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Conversation

Historian for Hire

A conversation with Phil Cantelon

By Bruce Cole | HUMANITIES, January/February 2009 | Volume 30, Number 1

Scholar-entrepreneur Phil Cantelon has discovered that it is possible to make research and writing pay. In 1980, he and three colleagues hung a shingle for their services as historians, building a business whose clients would eventually range from the United States government to a Las Vegas museum devoted to organized crime.

Bruce Cole: When people think about historians, they usually think of academic historians, or maybe they think of independent historians or people who write history books for a popular audience. But they don’t think about someone doing what you do. So, tell us, What do you do?

Phil Cantelon: I started a business that offers historians for hire. That’s a short way of saying we provide professional historical and archival services for a broad range of corporate, governmental, and private clients. The idea came out of the job crunch of the mid-1970s when professional historical organizations were struggling to find ways to recycle—it’s the only word that comes to mind—recycle unemployed historians in an attempt to provide jobs for graduate students and, not coincidentally, to preserve the jobs of history professors.

It was a tough time. New York City’s near-bankruptcy, for example, put hundreds of historians in the city university system out of work. One response was to retool historians to work in the business world. The concept that historical perspective would be valuable to corporations was a good one. But most of the historians were reluctant to make a commitment to the business world, which, at the same time, was uncertain about how to use historians.

My personal response was to try something else outside of the classroom. I still had a teaching job, but it seemed pretty obvious that tenure was not in my future. So I took advantage of a federal program called the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, which set up an exchange between universities, colleges, and federal agencies. I came to Washington in the summer of 1974 to work for the Department of Housing and Urban Development for a year.

Cole: Was that in response to the job crunch?

Cantelon: Yes, my coming to Washington was, though the IPA program had existed for some time. I’m not aware that historians had taken advantage of it, however.
I came down to work at HUD in the Office of Policy Development and Research, where the deputy assistant secretary was a historian. We had three or four historians in that office, and I was much taken by that.

Cole: What were you doing before that?

Cantelon: I was teaching recent American history at Williams College. So I took a year off from Williams to come to Washington, starting out in the Nixon administration. When the president resigned in August, the Ford administration came in and I finished out the year writing speeches for the Secretary of HUD, Carla Hills. I drafted a new policy change into one of her speeches and she adopted it. That was the first time, and only time, I ever set a national policy.

Cole: Then did you go back to Williams?

Cantelon:
Yes, I went back, and the job crisis was in full swing. But I realized something: that no member of my department at Williams had ever spent any significant time outside the classroom. From first grade on, they were always in school—as students, then teachers. This was in the sixties and seventies, when students were calling the study of history irrelevant. And yet, here I’d come out of HUD, where I’d been paid to write a paper on whether owning a single-family house had always been the American Dream.

Cole: Has it always been the American Dream?

Cantelon: For most Americans, no. We looked at it as a suburban phenomenon. People thought so in the nineteenth century, when land was cheap, but once land was no longer cheap, once the frontier “closed,” then the dream took a new form. Owning your own home in the city became part of the myth. I suspect owning your own home did not become the goal or the dream until after World War II when prosperity, mass-produced housing, and federal mortgage money through the Veterans Administration and the Federal Housing Administration made home ownership available to larger numbers of Americans than ever before.

Cole: Levittown.

Cantelon: Exactly. Once you got into the Levittown-type developments—and they’re all over the country—developments of low-priced housing and, of course, the federal government made money available, then home ownership became an accepted part of the American Dream.

Cole: That’s a very good example of how HUD was using history.

Cantelon: We were using it to look at policy, to sharpen the policy. My report was background for making policy on rental housing, subsidized housing, and the like, things that I never would have thought to use history for.

Well, when I returned to Williams, I saw that there was in the study of history a lot of relevancy for students, none of whom, by the way, we were training to be historians. Because of the job crunch, we didn’t think that it was in anybody’s interest to train students to become historians, yet everybody in the department had done only that. So, the question in our minds was: How do we change the curriculum to benefit students who were not going to become historians? We had to figure this out because our enrollments were dropping off pretty rapidly. So we revamped the whole introduction-to-history curriculum.

