The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” says Libby O’Connell (Grad ’79, ’87), quoting the writer L.P. Hartley. The idea serves as a sort of philosophy for O’Connell, a historian, author and documentary film producer. In her capacity as chief historian for the A+E Network’s History Channel, these things of the past, especially the minutia of daily life, are her focus. Interacting frequently with the Smithsonian Institution, the National Park Service and A+E Network programmers, O’Connell often has to field questions about any historical period throughout her workday. “We’re working on a big special right now on the Sons of Liberty,” she says. “The programmers came to us with certain flags asking, ‘Can we use this flag in 1766?’”
“My job is to know where to find the answers,” says O’Connell, who got her M.A. and Ph.D. in history at UVA. “I am a generalist now.”
O’Connell’s training before arriving at the A+E Network in 1993 was strictly academic. She specialized in 17th-century legal history at UVA, then taught at Long Island University and could have continued along the tenure track. But a part of her was drawn to social history, or the history of everyday life, “which is now something that lots of people do,” she says, but “was just beginning as a major field” back when she completed her degrees.
“In school, we are taught the large themes, and institutional histories—development of government and changes in immigration. All of those things are interesting, but daily life is something that we all experience,” she says. Her decision to apply on a whim for a six-month historical consulting gig at A+E in 1993 changed the course of her career. She has been there now for 21 years, won three Emmys for her work in education and television, and written a book that was published in November.
Traveling to the 17th Century
O’Connell’s interest in social history started midway through her undergraduate career at Tufts University when she took a semester off to work at Plimoth Plantation (which was the way Governor William Bradford spelled it in his writings about Plymouth colony), a living history museum in Plymouth, Mass. “Some people took time off to travel,” O’Connell says. “My best friend went to France that semester. I went to the 17th century.”
O’Connell wore full 17th-century garb and worked in the cook house, where she milked cows, tended to the herb garden and learned to cook over an open hearth, bake breads in a Dutch oven and churn butter. “I noticed that the cook house was the place where every visitor was interested. Awkward teenagers perked up; so did the bored grandpas. All different ages of people could relate to history when they looked at it through the lens of food,” she says. It was at Plimoth Plantation where she “fell in love with social history, with the story of everyday life,” she says. “It’s in the details of life that you really learn to understand a different worldview.”
After Tufts, she began her graduate work at UVA. “I loved legal history, because by looking at the local court records, you get a sense of how people lived their lives … you could find out the obscure details.” Her adviser was Professor Stephen Innes, who, she says, patiently reviewed her dissertation with her, chapter by chapter, through the mail when she was living in New York, raising two children and finishing her degree long distance. “He really helped teach me how to write better,” she says of Innes, who died in 2005. She also worked with Professor Joseph Kett, who taught American intellectual and cultural history at the University from 1966 to 2013. “Kett was inspirational for me,” she says. “What a great teacher.” Her UVA professors, she says, were incredibly rigorous and required her “to have a broad spectrum of understanding of American history. The training was outstanding.”
Without her graduate degrees, O’Connell would not have gotten her job at A+E. Laughing, she recalls the early days at the network: “When A+E hired me, they said, ‘We want you to answer your phone, “Dr. O’Connell,” and introduce yourself as “Dr. O’Connell” so everybody knows you have a doctorate.’” Her chance to work outside of the academy as a historian was a rare one at the time. “Our career choices were more narrow then,” she says.
Today the job market is tight for peoplewith a Ph.D. in the humanities, she says. “For many people, whatever job in which you can use that training is good. For me, the most valuable use I’ve made of my degree is speaking to a wider audience.”
History for the Masses
O’Connell has what she describes as a “missionary attitude” toward history. And perhaps more important to her than advising on various TV shows is reaching out and instilling an interest in history in the public. “History isn’t being taught to the same extent as it has been; that’s not earthshaking news. There’s a gap out there. We work hard to increase awareness of the importance and the fun of learning history.”
For better or for worse, TV, radio, podcasts and other forms of media have stepped in, and a public historian may gain more traction on America’s psyche than an academic. “Most Americans were not history majors. They go to parks, museums, they watch TV, listen to the “History Guys” on the radio. That’s where they pick up history. I like being part of that.”
An outreach project O’Connell recently completed, one she considers to be some of her life’s work, was in collaboration with an exhibit at the Library of Congress called “The Civil Rights Act: A Long Struggle for Freedom.” It opened in September and includes audiovisual stations with clips showing the boycotts and protests, as well as hundreds of photographs, drawings, posters, legal briefs and letters. The History Channel donated two short films that O’Connell and her team produced in coordination with the Library of Congress.
“The films really help the visitors contextualize what they’re seeing,” says Lee Ann Potter, director of educational outreach at the Library of Congress. She explains that one of the benefits of doing an exhibit on events in the not-so-distant past is that there’s a lot of audio and visual material you can use to augment the experience. “You know how you hear a song from a particular time and it helps you understand that time? It really speaks to the human involvement.”
O’Connell also worked with the Library of Congress on a book to go along with the exhibit. Filled with primary source material, it’s a resource for teachers to help them make the events of the civil rights movement come alive. “We were thrilled to work with Libby on this project,” says Potter. “She cares a great deal about providing educators with materials they can use and that students will find interesting.”
All Around the Plate
The latest stop on O’Connell’s mission to engage the public in history is her new book called The American Plate: A History of the United States in 100 Bites. “I’ve been fascinated by food and food history ever since I worked in the cook house at Plimoth Plantation,” she says. “In writing my book, I found that people who don’t consider themselves history lovers will still pay attention when you start talking about the foods we eat every day, which actually come from all over the world.”
In the book, she follows the progression of American eating, starting with the Native American Hopis, who cultivated maize, or corn, “the fundamental grain of American history,” and going all the way up to the present day—one chapter breaks down the debate currently raging over genetically modified foods.
The book highlights certain individuals and cultures that influenced the way we eat, along with photographs and recipes for dishes like “Mary Lincoln’s White Almond Cake” and “Southern Buttermilk Fried Chicken.” It also provides historical tidbits and surprising information about foods well-known and otherwise, like the fact that beavertail used to be considered a delicacy. “It’s just a fatty slab,” she says. “One thing people needed in their diet was fat. An honored guest might be served beavertail.”
O’Connell spent about 18 months doing original research and reaching out to other scholars. “I stand on the shoulders of giants.”
At the moment, O’Connell is at work on a film for Independence Hall in Philadelphia, which will add to the more than 40 other short films she’s produced and that can be seen in museums around the country.
“I believe that history and history education add richness to our lives,” she says, “an understanding to our world and depth and perspective that only an awareness of the past can bring.”