Standards of Professional Conduct for Historians

Early writers of history in the U.S. were usually talented amateurs, gentlemen of leisure such as George Bancroft and James Ford Rhodes. History as a profession emerged during the period 1880-1895 with the introduction of the seminar at Johns Hopkins University by Herbert Baxter Adams which trained such historians as J. Franklin Jameson, Woodrow Wilson, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Charles M. Andrews; the formation of the American Historical Association in 1884 (chartered by Congress in 1889); and the publication of the American Historical Review, beginning in 1895, all modeled after examples from European (chiefly German) universities.

Today there are many sub-groups within the historical profession. Although all adhere to the same general principles, some have found it necessary to create specific or supplementary standards to govern their specialized fields.

Carl Becker’s presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1931 ("Everyman His Own Historian") suggested that we are all historians, whether we realize it or not, and the AHA’s statement about standards of professional conduct begins with noting that professional historians do not “own” history:

All manner of people can and do produce good history. Professional historians are wise to remember that they will never have a monopoly on their own discipline, and that this is much more a strength than a weakness. The openness of the discipline is among its most attractive features, perennially renewing it and making it relevant to new constituencies.

But if Everyman is a historian, what distinguishes professional historians from everyone else? What does it mean to be a professional historian? The AHA statement goes on to give its understanding of this matter:

Membership in this profession is defined by self-conscious identification with a community of historians who are collectively engaged in investigating and interpreting the past as a matter of disciplined learned practice. Historians work in an extraordinary range of settings: in museums and libraries and government agencies, in schools and academic institutions, in corporations and non-profit organizations. Some earn their living primarily from employment related to the past; some practice history while supporting themselves in other ways. Whatever the venue in which they work, though, professional historians share certain core values that guide their activities and inform their judgments as they seek to enrich our collective understanding of the past. These shared values for conducting and assessing research, developing and evaluating interpretations, communicating new knowledge, navigating ethical dilemmas, and, not least, telling stories about the past, define the professional practice of history.

Various historical organizations have drawn up statements on the standards of professional conduct expected of their members. Among them are:

In addition, in a broader context than the historical profession alone, professional historians as members of the academic community generally subscribe to the standards of the American Association of University Professors, in particular the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure; the Statement on Professional Ethics; and the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, adopted jointly by the AAUP, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.