Although I did not get tenure at Williams, I had been awarded a Fulbright professorship in Japan. I taught for a year at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, in southern Japan. It turned out to be a fascinating year. American historians don’t get an opportunity to step outside the culture very often and look back in. Wonderful experience. Yet I still needed to find a job when the Fulbright ended. I started writing to historians and history departments in the United States, but getting a job in history in the United States was almost impossible at the time.

Cole: What year was that?

Cantelon: Late ’78 and early ’79. Soon after I got back, sometime in March 1979, I got a call from a friend of mine with whom I had taught and who subsequently had left teaching and gone to work for the Atomic Energy Commission, parts of which later became the Department of Energy. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in writing a history of the civilian nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.

Cole: For the Energy Department?

Cantelon: Yes. And I said, “Three Mile Island? That was just a month ago.” Nothing in my training would have suggested working on something so recent. I talked to some of my former colleagues at Williams, and they said, Oh, you’ll become “presentist,” and I wasn’t sure what that was, except that the other option was to be unemployed. So I teamed up with another friend, who had also taught at Williams, a Russian history professor named Bob Williams. We formed a partnership, and we went up to Middletown, Pennsylvania, to the airport where the department conducted its aerial radiation monitoring operations in the area surrounding Three Mile Island. It was in June, I recall, and the department was ending the surveillance flights. Historical materials were strewn around the hanger. We just swept the records off the tables and into boxes, and brought them back here to Washington. Then we set up an archives, did a series of oral histories, and started to write. Within a year, we finished the book. Unheard of.

Cole: It was possible.

Cantelon: Oh, yes. So I realized you could write history that way, but it was entirely different. It was about a very recent event; we worked as a team. No archivist had organized the records for us. We collected the records ourselves. We decided on all the interviews. We did all the research, the writing, and, in the end, turned over an electronic document. This was 1980.

Cole: You’re a pioneer.

Cantelon: Well, historians had not done much of this kind of work before. We delivered an electronic document, so the Government Printing Office could quickly publish it as a report. The report was used to persuade Congress to keep the nuclear aerial-monitoring equipment at the Department of Energy, because all of it had come out of the department’s nuclear testing program, and to not transfer it to another agency, as the Carter administration had recommended.

Cole: You didn’t have decades or centuries for that material to be sorted and put into perspective.

Cantelon: That’s right. Even so, I think the book still holds up well after a quarter of a century. Another wonderful difference is that everybody you’re writing about is still alive. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad, but it enables you to have direct access to any number of participants. Of course, from every three people, you’ll get at least three, possibly four, stories that are somewhat different and you try to triangulate that with what written evidence you have, and memories change with the distance in time from the original event. Graduate students are trained in history to write things on their own, not as a team. We had to do it as a team because when you have a tight deadline, it requires a team approach.

Cole: Well, you had computers, right?

Cantelon: We wrote it on a Vydec computer. It was an all-in-one console. I don’t recall how big the disks were in that thing. I would guess they must have been eight or ten-inch floppy disks. I’ve forgotten.

Cole: How archaic it all seems. It was only what, thirty years ago?

Cantelon: That’s right. It was while I was working on the TMI book that I realized there was a demand for historical services, with some longer-term business potential. I was going through the Kemeny Commission papers on Three Mile Island at the National Archives. And I heard this Texas drawl coming from the other room saying, “Well, can you do that work for me?” The archivist explained he couldn’t do the research. So I went over and said, “Excuse me. Perhaps we can do this,” and I gave him a card that I had recently printed up. He said, “Meet me in my hotel in the morning with a contract.” Well, I didn’t know exactly how to write a contract, and I wasn’t sure I was going to do the work. But by the next morning, I had a letter contract and someone to do the work. After that, we decided to go into business.

