultural information and not just the financial economic stuff, I think was very interesting to do. I looked at minutes- let’s see.

So I looked at material at Caroliniana, I did research at the Harvard Business School, I did research at the Virginia Historical Society, and then I took another trip to Madison (laughter) and did research at the Wisconsin Historical Society because they had a collection of about eight or nine letter books from a man who was a civil engineer in South Carolina for about a decade and just a ton of information in there about his interaction with slave owners and using slaves and all kinds of things. I looked at diaries and journals of people who rode on trains, I did some work in newspapers, so it was a lot of fun and it was a great experience to write up and I was really fortunate that it fit well- the dissertation topic fit well with what the sort of things that Johns Hopkins publishes and so and I finished the dissertation in 2009… I’m sorry 2006, and then in 2009, Hopkins published the revised version that I had written. So that was a lot of… that was very gratifying to be able to get that research out and to find a good home for it with Hopkins.

CA: Did you apply for any grants when you were doing your research?

AM: Oh yeah. I mean I applied for a lot of grants, but I got, I was lucky enough to get two, which were very, very useful. I got one of them- Virginia Historical Society, funded me for two weeks there, and then I got one from the Harvard Business School, funded me for four…I think I was there for about four or five weeks. And they had amazing collections both in terms of railroad material but then they also had the collection of the of R. G. Dun? Which I think that later became Dun and Bradstreet it was this, an early credit reporting agency and so their staff would go around the country and write down sort of like local information about the credit- worthiness of individuals and companies. And so, I was able to find out sort of the information about the railroads and the contractors they were employing from these credit reports. Harvard was a great place to do research. But I got those two grants, or I couldn’t have done the research in either place without the money so those two were very helpful.

CA: This is sort of a left field kind of a- I don’t know, I was just curious. Do you consider your job with the Department of State to be public history or more traditional? How do you think of it? Because I know it’s sort of hard concept to pin down.

AM: Yeah it’s a little… I mean. It’s public history in the sense that I’m in the public service, right? I mean I am a civil servant myself, and my audience is the federal government, the work that I do will end up archived in the National Archives eventually for anyone to read who’s interested, so I definitely. And then the people I’m informing are in turn executing public policy, for the citizens of this great country. I think that to that degree it is public history. But you’re right that it’s a little odd because it’s not public history in the classic sense, which is to be engaged directly with the public. You know the public comes to this museum, I work at the museum, so here we are.

In a sense, I can understand how it’s sort of seen as a step removed, but it’s- I view, I definitely view it as service to the public. It’s just a little bit circumscribed, simply because so much of the work is classified because it’s a recent vintage. Having said that, the day-to-day work- so I just maybe public history is like the genre or the big category that I fit in, but the day-to-day work that I do is fairly traditional; I mean I’m doing primary research and I’m writing reports based on my research. The mode is different. I mean I don’t often write something even as long as a journal article simply because people in a policy-making position don’t have hours and days to go through the stuff. It’s not that we don’t write any long-form work. We certainly do. But usually if someone at a post wants an answer to a question, they’re looking for something that they can digest pretty quickly. So I think the work is traditional in the sense that it’s the same research and writing that I’ve always done, but the formatting is definitely different. Does that address your question?

CA: Yeah.

AM: Ok.

CA: So, another sort of broad one. So, you love history (laughter), I love history, we all love history, it’s great. But there’s sort of what people are calling “a crisis in the field,” where history is being devalued. What do you think is the importance of learning history, teaching history?

AM: Yeah. That’s a great question, and as a professional I should probably have like a really snappy answer to that.

CA: Have your elevator speech ready.

