Working History: Sean Stoyles
After his Master's Degree, Sean Stoyles created his own historical consulting firm, Cobblestone Heritage Consultants, and is currently under contract with CDCI Research as a Senior Research Consultant. Read Sean’s interview and listen to the podcast to learn the ins and outs of historical consulting.
What are the regular tasks for your job?
My projects are primarily, though not exclusively, a blend of field work, archival work, and report writing. These tasks are usually undertaken individually, or in small teams of two or three researchers and technical experts. The assignments are client-driven, and have included everything from oral histories and interviews with veterans and members of First Nations’ bands; to rummaging through basement closets in search of photographs and documents; to maintaining and analyzing information in databases; to walking through various outdoor settings for GIS mapping; to researching various record groups at Library and Archives Canada, government departmental record repositories and private collections.
The first paid project that we undertook was to fundraise for a history conference. The second project was to research, write, and web-post a history of a locally-owned rural insurance company. Most recently, I have researched and written reports for Defence Construction Canada with CDCI Research.
What is the best part of your job?
The best part of my career — it should be called a career because I have passion for the work — are the people that I meet. I have had the privilege of travelling to various parts of Canada to undertake oral histories, interviews, fieldwork and archival research. It has given me a great appreciation for the vast size and geographical complexity of Canada, and intimate exposure to some of the many unique individuals and groups who make of the fabric of the country. Everyone has a story to tell, and it is a thrill and privilege when they share it with me.
My favourite moment was undertaking field work and discussions with members of a First Nation in Alberta. Never before had I experienced people who laugh so much, and who shared their stories with such passion. For weeks, in the relaxed company of Nation members, I travelled out into their land. Festooned with the tools of a modern historian — GPS, video camera, digital camera, audio recorder, maps, notebook computer, pencil, pen and paper — I experienced and shared the history and natural environment of the land with the people themselves.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
As an independent researcher, budgeting is the most difficult. Time is an issue: How much time should be spent on a Response For Proposal? What is the project timeline? What are the project benchmarks? Do I have the tools to complete the project within the dictated timeframe?
In addition to time considerations, financial budgeting is the greatest challenge: What are the cost margins? How much do I need to put away for downtimes? Unfortunately, as an historical consultant, a pension and paid-vacation are not in the cards.
How did you get interested in history?
My father first fostered a sense of history in me. He was a high-school Business Studies teacher, who had served in the Canadian Forces, and had an interest in military history. I was probably the only Grade 7 student in the country whose favourite book was Canada At War 1939-45, Volume II. Our family would head out on annual summer trips to different museums and cities, my brothers and I cramped and slithering on the vinyl seats in the back of the un-air conditioned car, while Mom served as the Intrepid Navigator and Dad drove inhuman hours in all sorts of weather. These trips not only inspired a sense of family, but provided exposure to a wide variety of museums and galleries. History is important to me because it answers the five tradition questions of an inquisitive mind: “Who, What, When, Where and How?”
What advice would you give to students who are interested in a similar job?
Get out there and get involved. Read and research voraciously. If you do not know in what sector of the historical realm you wish to make a career, take as many different types of jobs as possible in order to diversity your CV. Take stock of your personal attributes, highlighting your skills, and working on your shortcomings. Stay in school, particularly at the university level, and take as diverse a range of courses as possible (being an independent historian requires historical and methodological knowledge, plus business acumen, technical know-how, balanced social skills, and, particularly when working in the Ottawa area, a second language). Visit museums and archives to experience firsthand different types of exhibitions and resources. When possible, speak to the staff and get your name out there.
If you happen to be a social media junkie, be mindful of your blogging and web footprint. Many potential clients will Google you, so be sure that what is on the Net is accurate, intelligent and professional. Do not be afraid to ask thoughtful questions of people.
Do not be afraid to take a chance — the life of an independent public historian is rarely consistent — one has to be flexible enough to work 30 days a month when required, and have the fortitude to survive both mentally and financially in downtimes. It comes down to having a passion for your chosen profession.