In 2010, I attended the New York State History Association conference in Ithaca which included such sessions as Doing History in New York State and Historical Societies in the 21st Century among others. In addition there was time to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart: teaching local and state history. I spoke with Bruce Dearstyne and Carol Kammen there who now are also contributors to New York State History. We shared an interest in the topic and recognized that the discussion of this topic itself had become an historic item in its own right given how long it has been going on.
In thinking about what might be done, one of the ideas which occurred to me was a one-day county history conference. Such conferences were intended to reach out to the historical community within a county. This included the county historian, municipal historians, historical societies which generally are at the county or local level, other historic organizations, teachers, and the friends of history. Obviously I was not the first to propose a county history conference and certainly related events have been held when counties celebrated anniversaries. Instead, I was looking to establish an ongoing event which was relatively doable by drawing on the resources within the county.
In 2011, six such county conferences were held in the eight-county Hudson Valley region. For me they were an excellent learning experience in conference management since I was the constant in all eight counties, the six that had the conferences and the two that didn’t. By this I mean while the counties varied in a variety of ways, I was the same person in each instance. As a result, even in the six counties which had conferences at my initiative and in the five cases in which I participated in the planning, the conferences were different. At this point, I have no idea whether any of the six will be repeated and become annual events or whether they were one-time events.
In addition, during this time counties outside the Hudson Valley region contacted me about bringing “my program” to their county. Counties are, of course, quite capable of producing a county history conference on their own without outside help and indeed have done so. But after further emails and in some cases meeting the people behind the emails, I came to realize that the issue wasn’t one of ability or even necessarily money, but of time and energy. People frequently are overwhelmed in their jobs so the challenge of taking on an additional responsibility when it is not an anniversary year was too much too handle. A helping hand from outside was welcomed; having someone who was not caught up in the daily rut of keeping a museum going but who could reach out to the entire heritage community within the county was beneficial.
In my upcoming posts, I will be writing about my experiences with the county history conferences. That discussion will lead to additional discussions about county historians, municipal historians, county historical societies, village/town/city historical societies, historic organizations, teachers and social studies councils, and heritage tourism including NYS Heritage Weekend and the Ramble. I will include suggestions about what should be done to strengthen the heritage/history community in New York.
There is a famous tale about the blind people and the elephant. Each individual touches a different part of what we know to be a single entity. In the story, the people have no idea that all the parts they are touching are part of one animal. The distinctiveness and diversity of the different parts of the elephant blinds them to the unity. So it is with the heritage and history community in New York State. The groups I just mentioned above do have some awareness of each other but cooperation and collaboration remain a constant challenge especially in the financially-deprived ruts in which we all find ourselves today. The county conferences are intended to help bring people out of their ruts and grow as a single community. After all, when all is said and done we are a story-telling species that likes to congregate, assemble, meet, break bread and be part of something larger than ourselves. The county history conference is one way to foster such community ties.
PS: This post was written as I prepare to leave for the NYSHA Teacher Conference in Cooperstown on Friday, October 14, and the Western Frontier Symposium on Saturday and Sunday, October 15-16 at the Fulton Montgomery Community College. They will probably be the subjects of my post next week.