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The Job

Modern historians are trained to gather, interpret, and evaluate the records of the past in order to describe and analyze past events, institutions, ideas, and people. Skill in research and writing is essential to their work, but scientific methods are also invaluable.

Some historians are college teachers; others write books and articles, do research, and lecture. Historians work for museums, special libraries, and historical societies, and they are often called on as advisers in such fields as politics, economics, law, and education. They also research the accuracy of historical details in stage, motion picture, and TV presentations. Most specialize in the history of a specific country or region or a specific period or industry. A historian may choose to become an expert in ancient, medieval, or modern times. They may also choose to specialize in specific topics such as Native American tribes of the Northwest, British law, World War II, or the Civil Rights Movement.

Some historians research the accuracy of historical details in stage, motion picture, television, and radio presentations. They authenticate such things as customs, speech, costumes, architectural styles, modes of transportation, and other items peculiar to a particular period of history. The research department of a film or television production company may be headed by a research director.

Historians who are called archivists identify, preserve, and catalog historical documents of value to writing, researching, or teaching history. They are really history librarians who have learned the technique of selectivity; they recognize which historical materials are worth preserving, since it would be impossible to save all material. Such historians may work in museums, libraries, historical societies, and also for the U.S. government, where they may collect materials, write about the activities of various departments, and prepare pamphlets, lectures, exhibits, or presentations on the Internet.

Curators work for a museum, special library, or historical society. They identify and preserve historical documents and other articles of the past. Often curators help scholars with research in the institution's collection. Historical society directors are curators who coordinate the activities of a historical society. They direct the research staff, review publications and exhibits, speak before various groups and organizations, and perform the administrative duties involved in running a historical institution.

Genealogists specialize in family histories. They use public records, such as birth and death certificates, military records, census studies, and real estate deeds, to trace connections between individuals. They are like detectives in a sense, but they must have the patience to continue following up leads in one historical record after another. 

Biographers specialize in writing about the life of an individual, usually a famous one. Research from library sources and through personal interviews is an important first step. Biographers must have an in-depth knowledge not only of their subject's life but also of the particular era or field in which the person was important. They must write with careful attention to detail, but must also have a creative flair for making the subject interesting to the reader.