AM: I know, I know. This doesn’t make me look very good. You know, let me answer that within the context in which I work. Foreign Service Officers who are our primary audience, they move around to a different post every couple of years, every two or three years. They get a new assignment, they’re off to somewhere else and so as a result there’s not a lot of institutional knowledge that they- that remains at the place because the people are changing all the time. There are locally employed staff who stick around but in terms of the high-level policy folks at a post, they’re always on the move. One of the things our office does is supply that institutional knowledge. I was meeting with someone yesterday who said “You know it’d be really great, before I launch on Project X it’d be really nice to know if anyone actually tried this ten years ago and it failed, but I just arrived in this office last week.” (Laughter) 

So, you don’t necessarily have that. So I think one of the values of history in this context is sort of that classic “know where you’ve been so that you can know where you’re going,” and its not that history necessarily repeats itself or just because something didn’t work before doesn’t mean it won’t work again, but I think it is useful to know what has happened in the past. I think that history in the- where I work does a really important job of providing context for policy. And it- what I hope it would also do is for the- for our audience- I don’t know if humility is the right word but… maybe just sort of like a broader context but this sense that you may have this portfolio now working in this country but you’re not the first person to face these problems or problem. 

But other people have come before you, others are going to come after you and so I would hope that studying history would help our audience like ground themselves a bit better. So even if they don’t think about the specific of history while they’re doing their job, they at least have a concept that they’re part of some sort of broader stretch. A lot of times in foreign policy, people don’t get to see changes in the time when they’re working on something, its sort of like we’re slowly moving the football down the field, and so you may work somewhere for three years and say “Oh man, we only made it seven yards,” but if you step back and look at the whole broad picture, it might help give you a better understanding of either why the progress is so slow or maybe it doesn’t even look that slow when it’s bad or maybe you realize “Well we’re never going to get anywhere until the president steps down” or you know something.

I think there a lot of contextual ways in which history is useful. And in this modern time we consume- there is so much information coming at us, right? I mean there’s all the social media and twenty-four-hour news networks, and there’s just so much material that people have to digest. I think historical context lets people again step back and take a wider look at what’s in front of them and you know maybe this particular tweet isn’t that important (laughter), or that we don’t have to panic about it right now, but we can think about certain things more broadly. I don’t know, that is not an elevator speech, that was really long, and I’m sorry about that (laughter). I hope you’re getting better answers to that question from other people.

CA: (laughter) That’s just fine. Ok so, we went broad, now were going to go narrow because we’re sort of running down as far as time goes and I just want to ask you a few sort of wrap up questions.

AM: Sure.

CA: So as far as one of the things that we sort of tout is our broad alumni network, and I just wanted to know what sort of connections or contact you kept in with other alumni and how you felt you were keeping in touch with the program as well.

AM: Yeah. I mean I made really great friends while I was at USC and so I’m really glad I’ve kept in touch with them. I think probably more as friends than as a professional network that I’ve drawn upon. Well that’s not true. I certainly draw upon for advice and things like that but its not like networking got me this job or anything like that. But as- you know after we graduated and as we move through life you’re facing, common challenges, getting a book contract, you’re figuring out employment situation or is this job something good for me or bad for me? And I’ve met a lot of good people I’ve kept in contact with so there’s no question that the USC network has continued to travel with me as I’ve gone through. Yes. So, the answer to your question is yes (laughter).

CA: In regards to keeping in contact with the actual people so like Connie, Bob [Weyeneth], and Allison [Marsh] how is- have you been keeping in touch with them? Do they keep in touch with you?

AM: Yeah, I think- Allison I think arrived after I left or her first year was my last year or something like that so actually, I don’t know her very well at all. But certainly Connie and Bob I keep up with. Again, I’ve asked them both professional questions but we also keep up as friends, Christmas cards, that type of thing. So I’ve always found USC to be very- the department to be a very friendly, congenial place and I was really delighted when that continued after I left.

CA: Do you find that you are being kept abreast of what’s going on in sort of our- The Public History Program, the History Department?

AM: Yeah, I mean Bob’s pretty rigorous about sending out email, which is good. I actually wish the rest of the department did something along those lines, but I mean the only sort of news I really get from the University is there’s a newsletter that the College of Arts and Sciences sends to alums and I mean they probably send it to everybody but I know they send it to alums because I get it. And so history pops up in that every once in a while, but I’d be very interested to know you know more about what’s going on with the department and what graduate students are up to, particularly if there’s any way I could be helpful. I’m you know always happy to talk to, and I’ve done this with my undergraduate school as well, but I’m always happy to talk to students about you know life in the federal service and how- what its like to be operating as a historian in the government and all that sort of thing so. Always happy to help out, I appreciate Bob’s routine updates on activities and I actually wish the rest of the department would step up and do something similar or maybe they are and I’m just not getting it, but I don’t think it exists.

