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A guide to becoming a professional historic preservationist

  • 1.  A guide to becoming a professional historic preservationist

    Posted 04-11-2019 09:38
    Some of you might be interested in a guide I created that has just been posted on the Forum section of the Trust's web site. "A Guide to Becoming an Historic Preservation Professional" takes a novice from initial interest to practicing professional and is informed by a census that I did of historic preservation job postings to identify the specific knowledge and skills that employers want. There is also a discussion of the selection of degree programs based on a potential student's interests. A thread through the entire guide is the need to diversify the field both in terms of the object of its attention as well as its practitioners.

    See here for a description of the guide from the Trust's Forum page. You can link directly to the PDF of the guide here

    I wanted to thank Priya Chhaya (from the National Trust) in helping me to produce this guide. She provided some very useful input and feedback. My hope is that preservation professionals, such as those of you reading this post, will use this guide to help nascent preservationists choose a fruitful and fulfilling career path.


  • 2.  RE: A guide to becoming a professional historic preservationist

    Posted 04-11-2019 13:25
    Edited by Charles Lawrence 04-12-2019 12:15

    Good work Jeremy, I know this has been a subject of interest to you for a while. I did a similar exercise in parsing out HP job listings some time ago and wrote this post on a now defunct blog that you may find interesting:

    Heritage Conservation: Becoming (and Being) a Professional

    EDIT: Jeremy, I wanted to suggest a subset of work types for the Arch & Construction track; these include Historic Structure Reports, Building Preservation  Plans, Historic Preservation Plans, Campus HP Plans, etc. As well, Historic Tax Credit consulting is a big part of the HP work done in A/E firms today, especially in states with robust programs. I'd also note the absence of the academic track - which I assume is the result of job postings for academic positions being more rare.

    Charles Lawrence
    Architectural Conservator / Preservation Planner
    Lord Aeck Sargent
    Atlanta GA
    Chair, Board of Directors
    Historic Atlanta, Inc.

  • 3.  RE: A guide to becoming a professional historic preservationist

    Posted 04-12-2019 07:41
    This looks so helpful, Jeremy. Thank you! Thank you!! Judy Wellman

    Judith Wellman, Ph.D.

    Principal Investigator, Historical New York Research Associates

    Professor Emerita, State University of New York at Oswego

    2 Harris Hill Road, Fulton, New York 13069


    Discovering extraordinary people and places in time.

    "All men and women are created equal." Declaration of Sentiments, Seneca Falls, 1848

    "Right is of no sex. Truth is of no color." Frederick Douglass. North Star, 1848

  • 4.  RE: A guide to becoming a professional historic preservationist

    Posted 04-13-2019 23:30
    Hi Jeremy,
    This is so cool! Your work, I believe, will help professionals more clearly and adequately explain the different manifestations of current preservation practice to laypeople as well as to professionals of other fields. Additionally, I think it will really help people who are coming into this field of practice (either students or professionals seeking career changes) to more easily assess where their interests and skills will best be applied (this tool gives direction to passion, thank you!) What I am most excited about is that your work gives fresh, and much needed, insight on the possible directions that the field can (and needs) to explore in order to more effectively "[impact] people's identity, wellbeing, and sense of place." I also believe these evolving trends will give ample space for preservationists to successfully collaborate with professionals from other fields (similar to the mission of Katie Rispoli Keaotamai's Ticco initiative) as well as expand the capacity of preservation (and preservationists) into new, innovative ways to address "making the world a better place for people"-if preservationists take advantage of the opportunity to move forward in this line of practice.

    After reading the article I just have a few questions:

    1) Considering the perceived relationship between preservation and architecture, and the more widely accepted correlation between preservation and regulatory compliance, do you think that some preservation job seekers are surprised by the employer requirements for sectors such as downtown revitalization and preservation advocacy? Do you think this may cause job seekers to shy away from these sectors for this reason?

    2) To what extent do you think that unclear assumptions, biased perceptions, and/or unproductive experiences with current preservation practice cause employers to exclude preservation employment opportunities?

    3) What advice would you give to preservation students and/or professionals who are interested in working in some of the new trends in historic preservation-diversity, inclusion, social justice and equity; climate change; technology; etc.-but encounter obstacles because of nascent cross pollination within academic programs, lack of employment opportunities that recognize and nurture these new combination of skills, and, indeed, resistance from some in preservation, and other fields, to accept these new trends because of their belief in a static definition of what their field is and isn't, what it does and doesn't do?

