As a former history professor and one of the first employees of The History Channel, Dr. Libby Haight O'Connell has long been immersed in the story of how things once were in America. For the past two years, however, she has been directing her efforts into the trouble the nation faces today.
Her job at A&E and The History Channel—officially, she's chief historian/senior VP, corporate outreach, A&E TV Networks—involves overseeing the educational programs of the networks. Lately, that has meant more than just writing Civil War teacher guides.
She has also been holding town-hall meetings on drug abuse all over the country in support of sister network A&E's Intervention, a documentary series that chronicles the lives of addicts and stages surprise interventions.
“It became clear when the show started that we had an opportunity to educate people,” she says. “I was worried about it from a PR standpoint because it's a very up-close-and-personal look at people with addiction. But our phone calls were from people saying, 'Thank you, you inspired me to seek treatment, and where can I go?' So we developed an outreach program with the Partnership for a Drug Free America.” Her success with Intervention is a part of the reason she is receiving a Vanguard Award for Government and Community Relations this year.
O'Connell has traveled to Philadelphia, Houston and other cities, inviting the community to talk openly about drug abuse. The programs are geared toward older teens and adults, a slightly older take than her school-based materials. The focus is on practical treatment advice.
Even though this idea seems contemporary, it is actually a project O'Connell was prepared for as a historian. After graduating from Tufts University, she received her PhD in legal history from the University of Virginia, where she did research on how the social ills of England migrated to the colonies.
She spent most of her time reading court records and other documents. She says this may sound boring even to people interested in history, however she always found it fascinating. “You encounter all the deviant behavior of the time,” she says. “You find out about the drunken brawls, brothels, all the low-life stuff.”
So, when she went to a town like New Bedford, Mass., for an Intervention program, she had a historical background to try to help residents there deal with an intense heroin problem. “It taps into the skills I use for history,” she says, noting that she has learned a lot about how drug problems vary with geography. As recent news stories note, heroin is the focus in New England, but crystal meth is prevalent in the Midwest.
“I think history, especially the way Libby approaches it, is a great resource for understanding contemporary life,” says Brent Glass, director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, who has worked with O'Connell on numerous installations over the past seven years. “I wasn't surprised to hear she was holding these meetings on drug abuse. I think she's able to frame these issues in a broad perspective.”
O'Connell handles her diverse job in a similar fashion, treating it like a multi-layered problem that needs to be studied. She splits her long days supervising traditional classroom guides and co-productions of programs with more than 65 museums and historic sites, as well as coordinating National History Day, which involves 600,000 students in a history competition that mirrors the science-fair model. She is also involved with lobbying efforts on behalf of historic sites. She has met with presidents, testified before all sorts of committees and lobbied on behalf of history education as often as possible.
O'Connell says, if she hadn't had a fateful run-in 11 years ago with A&E Senior VP Whitney Goit, she would probably be a tenured history professor or president of a historical museum (both places she worked in lesser capacities earlier in her career).
“I thank my husband for encouraging me to do this job,” she says, and she's grateful that it came along when her son and daughter, who are now out of college, were already in school and she was able to pursue it.
While her “heart belongs to history,” O'Connell has been learning the benefits of working with living people to solve their everyday problems. Last year, she executive-produced a short-form documentary for A&E called A Question of Life or Meth that has been nominated for a Daytime Emmy.
When she wrote to the interview subjects concerning the news, she says one of them—a former meth addict who had lost custody of her daughter—wrote back to inform her that “participating in the documentary had helped her stay clean and she had just got her daughter back.” She forwarded the note to A&E President Abbe Raven and added her own addendum: “We're so lucky this is our job.”