CA: Do you think that’s why you volunteered for the interview?

AM: (laughter) Well. I have to say I just started doing oral history as part of my job and so I- this was not something that I studied at USC- I don’t think there was an oral history course at USC and also my tenure there also predates the arrival of people who explicitly did oral history. So it’s an- I don’t know, I keep saying everything I predate everything, it’s a miracle I learned anything.  I’ve come to recognize the value of oral history as a method of generating primary source material. And so yeah. I was just trying to help out (laughter); if there’s any way that my own meager recollections can be useful to the department then I’m happy to do that. I mean the History Department gave me a lot- great education, a solid degree, great friendships, so, and an undying love of air conditioning so I’m happy to donate back whenever I can.

CA: Well we are very appreciative.

AM: Oh, thank you. (Laughter)

CA: So, sort of the big thinking cap on (laughter) – What do you see for the future of the Public History Program?

AM: Well I mean…

CA: So I did this exercise with my students today but we did something that you would like to start, something you would like for them to continue, and something you would rather stopped; would that help you sort of break it down?

AM: Yeah! So I’ll be honest, I don’t know that I’m entirely up to speed with where things are now- does the- does the joint degree program as I did it- does that still happen?

CA: Yes.

AM: Ok. So that’s definitely something to continue (laughter) because I- when I was looking at graduate school back in the late ‘90s, 1999, I think the trend of library science sort of overtaking archives as the normal credential was already happening. But in my view, having both degrees was really important when I was working in that setting and it’s just one additional year of school and you get two degrees. I mean it’s a great deal. And I think that…so that’s something to continue definitively in that program because it meant a lot to me and it gets people great training and I just think it’s a healthy way for archivists to look at their materials.

One of the things I rely on in this job is archivists at the National Archives who really get in depth with the relevant record groups for the Department of State, know them well, and have the historical sensibilities that they can answer questions and if I ask a question they can say “Oh well what you’re really talking about is this,” and point you in the right direction and that’s invaluable at any archive you walk into. So, I think the history aspect of the archival training is really important to maintain. I think that I mean in terms of the future… let me just say this. 

I think one of the biggest benefits I got from being at USC was the breadth of training. I wasn’t just pigeonholed into one type of assistantship, but I really got the opportunity to do five or six different things that were all under the big umbrella of history but taught me about different aspects of the profession so that when I saw a job opening at the Department of State I wasn’t confused or scared or disdainful but saw it as (laughter) a genuine possibility to have a meaningful career. So, the continue aspect for me and I’ll guarantee most people that I worked with here did not have anything like that experience. I mean just nothing at all. And to me that’s absolutely invaluable and it’s- that’s definitely something that I would hope the program and the department and the college and the University would continue to support is a program that really gives students the breadth of public history, so you may know going that you’re going to work in preservation and that’s fine, but to have the opportunity to experience all these different things and learn about them, I think is really valuable.

And that’s the advantage that a place like USC has over schools that just offer museums or just offer preservation, or something like that. And so I would hope that the program could keep up that leave of breadth because it was absolutely critical for me, no question. No question about it all. But it all costs money, right? I mean I understand it’s difficult to do, but it’s a really important thing. So. Does that answer your question?

CA: It does. So, last thing- is there anything that you wish I would’ve asked you, or anything you sort of want to add?

AM: I don’t- I don’t think so. I think you covered the ground pretty well.

CA: Ok.

AM: Thanks for the opportunity to do this.

CA: Thank you so much for meeting with me.

AM: Yeah, great. I don’t know how your recording is set up, but could I ask you a few things offline?

CA: Yeah, sure.

End of Interview