    Looking forward to the discussion,

    Jamesha Gibson

  • 5.  RE: A guide to becoming a professional historic preservationist

    Posted 04-15-2019 14:58

    Jeremy (& Priya),


    Thanks for creating this. It's a sobering read. I'm disappointed that so many jobs are focused on regulation – 70% (!). The remaining 30% is, to me, the part that can take preservation to a deeper connection to our landscape. Of course, these fields have limited funding because of the perceived lack of value to this work.


    Governments often "get" the idea of regulations and rules and therefore jobs exist where the money is. NEPA, NHPA, 106, etc. We live in an alphabet soup of a career. This attitude reduces innovative thinking about how preservation can best approach solving major issues facing our built landscapes and instead reduces it to simple formulas for protecting the basics. We get stuck in silos instead of having a broad take. Our training programs and degrees teach to help those that are seeking the 70% of positions. That isn't the fault of individual programs (they are fighting for the survival of the program generally), but is an issue that we in the field must take on.  Students want to come out and have a good job – so we teach them for the jobs that exist, rather than the jobs we need. Funders fund projects that work, not projects that need tested and tried.


    Interns who come here are asked "what can we do with this internship to make you feel like you have accomplished something?" They often go to research. They want to research and dig deep. My answer: "We all want to research, but there isn't money for it. So what else is there?" Most struggle to figure it out. "I like old buildings" or "I'm really into history" are common answers.


    Of course, this report also misses some trends because (as they say on the second page), not all jobs are classified as historic preservation. Partnership development, fundraising, etc. are all part of the job of historic preservation. It just isn't as clean cut. I would love to see more preservation training programs team up with businesses schools to offer dual degrees in nonprofit management or public administration and historic preservation.


    Jamesha –


    Good questions that were asked. I would say that the problem with downtown revitalization and preservation advocacy isn't that students aren't applying for them – rather that they cannot pay what its necessary. These fields do not get the type of funding they need to do the jobs they do – and can't pay professionals what they should be paid to do a highly complex job that has a tangible outcome.


    I can't answer your second question easily, but on the third, you may have answered your own questions. Our institutions that were built for preservation are large, unwieldy, and hard to change. There are loads of the pioneers still in charge. They may be 70+ but they are still leading the charge. They believe so deeply in the cause that they are loathe to give up the mantle. These are interesting, supportive leaders – but new directions are hard to adapt to.


    I once read that universities should not offer degrees in one topic like history or engineering – but instead should offer degrees in "water." You would learn a cross cutting method of attacking a major issue from the history, to the engineering, to the politics, etc. Preservation is one of the few places where we can do that. And no one at the higher levels gets it. So I wouldn't put it at the feet of the departments – but put it to those higher up.


    The rising trend of public history is, I believe, a response to this increasing focus on regulation and the lack of jobs in "traditional history." Perhaps combining this information with what we are seeing in public history might give a better sense of where jobs are for a wider range of students.


    Thanks again,




    Aaron Marcavitch, Executive Director

    Maryland Milestones/ATHA Inc.

    MAILING: P.O. Box 367, Hyattsville, MD 20781

    PHYSICAL: 4318 Gallatin Street, Hyattsville, MD 20781


    301-887-0777 (p)

    301-887-1077 (f)


    **Support Maryland Milestones with a contribution at GoFundMe**


  • 6.  RE: A guide to becoming a professional historic preservationist

    Posted 04-17-2019 23:26
    Hi @Aaron Marcavitch,
    Thank you for considering and answering my questions. I agree with you that funding issues and ​ideological differences within the ranks of preservation hinders professionals' ability to explore innovative directions to solve reoccurring and emerging problems facing our practice. But, I think that by continuing to ask questions, and  initiating collaborative research projects with interdisciplinary teams to find solutions for issues  that have an overlapping impact on our work; will have the potential to enact influential change in historic preservation.

    Jamesha Gibson

  • 7.  RE: A guide to becoming a professional historic preservationist

    Posted 04-18-2019 15:05
    Hi Jamesha,

    Thanks for your input. I think for your first question, I would say that the issue in the HP field is that we really have four distinct areas of practice - regulatory compliance, design/materials conservation, interpretation, and advocacy - that often fail to overlap in terms of knowledge and skills. While there are some shared areas of knowledge and skills, there's not nearly as many as most people seem to think. If HP was 10x larger than its current size, I think we would see specialization in terms of degree programs and training in these areas, but as we are now, we're too small to make this work. (I'm certainly open to counter arguments.)

