Although public historians and public intellectuals were present in the United States long before the 1970s and 80s, in those decades these terms emerged as focal points for intensified debates about the roles to which they pointed. Those debates shared more than chronological proximity; they had common questions and concerns. As The Public Historian marks its forty-fifth year, comparing discussions about public historians to those about public intellectuals casts new light on a question posed at the outset and present since: what is public history? This comparison highlights the development of public history as a process—rather than the public historian as a role or public history as a product—and locates it in a broader reconfiguration of academic authority in the public sphere over the last fifty years, which included “public intellectuals” and movements for public sociology, public philosophy, and public humanities. Whereas the authoritative voice remained central to the role of the public intellectual, the process of public history was the ground for a shift to shared authority. Developments in theory and practice in the field of public history therefore resonate beyond it: they constitute one of the richest bodies of work grappling with the always-contested place of experts, professionals, and intellectuals in American democracy.

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