The Book That Started It All: My Impetus into Public History

Recently, a professor asked what book we would recommend/ what got us started in the Public History field. Here’s my story:

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough, available on

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough, available on

My book was The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough.

During undergrad, I kept asking the teacher of my open-paper topic History 200 class for more ideas of where to find resources, direction, etc. on a paper I wrote about West Point, NY. He finally told me that if I didn’t read The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough that he would fail me for the class. Although it was not required reading, he thought that it was a similar book to what I was researching for the topic and essential to my learning. Reading that book changed my life. Originally written in 1968, The Johnstown Flood was McCullough’s first book. I have noticed that writers put their whole hearts into their first book depending upon the topic/nature of the book.

While learning about the people involved in this major national unnatural disaster, I felt like I was watching a movie. Although the “movie effect” normally happens when reading good books, nothing had been so clear in my mind and dug into my soul and brain as this book had. I could see the wall of brackish water rolling down through the valleys in Pennsylvania and I was scared for these people even though they already died more than a hundred years before my time. In my mind, I was there, but I was the lucky one who did not have to live through it directly.

That’s a big part of why I chose to go into Public History as part of my career aspirations. Sure, I’m in love with historical house tours, and I am an experienced family historian. Honestly, I can’t get enough of this field. But reading McCullough made me change perspectives. I related to it due to the project, the nature of the text, and its similarities in flow and demeanor to a favored ecclesiastical text. I fell in love with a tragedy that left me awed and motivated, perhaps for life.


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