    If I understand your second question, there's a concern that because of the biases and stereotypes around HP, some employers might not want to create positions in which someone could do this work? I'm thinking of some kind of historic preservation specialist at an architecture firm, for instance. While I'm sure some employers hold these perceptions, most of these decisions come down to the bottom line - can an employer make money by offering HP services delivered by qualified professionals? Or, on the non profit and especially government side, are we able to clearly make arguments as to our value in this area? Many smaller local municipalities, for instance, hire a general planner and expect him/her to support a local preservation commission, even if this individual has no formal training in the area. How could you convince a small municipality of the value of hiring a qualified HP planner in this scenario in addition to an urban planner?

    As for your last question, my thought would be that new students entering the field would be well served by a basic interest founded in people and their welfare. While I doubt anyone would enter the field without an interest in the aesthetic qualities of buildings, without the interest in people (especially marginalized populations) and the real benefits our practice brings to society, we'll have difficulty advancing the relevance of what we do. 


  • 8.  RE: A guide to becoming a professional historic preservationist

    Posted 04-27-2019 16:03

    Hi Jeremy,

    Thank you for considering and answering my questions. Your answers are great food for thought for preservationists in all sectors going forward. I agree that incoming students should have an interest in the welfare of people, and particularly disenfranchised groups, as well as an interest in aesthetics to maximize historic preservation's contribution to social issues. The problem, I think, with this is that our field portrays to prospective students, as well as laypeople unfamiliar with our practice, "acceptable" and "unacceptable" ways that these interests are applied in our field.

    For example, a student  of preservation who would like to investigate the habitual, and often predatory, trend of demolition of historic sites connected to marginalized groups within a city would be encouraged to document the sites, collect oral histories, and/or push for the various sites' nominations to the local, state, and National registers (pending these sites' ability to meet the criteria for the registers, which they often don't because of trends of marginalization), among other strategies relevant to the four sectors of preservation. The student is not, or is very rarely encouraged, to seek out, engage, and apply methods of other fields (such as social and natural sciences) to assess the underlying causes of, and determine prospective solutions for, the trend of disparate demolition. Additionally, if the student is of a minority ethnic or racial group, they may be encouraged (more implicitly, rather than explicitly) to focus their investigation of this trend on the group with whom they share racial and ethnic background (largely due to an errant perception in preservation that there should be a stronger connection between the individual and this community, whom they have never encountered before, simply due to their shared racial and ethnic background) even though other marginalized groups are experiencing the same devastations of this trend.

    In this scenario (though, I'll admit, is oversimplified), there are "acceptable" and "unacceptable" ways to work with this complex issue in preservation practice. Working with the methods relevant to the four sectors is considered "acceptable" and "correct" while working with strategies from other fields is considered "less acceptable," even, possibly, "deviant." Similarly, in the scenario, there is an "acceptable" way to work with communities of color, and practice as a preservation professional of color. These implied conditions are what is rhetorically communicated to incoming students and laypeople interested in preservation practice as "acceptable" and "correct" mores. Therefore, students or laypeople who are attracted to, and share, these values of preservation practice will continue to filter into the field and perpetuate these mores. While prospective students and laypeople wanting to engage in multidisciplinary strategies and/or look differently at the complex nature of inclusion in preservation practice will either become frustrated in the field or enter into a field where these concepts are more easily accepted (I think this is why we often find "accidental preservationists" in other fields).

    I think that the best way to correct this problem is to change how we, as preservationists, perceive the border of preservation practice. I believe that this is what the article does and I am beyond appreciative to you, Priya, and the National Trust for doing it!

    Jamesha Gibson

  • 9.  RE: A guide to becoming a professional historic preservationist

    Posted 04-29-2019 09:58
    Thanks @Jamesha Gibson Just wanted to put in a quick clarification! This project is @Jeremy Wells baby. As he said I provided some feedback and suggestions but he did all the work and analysis. (It isn't something that NTHP was involved with beyond that).

    That being said, I wanted to make sure to post this on Forum because it is an important to the broader conversation about the future of the profession.  Jeremy looked at a specific data set to develop his conclusions but I wanted to ask those out in the field about what other information would be helpful for those students and young professionals. What would you have wanted to know?

    I keep jumping back to the Public History Navigator that the National Council on Public History put out a few years ago.  Does historic preservation need something like that (which would take Jeremy's work to the next level?)


