Documentary Radio and the Radical Origins of Public History

  • Rachel Donaldson


The origin story of public history in the United States dates this profession, practice, and field of study back to the social movements and social/cultural turn of academic history of the 1960s and 70s, directly tying the emergence of professional public history to the political ethos of the New Left. However, exploring earlier efforts in professional public-facing historical work reveals the formative influence of the Old Left on the various fields that would come to fall under the purview of public history. This article traces that connection specifically through the Radio Research Project (RRP), a large-scale series of history-oriented programs produced by the Library of Congress beginning in 1941 that were designed to educate Americans in US history, to encourage citizens to embrace civic ideals such as cultural and political democracy, and to thwart the spread of fascism. Disconnecting the rise of public history from its perceived origins in the New Left through exploring programs like the RRP not only reveals a longer history of the profession, but also challenges accepted interpretations of the types of political and social views that provide the historical foundation of contemporary practice.