From the OAH Executive Director

Katherine Finley

Editor’s Note: This letter was completed on Feb. 6. For a response to COVID-19, please see News of the OAH in this issue.

Dear OAH Members,

As most of you probably know by now, I am retiring as OAH’s Executive Director on June 30, 2020. It is with mixed feelings that I leave the organization after leading it for ten years. I am excited to open a new chapter in my life and enjoy some of the activities I had to put aside during my work career. However, I know that I will miss the many wonderful members of the OAH and their work to improve the history profession and to promote an understanding of history in the public sphere. 

It has been a true honor to serve as your executive director. I have long been interested in history (even though I didn’t really realize it). As a child of immigrant parents, I enjoyed reading letters, looking at old photographs, and hearing stories from both my mother and father’s families about their experiences. Although I didn’t care much for history in high school since it was merely the memorization of dates and events, I was always interested in going to museums and felt that they did a much better job of teaching history.

When I went to a four-year liberal arts college, I realized that good teachers can make all the difference in the world. Although I wasn’t planning on majoring in history in college, one history course taught by an outstanding professor turned me into a convert. His enthusiasm for antebellum and Civil War history was powerful, and fortunately, I took other history courses from professors who were all equally good. My liberal arts education also opened me to the possibility of non-traditional careers in history. I loved museums and decided that I wanted to be able to be part of a new field at the time—museum studies. I wanted to be part of a movement that showed the public that history could be interesting and complex and was more than the dates and events presented in traditional high school history courses. So for thirteen years, I worked in museums. For nine of those years, I worked in the history of medicine and thoroughly enjoyed it. 

After thirteen years in the museum field, I left to work at an academic center on philanthropy and then onto a number of different associations, and was delighted when I had an opportunity to run the professional association that serves American historians. To me, my heart had come home.

I am both proud of what the OAH has done in the past ten years to further the profession as well as all the research done by members to enhance and enlighten our understanding of American history. Because of the efforts of a hard-working and dedicated staff and board during the past ten years, we’ve established two new travel funds for graduate students (Merrill and President’s Fund); established book and dissertation prizes for those working in women’s history, labor history, and LGBTQ history and a prize recognizing excellence in National Park Service efforts; established China and Germany residency programs and continued to obtain funding for the Japan residency program; developed a long-standing and productive relationship with Oxford University Press to publish the Journal of American History and through the leadership of JAH editors continue to publish the leading journal and blog in American history; developed a new magazine (The American Historian) which covers issues in the profession and provides guidance in the teaching and presentation of history; have enlarged and improved the Distinguished Lectureship Program; have strengthened our relationship with the National Park Service and provided scholarly research for their sites to improve the interpretation and presentation of history at the parks; moved into the digital era with our publications, elections, and database; developed an award-winning experts database for the media; established a career center; increased the number of benefits offered to members; enhanced and enlarged the OAH Annual Meeting; and have advocated for issues that concern the profession and have used the historical knowledge of our members to enlighten public policy issues and Supreme Court cases.

Operationally, we have managed over the years to have budget surpluses (albeit small surpluses, but surpluses nonetheless); merged 11 different databases into one online one which has expedited much or our operations and hopefully made it easier for members to renew their memberships, register for the conference and submit proposals, and learn more about the many benefits OAH; negotiated hotel contracts more beneficial to the OAH and its members; introduced internal accounting controls so each year we have been issued a “clean” or unqualified audit; increased the extent and scope of our fundraising efforts; and updated our website several times.

As I leave, I am delighted that the OAH has undertaken an endowment campaign to secure its future. There is still much to be done at the OAH to serve all the members of the diverse profession of historians and to promote OAH and its members on the national stage. As a new executive director comes to the OAH in July, I am sure he or she will build upon the past successes of the OAH (as I built upon the successes of previous executives). As I am enjoying my retirement, I look forward to hearing great things about the OAH and its members!