    Priya Chhaya
    Associate Director, Publications and Programs
    National Trust for Historic Preservation
    Washington DC

  • 10.  RE: A guide to becoming a professional historic preservationist

    Posted 04-29-2019 10:56



    Thanks for asking the next question – how can we help students? A few things jump up to me as I interview potential interns and potential new hires. (I'll again note that I'm in the sub, sub groups of Jeremy's list. Working in heritage tourism sort of straddles the advocacy and revitalization worlds. Heritage Areas are a very small subset in an already limited field.)


    1)      What leadership skills do they demonstrate? This seems simple, but I find that many who go through the field are looking for something that is very technical and aren't looking at how they interact with the public. We are such a public facing field. Students need to get comfortable with public interface. They need to be able to show how to lead and engage people to support our work.

    2)      What business acumen do they demonstrate? Our preservation programs do not provide enough business experience. While we may have 70% of the jobs in regulatory, that means the other 30% needs to know basic business operations. And I'd guess that if someone were going into regulatory work, they would need to know something about business (or public administration). How do you read a budget? How do you craft a budget? What does it mean when you go over budget? (I would also suggest programs should offer/provide access to at least one class in fundraising and development for those that are interested.)

    3)      Can they write? Roger Williams University (alma mater one) was an amazing experience where I learned technical writing and was well suited to write a NR nomination. Middle Tennessee (alma mater two) then had to beat that skill set out of me over two semesters. I had to learn to write a narrative. Different skill sets and it shows in those that apply for the jobs for which I've interviewed students.

    4)      How can we be more intentional in stating what Jeremy states – that there is no job called Historic Preservation? We need to show them how the field is fractured and what the jobs are that they can do. They also need to understand that there are no certifications for this type of work.

    5)      How can we be more intentional in letting students know that A) the types of jobs that are available B) this is a decidedly non-academic field with tangible outcomes more relevant than academic study? We have to be honest with students that while they may want to do research, that isn't the job you get to do on a regular basis.


    A navigator might work, but is this the job of NTHP? It might be the job of National Council on Preservation Education.  Or it might be the job of an organization that doesn't exist. I'm just not sure that NTHP can be all things to all parts of preservation.





    Aaron Marcavitch, Executive Director

    Maryland Milestones/ATHA Inc.

  • 11.  RE: A guide to becoming a professional historic preservationist

    Posted 04-29-2019 11:15
    Edited by Priya Chhaya 04-29-2019 11:16

    I agree completely. I don't think NTHP is the right organization for pulling something like the navigator out there, for the reasons you stated. What I do think we can do is help to facilitate the conversation with the right partners (with the right expertise, and perspective) taking the lead.

    For a lot of this work partnerships are going to be critical. Also I think your point about being a sub-sub group is important b/c like much of the broader historical profession preservationists wear many hats and do a wide variety of work that often doesn't fall within the titles that Jeremy looked at. From a research stand point how do you do a broader study that takes that into account? How do you design the parameters that work without diluting the efficacy of the results.


    Priya Chhaya
    Associate Director, Publications and Programs
    National Trust for Historic Preservation
    Washington DC

  • 12.  RE: A guide to becoming a professional historic preservationist

    Posted 04-29-2019 12:25
    @Jeremy Wells &  @Priya Chhaya,
    I am SO ​​​ sorry about the misunderstanding. I wasn't really clear on this, and just wanted to ensure that I was giving credit to everyone involved. Again, I apologize. But I'm glad the guide is on Forum, and the conversation was started because the preservation field needs to have this conversation.

    I think additional information that might help students and young professionals in the field are*:

    1) How to manage debt incurred in school (both while in an academic program and post-graduation/early career).

    2) Professional development both during academic study and throught a professional's career (especially during career milestones and transitions).

    3) What is the sense of community (not only among students in academic programs, but also among professionals in the field at large).

    4) Mental and Emotional Health (there is, from what I know, no ongoing discussion about this in the field. This should not be the case. There should be a more open discussion about mental and emotional wellbeing in managing stress, anxiety, and trauma (sometimes from outside experiences that impact our work) not only in academic programs, but also in professional work (especially for those working in the advocacy and regulatory sectors who may have to encounter conflict-resolution issues).

    5) I think it is imperative that  we continue to make students and young professionals aware of the emerging trends and collaborations in historic preservation. We should also continue to nuture conversations around these emerging trends/collabs because, in doing so, it will provide opportunities for new sectors, fields of study, and research in preservation.

    *(some of these suggestions are based on sections in NCPH's Public History Navigator)


    Jamesha Gibson