Over the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion here on The New York History Blog about the status and role of local government historians, including, for instance, a summary of a special issue of the journal Public Historian three years ago on the status of history in New York State, and, most recently, Peter Feinman’s post “The State of Municipal Historians,” which resulted in many comments.
Local government historians are unique to New York State. They give us an edge over other states in the local history arena. Their potential is immense. But their status and role need to be strengthened.
Leadership and initiative are needed. Much of that needs to come from Albany. Just last week, though, the Regents voted to let students opt out of state exams in either American History or Global Studies to graduate. That is another setback for history.
State History Month is coming up again in November with no official state government commemorative activities. New York missed celebrating its 350th anniversary as an English colony last month, an event that would have provided an opportunity to commemorate New York’s historical development and achievements. The replica of Henry Hudson’s ship the Half Moon that has provided educational opportunities for a quarter century may leave New York for lack of funding.
New York can do better than this. We need leadership and an agenda. But there are some things that could be done right away. None of these require new resources.
* Key organizations such as the Association of Public Historians of NYS, the New York State Historical Association, the State Historian, and the state’s historic preservation office should issue a public statement on the proposed New York State History Commission. They might endorse Assemblyman Steve Englebright’s bill, suggest changes to it, or take some other position. But there needs to be at least some expressions of interest.
Assemblyman Al Smith sponsored the bill that brought the State Historian’s office into the State Education Department in 1911. Governor Al Smith signed the bill that established the network of local government historians in 1919. Governor Andrew Cuomo frequently cites Al Smith as a model of executive leadership. He cites Smith’s leadership in his new book, All Things Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life.
Cuomo is the most history-minded governor in many years. He started the Path Through History Initiative and mentions the Erie Canal and other New York historical achievements frequently in major speeches. In his speech accepting nomination for a second term last spring, he said that New York is “the progressive capital of the nation,” and quoted essayist E.B. White: “New York is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village, the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying the way is up.” In All Things Possible, he says “New York has traditionally been an early adopter….New Yorkers have always been the nation’s progressive voice.”
Polls indicate he is likely to be re-elected in November. Assuming he is re-elected, he will soon be formulating his plans and policies for next year. This would be a great time for some organization or organizations to suggest he include endorsement of the State History Commission and/or other initiatives to strengthen state and local history.
These might include, for instance, changes to strengthen the Path Through History program, more funding for historical and cultural projects as part of the regional economic development funding, increased funding for state historic sites and other state history activities, and more funding for the Council on the Arts which could, in turn, be used for grants to historical programs and related cultural programs, etc.
* We need a white paper or booklet on Why Local Governments in New York State Should Appoint and Support Official Historians, or something with a similar title, which would make the case for the importance of public support for local historians, including such things as perpetuating our heritage, education, historic preservation, the importance of heritage tourism, benefits of careful management of archival records, etc. It would make a convincing case by citing actual examples. This would become the “case statement” that could be used as a basis for appealing for more recognition and resources.
To us, the case is apparent; to public officials, it may not be so apparent. Such a document would be easy to compile – evidence is available from local historians and historical programs here in New York, from historical communities in other states, and in the professional literature of key organizations such as the American Association for State and Local History and the National Council on Public History. It could be made available on a website where anyone could download and use it, including supplementing it with their own local examples.
* More local government historians should contact John Warren about writing for The New York History Blog. The responses to Peter Feinman’s recent essay indicated once again how much excellent work is being done across the state, but most of it is unknown in the state’s history community.
Under John Warren’s editorship, The New York History Blog continues to provide a forum for the discussion of these important topics. Without his energy, initiative, and leadership, this site would not exist. But it depends on support, including financial support, and even more important, on people contributing information and discussing issues. Particularly useful would be posts about initiatives and projects that worked out well and the factors that account for their success.