Dr. Libby Haight O'Connell parlayed a love of history into a career in TV. As the chief historian/SVP, corporate outreach, for A&E Television Networks, she serves as the network's institutional memory. Indeed, her historical expertise, coupled with an ability to find resources for creating programs, makes her invaluable. Today, she has oversight for community initiatives at A&E, The History Channel, Biography Channel, History International, History en Español and Military History.
Since Haight O'Connell signed on, the History Channel has gone from an idea to a fully programmed, 86 million-subscriber network. The channel has also won three Peabody Awards. “In a room of national historical experts, she commands respect and attention,” says Dan Davids, president of The History Channel USA. “When Libby walks into the Smithsonian, she gets a welcome like when Norm walked into Cheers.”
Haight O'Connell's predisposition to history is easy to understand. She grew up making frequent trips with her family from hometown Bethlehem, Pa., to Paris, London and other overseas cities. Her father, a history professor, would jet the family from one country to another to see art displays and visit historical sites. Her mother was a docent for a small art museum. As a young girl, Haight O'Connell spent time studying in England but didn't consider her cosmopolitan lifestyle unusual: “It was just the way I grew up.”
In her sophomore year at Tufts University, Haight O'Connell's scholarly background put her ahead of classmates, so she took a semester off to work. Her first paying job was at a living-history museum depicting the 17th-century experiences of the pilgrims in Massachusetts. The interactive Plimoth Plantation is a far cry from a stuffed-shirt guided museum tour; Haight O'Connell dressed as a pilgrim and sometimes milked cows.
HISTORY CAN BE FUN
“There was this whole revolution of how history should be taught, that it could be funky and fun,” she explains. “The past was so interesting that, if people knew more about it, they would really enjoy it.” Drawn to teaching, she pursued a master's degree in legal history at the University of Virginia. When she was offered a full scholarship, she decided to earn a Ph.D.
In 1981, Haight O'Connell was a visiting scholar at NYU Law School, newly married and pregnant. After completing two final exams, she went into labor. She rested for a few weeks after giving birth, then completed the remaining exams. “I'm good at multitasking,” she laughs, “but that was a little extreme.”
Her second child was in school by the time she completed her graduate coursework five years later. While writing her dissertation, she took a job at historical house Raynam Hall, a museum in Oyster Bay, N.Y. She started out in educational development and was soon responsible for finding the resources to make her programs a reality. She learned the ropes and was appointed president in 1988. The experience proved crucial in honing her TV skills—at A&E Networks, she has forged relationships with museums and government entities. “It was very beneficial for my career,” she says.
Earning a doctorate in 1988, Haight O'Connell began a lecture series for adults at Long Island University. Four years later, with her children settled, she decided to beef up her resume and apply for a full-time university post.
Friends introduced her to Whitney Goit, who now serves as senior EVP for A&E Television Networks, in 1993. Impressed with her experience, Goit requested a résumé. When he explained the concept of an all-history cable network, she wasn't convinced others shared her passion. But she couldn't pass up an opportunity to work in TV. She was hired as a consultant and historical advisor.
She began by researching candidates for Biography and developing interstitials for what became The History Channel. At the same time, she formed relationships with museums, discovering archived material to run on the network. As the channel developed, programming was sent to museums for in-house viewing.
Her career leap paid off. “I had no idea how passionate so many people were about history! People discovered they loved history in their 30s and 40s.” In 1996, Haight O'Connell was elevated to director of educational initiatives and community marketing, as well as historian in residence, for the A&E Television Networks.
In her new position, she oversaw the Biography Project for Schools, a tape library that highlighted exceptional historical figures like aviator Amelia Earhart and 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass. She hired teachers and wrote classroom materials. The network sent copies to every school in the U.S. with an eighth-grade class, eventually winning the Governor's Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
In 1998, she began co-executive-producing Save Our History, quarterly documentaries on historic preservation and education. She also had a hand in a series for the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. To date, the History Channel has created video collections for approximately 36 sites of historic significance in the U.S.
Although Haight O'Connell has responsibility for several channels, her heart remains where she began. “I've been a part of a team that helped to build The History Channel,” she says, “and that's something I'll always be proud of.”