New York State requires every municipality to have a historian. This means every village, every town, every city, every county, and, of course, at the state level. Hamlets can ponder “should we or should we not have an historian, that is the question” but they are not legally obligated to have one. Nor are neighborhoods. That might seem self-evident outside New York City, but one should realize that the neighborhoods in the city can be substantially larger than even some cities.
Naturally, even when you are required to have a historian by state law there is no assistance from the state in support of that position. It is an unfunded mandate.
Let’s examine the state of these municipal historians.
In 2011, when I had organized with local support five county history conferences, one challenge was to identify the municipal historians to invite to the meetings.
Obtaining a current list with email addresses was a challenge. As of 2011, the website for the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS) was “Under Construction” several years, and of no use. I am pleased to report that the website now does have a listing by county which can be downloaded. So I downloaded it. All 270 pages, with over 1,600 listings.
So what did I learn from this document?
1. Cloning human beings has been perfected and is being used extensively in New York. About 150 of the state municipal historians are named “Appointed Historian.” I don’t know who that individual is but whoever he/she is, that person sure gets around the state. Perhaps someone could explain what this designation means and why so many municipalities including counties like Otsego and Schenectady have avoided actually appointing an historian. (Note: the contact information listed for a municipality with “Appointed Historian” is the clerk’s office.)
2. Three of the municipal historians are historical societies: the Town of Pine Plains in Dutchess County, Lewis County, and Westchester County where I live.
3. Well over 300 of the municipal historians do not have email addresses. I gave up counting with another 65 pages (almost half) to go. Even with the “Appointed Historians” that still leaves a lot of human beings listed with no email address. Someone has counted all the missing email addresses, however. According to a report presented at the 2014 annual conference of the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHYNYS), the current database of municipal historians included 874 people with email listings and 570 names with no email listing. The report stated from 2013 this was a reduction in 93 names of people with no email listing and an increase in 112 names with email listings. Work is ongoing to shrink that emailess number and Rosemarie Tucker, APHNYS 1st VP and Town of Groton historian is to be commended for her efforts. Do you think the people with no email address listed really don’t have one? Or do they just choose not to disclose them?
Most of the email addresses listed are personal email addresses rather than municipal email addresses. By municipal address, I mean one with “@village of” or “@town of”, etc. In other words, addresses like the ones given to the mayor, the chief of police, or the clerk in the municipality. Even Rosemarie Tucker has a gmail address and not a municipal address in the database. How come municipal historians don’t have municipal email addresses like the other municipal officials? What does that signal about the status of the municipal historian within the community?
Although you can’t tell this from the list, how many municipal historians are even listed on the website of their municipality? I have not conducted a survey (or even checked a single county), but from personal experience, I certainly can say that such positions often are omitted from the municipal website. Why?
4. The list is not in alphabetical order. Or rather it is in two alphabetical orders. After Yates, the list resumes with Cattaraugus and ends with Wyoming. A geographically astute person might notice that these 8 counties tend to be in the western portion of the state. In fact, they are all located in Public Historian Region 12 with only Allegany County from that region being included in the consolidated alphabetical listing of the other 11 regions. Why not one alphabetical list?
There are some miscellaneous items that I happened to notice:
The Village of Rye Brook which incorporated back in the 1980s isn’t listed and doesn’t have an historian (I asked at a village meeting);
the Town of Rye in which the village of Rye Brook is located and which recently celebrated its 350th anniversary isn’t listed;
the Village of Port Chester within the Town of Rye isn’t listed;
and the Rockland County historian listed died in February, 2013.
These discrepancies raise the issue of who is responsible for the maintenance of the list. While there is no doubting the yeoman work done to update a list after four years, the effort reveals problems which need to be addressed at the state level.
One might think it is the state historian’s responsibility to maintain the database of the municipal historians in the state. Today, the State Historian’s position is buried in New York State Museum. It includes significant curatorial duties for exhibits at the Museum, and is not funded or staffed to assume statewide responsibilities. The position was not even officially filled from 1994 to 2008.
In other words when it comes to funding and staffing at the state level, one observes the same lack of respect for New York State history as is evidenced from the review of the listing at the municipal level. How hard would it be to require county historians to annually submit a list of the municipal historians in their county along with their annual report … or even to have a database which can be updated online? The answer is apparently, very hard.
The municipal historians were not represented at the New York History Roundtable in May on the proposed New York State History Commission. The lead organization is the Association of Public Historians of New York, of which I am a member. The organization has no paid staff and was on the verge of bankruptcy. Indeed, the business meeting of the first conference of the organization which I attended in 2013 was an eye-opening shock.
I am pleased to see that since then, under the leadership of President Gerry Smith, the organization is now solvent and has been getting its act together. It should be noted that Gerry, besides his volunteer position as president also is the Broome County and City of Binghamton historian. Fortunately he has a day job in the library (and writing and teaching) so he can earn some money before devoting large amounts of time to his volunteer jobs.
Unfortunately, municipal historians do not join the state organization. The membership report for historians and co-historians shows 308 as of February 28, 2014, and 334 reported at the conference in March out of 1,580 municipalities in the state. The overall participation rate of historians alone is about 20%. Why isn’t membership funded as part of the position? Why isn’t there travel allowance to attend the state conference (or regional conference if they are held)?
APHNYS is making a concerted effort through its volunteer regional coordinators to hold regional meetings. I am pleased to report that our recent Region 3 meeting organized by Suzanne Isaksen, Town of Montgomery, was a success with 28 people in attendance including from each of the five counties in the region. However a drive to mid-Westchester from northern Dutchess or western Orange Counties would make for a long day and it is unreasonable to ask one volunteer person to have five county-level meetings. A similar story could be told for the other regions as well. The location of the state and regional meetings influences the attendance and the infrastructure doesn’t exist to support county-level meetings.
Municipal historians are not in an effective position to lobby at the state level even assuming they wanted to. Getting people from Niagara to Suffolk to lobby in Albany at a specific date and time would be a chore. Volunteers, part-time municipal employees, and seniors didn’t sign up for this. And if they did lobby, what exactly would they lobby for? What would be the action items the public historians would bring to the table in the event they are invited to a meeting on the proposed New York State History Commission? What would be the talking points for the state legislators and senators?
Right now APHNYS is in a state of transition. It has climbed out of the abyss, and the plunge in memberships has been reversed. It has been working more closely with other statewide organizations such as New York State Historical Association and the Museum Association of New York, and one hopes such collaborations continue and deepen. There certainly is more to be done with teachers
Finally, I would like to thank Gerry Smith, APHNYS president for his kind words in the May 2014 newsletter:
Lastly, we will continue our efforts to work with our colleagues in related agencies. Recent blogs by people like Peter Feinman and Bruce Dearstyne have stressed the need for us all to work together to make us stronger.
He was referring to the posts Bruce and I (and others) have written for The New York History Blog.
I would like to encourage Gerry to submit essays for posting to The New York History Blog. I would also like to encourage him to invite the regional coordinators and county historians to submit essays about their meetings, their events, or their history, just as John Conway, the Sullivan County historian now does.
There are many obstacles to be overcome, but we have more to gain by working together and sharing information especially if we intend to advocate in Albany to provide the support for New York State history it deserves.