Cole: Who was the man with the Texas accent?

Cantelon: The man at the Archives was the Secretary of State for Texas, and he wanted to know the changing boundaries of Padre Island in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s an island off Texas, and hurricanes and storms had changed the boundaries, raising questions about who owned what and how much land existed. The work involved collecting all different kinds of maps over time for reference. The Library of Congress Map Division was very helpful in that. You could also get things out of the National Archives.
So it was clear there was a demand for this kind of service. And there were a few of us Department of Energy historians interested in the work. Two of us, my partner on the TMI book, Bob Williams, and I spoke with Richard Hewlett, who was the chief historian of the Atomic Energy Commission and Department of Energy. Dick was getting ready to retire and looking around for something else to do. He had never taught, except once at Berkeley, but he had come out of graduate school in Chicago and gone directly into the government and developed the whole history program for the AEC, which became the model for history programs throughout the federal government.

Cole: How long has the federal government been commissioning histories?

Cantelon: The military was doing this certainly in the thirties and forties, and did so actively during World War II. The Department of Agriculture had a small program, but the real blossoming of federal history came after the War, again led by the military. The Army Green Book series examined the operations in World War II and the lessons these operations yielded. The big breakthrough came afterwards, when a lot of historians came here and worked for William Langer, a Harvard professor, the head of research and analysis for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA. These historians researched and wrote profiles of enemy leaders to help political leaders understand who they were, and a couple government books came out of this.

I believe a staff historian can be very helpful to an agency. When an official goes out to make a speech and needs some historical perspective or content about the past, the historian will have this information on file and will be able to provide it. The process is efficient, it saves time, aggravation, and money.

Cole: We’ve got a couple of unofficial historians around here.

Cantelon: That’s helpful, but what happens when they leave? Often the information leaves with them. I think it’s wiser to institutionalize the position and you save money by not conducting fruitless searches or reinventing the wheel.

Cole: Right.

Cantelon: The fourth person in our group was Rodney Carlisle. Rodney taught history at Rutgers University, and he was a fellow at DOE. In the summer of 1980, the four of us decided to start a company as a reaction to the lack of jobs for historians in the academy. We envisioned a company that would provide decent jobs, pay an adequate salary, offer benefits, have office space and equipment, just like a business. Dick Hewlett set very stringent standards for professional behavior, which needed to be every bit as high as those of an academic department. We realized that being paid for our work would open us up to remarks about being “court historians.” We never thought about public history; we thought about being history professionals, serving clients who needed the very best history, and being paid for it.

Cole: Was there anything else like this?

Cantelon: Yes, there were two or three of these groups popping up at the same time. We were not the first. But we had the advantage of being proximate to the federal government. President Carter around that time decided that the government needed to make available all the records of fallout from atmospheric nuclear-weapons testing because of a number of lawsuits that were occurring in Utah, Nevada, and Arizona, primarily. Scientists from the national labs at Los Alamos and Livermore reviewed the scientific records, but they were not familiar with the policy records required by the demands of litigation. So the Department of Energy hired us to do this research, and that got us into the declassification business, as we declassified these records so they could be made available to the public.

Cole: So most of your work was for the federal government?

Cantelon: Probably 75 to 80 percent of our initial work was with the federal government and then we lost a big contract. We scrambled like hell to try to make up that difference. By the early 1990s, we were able to shift 80 percent of our business to the private sector.

Cole: What did you call your company?

Cantelon: From the very beginning, we called it History Associates Incorporated; now we just call it
History Associates. We started to grow. We had about ten or fifteen people, but when we took on more private clients, we broadened our scope of business offerings. In the government, you had certain agencies you worked for much of the time. We could work for the Department of Energy. We worked some for the Interior Department, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, among other federal agencies.

