How I Do History: Jessica Miller

I’m working on my thesis to complete a master’s in American History; I work as an archivist by day and as a pub crawl tour guide by night, and in my free time, I volunteer at museums. My career path has been and continues to be a very windy path fueled by a genuine love for education, storytelling, access, and everything nerdy!

The first thing that people assume about me when they find out I’m studying American History is that I want to be a teacher. While in a macro sense, that is true, the last place you’ll find me is a traditional classroom. So the second question someone asks is, “Well, what are you going to do with that degree?” The truth is that I haven’t fully decided yet. This field has shown me how many exciting different options I have, and honestly, I’m not sure that I’ll be able to pick just one. History often gets a reputation for being boring or stuffy, but that has not been my experience.

If you chose to study History of any kind, I highly recommend working at least part-time at a repository, library, or archive. The familiarity this access gave me to scholarly spaces has given me a considerable advantage throughout school and heightened my research skills. I’ve worked in a handful of different collections, from a local historical society to the National Archives, and learning how collections work will make you a much less frustrated researcher. Working with a collection is so much more than retrieving and filing. A big part is collaborating with other researchers, listening to what they are looking for, and finding the best places for them to search.

I work for a nonpartisan organization advocating for the equity of women and girls in education since the 1880s. At least a third of my job is assisting people in accessing the information that they are looking for, giving my advice on different places where they might find what they’re looking for, and pointing out a few others places that would be advantageous (or at least interesting) to check. Not only is this a helpful skill when doing your own research, but this collaboration allows you to see how others perform research as well or engage with their topics in a meaningful way.

Another third of my job is doing research, truly understanding the history of my organization. I answer questions internally, and I identify storylines that are interesting about our history that are used to promote the organization and support our mission. I am continually looking for opportunities to question what we know or what we think we know. I read a lot, sometimes all day, a lot of it is exciting, but a hefty amount is rather dry—another skill that I use from graduate school: the ability to push through some dull reading.

The rest of my job is caring for the collection, keeping it safe, properly preserved, and organized. This part of the job is very motivated by my experience as a researcher. While I can not predict every use for all the documents in our collection, I know that locating those documents is paramount in preserving their significance. It makes me feel very fancy and very important, and very honored to care for such a history. I learn something new about women’s history every day. I haven’t yet decided if I will always be an archivist; however, the research experience I’ve gained already is invaluable. Now, on to my night job!

When I first decided to go back to school, it was primarily motivated by my deep unhappiness working in another field. I made a full career flip, quit my tedious office job, and became a pub crawl tour guide. It was the best decision of my life, and it proved to me how much fun you can have in this field! On each tour, I meet a group of people, usually from out of town, who are interested in my two favorite things: learning and laughing. I bring them to multiple bars over two hours, and at each bar, I give them a history lesson. Our lessons are factual, but they are also entertaining. We tell jokes, we provide a different perspective on the ‘typical’ narrative, and most importantly, we get people excited about American History.

In the nearly three hundred tours I’ve given, I’ve met people from every state in more than twenty countries. The questions are never the same, and it is so fun to indulge people in my nerdiness. It’s also great practice for school, the ability to think on your feet while conversations take a wild turn where you’d never expect really helps open your mind when you’re exploring a topic for research. Being a tour guide is also an awesome way to learn about what non-historians find intriguing about history.

As the years have gone on, we’ve expanded the tours to other cities, and I work on the researching and writing team. I mush together all my formal academic scholarly training in finding accurate sources, with my experience chatting History with all walks of life. We try with every script to find the stories that will entertain our visitors and get them just as excited about History as we are! It is not only about teaching people History or giving them a positive tourist experience; it’s also about creating access for anyone who wants to learn. And this has been true of every history job that I have had; I’ve worked in many museums, archives, and tour guide roles, and what they all have in common is the ability to create access. Why save it if we don’t find ways to appreciate it or tell people about it?

Like most historians, I’d like to be consistently publishing in academic journals after finishing my thesis. These two roles truly enable me to see that as a valid option come the spring. They also make me a better historian by stretching my understanding of how History should look. If I were to give a prospective history student advice, it would be to engage with the most varied experiences that you can get your hands on. Volunteer as much as you can, though it is a crime that there isn’t more funding for these opportunities. I’ve worked in many different places, and I’ve worked with many different people in order to test my interest and skill in different historic spaces. This can be a competitive field, so it’s crucial to be confident in what area is best for you, and you make a lot of connections too. Museums and archives are great places to start; being a tour guide is a very eye-opening experience to what you love, what you could talk about all day, and what gets boring to you quickly. I find History very exciting, especially finding precisely what I’m looking for or making a connection in my research, but a lot of it is patience and reading. There will always be so much reading!

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