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Meet Amber Beierle: Historian, Advocate and Teacher

Historian Amber Beierle poses at the old penitentiary

Amber Beierle’s professional accomplishments are many, and they are notable.

After starting 14 years ago as a weekend intern giving tours at the Old Idaho Penitentiary, Beierle is now historic sites administrator for the Idaho State Historical Society. She is arguably the most knowledgeable person in the state about the Old Penitentiary – a significant site that opened before Idaho became a state and housed inmates until the early 1970s.

“As a historian, Beierle is always creative,” said Boise State Professor of History Emeritus Todd Shallat, whom Beierle calls her mentor. “She validates the notion of the public scholar who teaches without preaching.”

Beierle and her staff have organized educational events that help the public see the old prison in new ways. The event line-up has included art shows inspired by inmate stories, paranormal investigations to detect the presence of some of the 129 inmates who died at the site, even food bank fundraisers that held local reporters in jail cells until people donated canned goods to spring them.

“It was the recession and I was tasked with thinking outside the box and allowing the Old Penitentiary to be more entrepreneurial in scope. So yes, I wanted to make this place a must-see,” said Beierle. “We went about that by showing it off in very interesting and sometimes downright odd ways.”

Under Beierle’s watch, the number of annual visitors to the site has increased from 18,000 to more than 75,000.

Beierle earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Boise State, a bachelor’s in history and secondary education in 2004, and a master’s in public/applied history in 2007. She is co-author of two local history books and has taught history workshops at the university. She has worked as a researcher for a local history research firm, and in 2016, attended the Getty Leadership Institute NextGen Executive Education Program for Museum Leaders in Claremont, California.

While still a student at Boise State, Beierle became the City of Boise’s first historian through a city/university partnership. She had a desk in Boise Mayor Dave Bieter’s office and continued to hone the research and public outreach skills that have served her throughout her career.

“It was a wonderful experience, as a student, to be the first,” said Beierle. “And it was that relationship between Boise and Boise State that made it all possible.”

Beierle considers herself a natural born historian. As a child, she reveled in the stories her grandfather told her about his time in the Merchant Marines, and of working on the family farm. Those stories piqued her “young historian’s mind,” she said. In her current role, she gets to be both a teacher and a storyteller.

“I provide the stories about why social justice is important,” said Beierle. “What connects us to the past, and how do we prevent social injustices from happening again, and protecting the values that should remain.”

She has translated those words into action.

In 2014, Beierle and her now-wife Rachael were co-plaintiffs in the case that legalized same sex marriage in Idaho. The Beierles were the first couple married under the new law at Boise City Hall in a ceremony officiated by Sen. Maryanne Jordan. Photos of that joyful event ran in local newspapers. The photos now sit framed on Beierle’s desk at the Old Penitentiary, along with photos of the couple’s two young sons, and more than a few pieces of Bronco memorabilia.

“In my personal life it became important to be active,” said Beierle. “I will always look back on that and have it as something to tell my kids that when something’s important enough, you fight for it. Make sure you do that.”

Shallat called Beierle “a most courageous woman with the wit to defend her ideas and the good humor to take chaos in stride.”

“There is nothing fake about Amber,” he continued. “Without apology, without pretense, with honest appreciation for rural people and rural values, she is true-blue Idahoan, a local hero.”

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