We got into the business of archives with some work we were doing for Texas Instruments. The chairman of Texas Instruments, who had been on the Kemeny Commission, had died on the operating table, and that made everybody aware of their mortality. They suddenly became interested in their history, and so we went down to write the history of Texas Instruments. In the course of that, a longtime member of the board left. I went in to the chairman’s office and I said, ‘By the way, where are his records?’ And he said, ‘They’re in his office, aren’t they?’ We tore out of the office and ran down to this man’s office. It was bare as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. The chairman returned to his office, picked up the phone and said, ‘Somebody talk to Cantelon. I want an archives now.’ And so History Associates got into the archives business.

Cole: So by archives business, what exactly do you mean?

Cantelon: Well, that meant we set up and established an archives. In this case we designed and staffed a corporate archives for Texas Instruments so they had both physical and intellectual control over their records.

Cole: They had no archives whatsoever?

Cantelon: None. Historical records can be a critical business tool for a company, especially when institutional memory falls victim to changes in staffing. If you keep good records, you have an instrument to inform and protect yourself. We operate archives for a number of federal agencies. Not run, we assist them. We store records now, too. Our second largest operation is litigation research, mostly on environmental issues coming out of World War II and the Cold War.

Cole: So your first business is still archiving?

Cantelon: History Associates is involved in a number of different applications of history. Our first business was, and is, research and writing, primarily books and studies for government agencies and private corporations and law firms—what I would term the traditional kinds of history, though our clientele may not be traditional. We do academic histories and celebratory histories. More recently we have been creating historically oriented websites for a number of clients.

A second branch of the business is archives, or information resources management. We are heavily involved in the development of electronic records archives as well as records audits. We do a good deal of traditional processing of paper records and objects, such as memorabilia, again for corporate clients and government agencies. This division has sales of more than one and a half million dollars a year.

Another major division handles litigation issues requiring an historical perspective. Federal and state environmental laws require that industries pay, or help pay, for environmental damages arising from past actions. For example, utilities may own sites that held gas manufacturing plants in the nineteenth century. Often these are located in industrial areas where there have been numerous subsequent owners who also may have contributed to the pollution. We search the records to see who was doing what, and when, and who other potentially responsible parties might be. We are experts in finding government contracts relating to World War II and the Cold War, when the government was far more interested in production than in environmental concerns. The cleanup could cost a government contractor hundreds of millions of dollars unless it can find the original contract containing a hold-harmless provision that gets the contractor off the hook. History Associates is known as the best company for locating those “lost” contracts. The 911 for environmental history, if you will.

We recently formed a division that does museum work. It started out with an exhibit we did for the International Spy Museum. That led to photo research and text writing for the Visitors Center at the American Cemetery in Normandy, France, and for the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. We do the picture research. We do the textual research. We do work for the Civil War Preservation Trust, helping to create interpretive text and design visitor trails for various battlefields.

Cole: Do you do designs, too?

Cantelon: No. We work with outside designers and fabricators, which is another way in which we work as teams. Teamwork’s hard, for trained historians especially, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s like belonging to a family. You have the same argument every household has over money, over time, over productivity. Historians rarely, if ever, learn these words or concepts in graduate school, and your reputation is based on how you deliver on those. Every time you’ve got a new client, you don’t know how difficult that client’s going to be. The ones that are the most sophisticated are the easiest to work for.

Cole: It sounds mainly like you’ve worked for museums that are associated with the Second World War, right?

Cantelon: We have worked for many museums associated with the Second World War and the Civil War, but our scope goes far beyond those. We helped develop the museum at Bethel Woods in upstate New York commemorating the famous Woodstock rock concert in 1969. We’re preparing content now for a museum in Las Vegas devoted to organized crime.

Cole: A crime museum? That sounds fascinating.

Cantelon: As a professor, I was always teaching the same classes, while the students changed from year to year, and that provided a lot of the dynamics in the classroom. Now, the material I work with changes from project to project. We hire a lot of young people with history degrees who eventually go back to school, but it’s exciting to watch them react to how history can be used. Like this Las Vegas research, it never would have occurred to them.

Cole: How many employees do you have now?

Cantelon: About fifty.

Cole: That’s comparable to some of the biggest history departments around. So you’re a big employer of historians?

Cantelon: Yes. One of our employees came up with a tag line some years ago: The Best Company in History. It captures what we wanted to be. Now it is part of our logo. The company is a source of great personal satisfaction to me. But it is also my frustration. One of my biggest challenges—as a professional historian outside the academy—is convincing the academy that there is a potential market for historians other than teaching or going into archives.

Cole: I think what you do is fascinating. When you get these historians who are trained, their horizons obviously have to be expanded. How does that work?

Cantelon: Well, the response from the academy to the problem of finding employment for historians has been to create public history programs. But I think in all the years at History Associates, we’ve hired only one person out of a public history program. The curricula for those programs tend to be pretty narrow: Those people end up in documentary editing, or basic museum or archive work, or doing cultural resource management, which is historic preservation. None of those fields have a reputation of paying very well.

Most graduate departments, because the faculty hasn’t had much experience outside the academy, are reluctant to change. I was on a department review team at James Madison University in Virginia. After we had gone through the review, I asked how many of the professors would abandon the term paper and allow students to form teams and create work on a CD-ROM in which they could use printed matter, and also oral, audio, and visual matter. Not one member of the department would do that, and the reasons were, one, they didn’t know how to grade something like that, and, two, they didn’t know how to do a CD-ROM. I said they didn’t have to worry about it, the kids knew how to do CD-ROMs. The university had just put several million dollars into a new communications center to do just this kind of thing, but the department was reluctant to take advantage of it.

Cole: Digital?

Cantelon: Yes. Digital documents, digital pictures, digital audio. The research can be broader and more comprehensive. And more exciting for students who have lived with the Internet and iPods. But the history department wasn’t taking part, and I said, ‘That’s crazy.’ Here’s an opportunity to get in and do something new. For a discipline that studies change, historians are slow to do it themselves.
At Williams, every three years, each member of the economics department had to find an outside job, go away for a year, and then return with hands-on professional experience. In the history department, no one would have been able to find a job outside as a historian, much less know, where to look. It’s just not the way historians think because there is no tradition of applied history. Almost every profession in the academy has a division between teaching and doing. You can teach law, or you can practice law. You can teach medicine or practice medicine. But in history, you can only teach, or that’s what historians think. But it’s not really true. You can do work, you can practice history outside, you can apply history, and do excellent professional work.

Cole: You can actually make a living.

Cantelon: I’ve made a better living in terms of salary and benefits, and, importantly, I’ve been allowed to exercise my ability to lead. The opportunities for leadership within the academy are very few. Departments tend not to hire for leadership. They hire for academic work, and the two often don’t go hand in hand. I won’t begin to tell you how many departments promote people into the deanship because they don’t know what to do with them otherwise.

Cole: You said something very interesting there: Historians study change, but they’re reluctant to make it. Why do you think that is? We think of the intellectual not as a person of action, but history from the Greeks onward is filled with people who are scholars and also people of action.
Churchill, of course, was the great twentieth-century example. Samuel Eliot Morison also comes to mind.

Cantelon: I wish I knew the answer. Clearly, many historians are individuals of action. But when it comes to the business of history, they shy away from it. For my generation of historians the defining intellectual event was studying the New Deal. The prevailing view, established by Arthur E. Schlesinger Jr., in his powerful volumes on the New Deal, was that government was good and business was bad. That view was reinforced by President Kennedy during the steel strike in 1962 when he said something to the effect that his father told him that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but he didn’t believe that until now. And that’s essentially the academic view. I’ve found in writing corporate histories that Schlesinger’s perspective can be off target as much as it is on. There are many businessmen who are intelligent and have accomplished a great deal.

Cole: You mentioned Schlesinger. He is somebody who did apply history. He was an historian who worked in government, one of these intellectuals that surrounded the president. Tevi Troy, who is the deputy secretary at Health and Human Services, has written a terrific book on presidents and intellectuals and about this relationship between people who come from the academic world to serve politicians. Probably the fewest number of them are actually historians. But as you say, economists can do this. Political scientists can do this, but it’s very interesting that more historians can’t or don’t want to do this.

Cantelon: Well, we’ve had historians who have been presidents. Teddy Roosevelt was a historian and was once head of the American Historical Association, before it was taken over by the teaching guild.

Cole: Is it the case that in doing applied history you need skills that are not taught in the academy?

Cantelon: That’s correct. History Associates has a training program for all our young people. We’ll train them on research. We train them on how to do a budget, how to track a budget. We, in effect, give them a little entrepreneurial training. How do you sell your history? Why is it important to you? Why is it important to your clients? Why do people want it? We also try to teach them to think about taking some risks. I don’t think I took many risks as I went through college and graduate school, because everything was planned out in advance. My parents, who were not college graduates, did not fully understand what I was doing. They wondered if I’d ever leave school and get a job. They grasped what I was doing when I got paid for the first article I ever published, American Heritage in 1967. I got the outrageous amount of $600. But the reaction from one of my mentors, who later became a well-known New Deal historian, was, ‘You don’t want to be published in there. It doesn’t have any footnotes.’ But my parents understood, and then I experienced a different kind of response when a twelve-year-old kid came up to me and said, “I read that article. It was really fun.”

Cole: There are many talented historians in the academic world, but so much of the history that reaches people outside the academic world is not written by those people.

Cantelon: That’s right.

Cole: It’s the Walter Isaacsons and the David McCulloughs. Of course, there are scholars in the academic world who reach lots of people, you know, Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager and Allan Nevins. After my first couple of books, which were on subjects of interest to only seven people in the world, I wanted to tell people not only in my classroom but in the wider world about what I really loved. There’s this bifurcation between the kind of things you do and then the kind of things that go on in the academic world, much of it which is terrific, but much of which fails to connect with a wider audience.

Cantelon: Absolutely right. At History Associates we are often in the unique position of writing for a single audience, who is also the client. And whether the work is for corporate history, for an anniversary history, or whatever, they all have different reasons for wanting it. History Associates did a history for the Bank of New York’s two-hundredth anniversary. It was a beautiful book, but it didn’t contain every word we might have written because the chairman said he didn’t want to reopen old wounds. I didn’t agree with him, but he paid for it.

When I wrote the history of MCI, I told the story about how the company had run out of money in 1974 and fired most of its workforce a few days before Christmas. The woman who was the head of shareholder relations—we were sitting around a table—said, “You can’t put that in there. That reflects terribly on the company.” The chairman turned to her and said, “Why not? It happened, didn’t it?” The story stayed in the book. MCI wanted the book for a different purpose, not celebratory. They wanted it to tell the full story because another book had come out that they didn’t think told the story. That MCI book is, I believe, the first book by a historian to use electronic records, e-mail specifically, as a source.

Cole: How many other companies like yours are there?

Cantelon: None.

Cole: So you’re it.

Cantelon: There are individuals and companies that do some of the same things we do, but I don’t know of any who do all of the same things we do. Others do records storage, but we do archives and records management as well, all with professional archivists with advanced degrees. We do museum work too.
We probably do more litigation work than anybody else in the country. We’re probably the best at that in terms of finding records that people don’t think exist, and that’s a valuable service. There’s a lot of money at stake for our clients. We’ve saved corporations hundreds of millions of dollars by finding records.
There are other companies that write histories and such, but nobody quite does all of this, and we probably do more work internationally than any other company.

Cole: This has been an incredibly fascinating glimpse into a part of history, history research, and applied history that I don’t think many of our readers will know about.

Cantelon: They may think the same way my parents thought. If you don’t teach, what do you do?

Cole: You’ve shown there’s a lot you can do.

Cantelon: Thank you.

About the Author

Bruce Cole was the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 2001-2009.