New York has 932 towns, 547 villages, and 62 cities. Each one of them is required by State law to appoint a Municipal Historian.
To most people, this sounds like a quirky mandate, especially considering that there’s no requirement to provide a salary or storage space to maintain local records. Also, you may remember a Municipal Historian presenting a slide show at your elementary school or at a community festival where you may have developed an appreciation for their work – or perhaps been unimpressed because of how out-of-touch they were.
But it’s exactly this lack of consistency that has caused the public perception of local historians to be undervalued. Why do local administrations fall back on the technicality that “no pay is mandated” as justification for appointing volunteers when the same people would never cite such nonsense when discussing a County Health Commissioner, a Town Clerk, Police Chief or other important positions? These mandated professionals’ indispensability isn’t questioned. They are held to proficiency standards, and most importantly, they are given the resources necessary to do their work. Yet the Historian is often told to set their own course and to do so without compensation.
Lack of Support
I have heard dozens of historians say that they entered the position without any guidelines or benchmarks provided to them. Worse yet, sometimes the files of the previous Historian are lost in the shuffle, literally thrown in the trash or sold at yard sales by uninterested heirs. As a result, a cycle is deeply entrenched: the Historian is not taken seriously by elected officials and the public, the job becomes a personal pursuit, the best work is unappreciated and unsupported, and the worst work is “proof” of the impotence of the position. With no incentive for competitive hiring, the same story repeats itself again and again. Meanwhile, quietly and selflessly, a handful of Municipal Historians keep compiling, writing, and teaching. They preserve, they advocate, and they create a sense of place for their community. Their hard work, investment of their own resources, and often heroic actions to stop the short-term carelessness that would undo the fabric of our communities is taken for granted.
I’m not criticizing Orange County, or our neighbor Dutchess County, when I accuse the general swath of governmental bodies of harboring a lack of seriousness regarding their Historians. We are very lucky in the heart of the Mid-Hudson Valley to have these two County administrations in place which understand the value of historical research, record keeping, and programming (and can envision the larger collaborative potentials as well). A big part of the problem is that it’s difficult to talk about the right and wrong ways to manage this role without homing in on individual communities as every Historian operates in a wide spectrum of conditions. For every terrible true-life example, there’s an inspirational one to counter it, sometimes in the same municipality! And every question that could be asked can only be answered by spewing more ifs, buts, and excepts than the average person has the attention span to follow. If there’s one identifiable problem, it’s that every community has a different set of problems that it needs addressed.
A Century Later
What we know is that in 1919 the State Legislators deemed it essential to create a network of historians including a State Historian to set policies. Then in 1933, the State amended the law to include County Historians because it was obvious that there was a great need for a coordination level within the system. The urgency to establish the first generation of historians may have been a reaction to the loss that the State Museum experienced in a devastating fire but the needs quickly expanded to include proactive roles such as placing blue and yellow historic markers along the growing road systems and collecting stories from World War I veterans.
Before we can start a meaningful discussion about the value of the Municipal Historian’s Laws or debate whether there’s a need to reinvent, centralize, professionalize, or abandon the system altogether, let’s look at how the law has manifested itself a century after it was conceived.
We Haven’t Made Much Progress
How does one become a Municipal Historian? Some municipalities post the opening and require an interview similar to a typical job application process. Others assign the title to an existing employee such as the Clerk or Records Officer. Sometimes the task of appointing an individual is simply handed over to the local Historical Society trustees and they choose among themselves. I have heard of people who identified a vacancy and then called the Mayor to ask if they can assume the role. Occasionally the oldest person in the community gets saddled with the title because they are seen as a reliable source of information. Other communities, in violation of the law, let the position remain vacant for considerable amounts of time.
What is the typical background of a Municipal Historian? Frequently the Historian is a retired or aspiring teacher, librarian, or archivist. Most start out as volunteers from the local Historical Society or have developed their research skills by compiling in family history and genealogy. In Orange County, we have several retired public school teachers and librarians, a professor, an insurance salesman, and a policeman. I have an MPA, the Dutchess Historian has a PhD, the Sullivan Historian is an author, and the Ulster Historian is a retired bookstore owner. Individuals from every spectrum of professional and educational background have held these positions. Because of the volunteer nature of most of these positions, it is common for a person to take the title while they are building career credentials or while they are transitioning out of the workforce. But even this is not a rule as there are others who juggle the appointment while working in a parallel career. Another factor is that there has been a recent growth in students majoring in “public history” and then striking out as DBAs in the field of “history consulting,” so we may or may not see these positions shift to those individuals in the next few years.
How is the Historian compensated? Often they are expected to volunteer without any pay or compensation. Sometimes the Historian is given a small stipend to cover expenses or allowed to submit expense receipts for reimbursement. Rarely (but ideally) they are paid as professionals. I overheard a conversation at the Sullivan County “Future of History” Conference between Dr. Peter Feinman and William P. Tatum in which they surmised that only Orange, Dutchess and Wayne Counties have full-time County Historians, if anyone knows this to be wrong we’d love to hear of others.
How does the Historian interact with their municipality? Some Historians are required to report to the manager or council on a regular basis. Many have casual check-in habits of keeping officials apprised when they need access to records or have a presentation ready for the public. All are asked to submit an annual report to the State Historian and many send a copy to their local administrator and the County Historian.
What resources is the Historian provided with? The support that each Historian is given varies widely from town to town. On one side of the spectrum, some Municipal Historians work from their own homes, providing all storage space for books and records and using their own equipment and supplies. Many Historians have an office in a government facility which includes basic access to supplies, a phone, and email. Some have exhibit space carved out in government buildings, schools or libraries. A few have museums in historic buildings that are owned and maintained by the municipality. Many are able to secure small budgets to create historical programming for annual community days or festivals. Most have some ability to acquire archival boxes, binders, or file cabinets to organize and store records safely. If a Historian would like to seek outside guidance and camaraderie, they can join the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS). Some municipalities offer to cover the cost of membership. A few municipalities even provide funding for the Historian to travel to the annual conference where they might deliver presentations.
What are the Historian’s duties? APHNYS has an orientation guide in which they define the scope of the Historian’s work as a) Research and Writing, b) Public Presentations, c) Historical Advocacy, and d) Organizational Advocacy. All of the County Historians and most of the local historians have stated that this is only a small part of their work. Most Historians also have a presence in the local schools or engage in collections work ranging from caring for historic objects on-site to doing home visits to assess objects in private care. All receive daily requests for genealogical documentation, historic building research, and historic marker advocacy. Some are asked to participate in land use discussions or speak on behalf of historic district policies. With recent surges in the popularity of heritage tourism, nearly all Historians are now being asked to develop economic development strategies and build networks within the museum community. To showcase the diversity, here are some of the other requests I’ve received recently: develop lists of buildings that could be useful to film location scouts, coordinate cleaning efforts in abandoned cemeteries, and consult on digitization techniques. When the phone rings in the Historian’s office, there is no predicting what kind of request may be coming from the other side of the line.
How does the Historian communicate with the public? A few Municipal Historians write on a regular basis. The work is sometimes related to historical research or historical advocacy. You can find their writing in research journals, newspapers, blogs, or sometimes on the Municipality’s website. Some Historians have a Facebook page or other form of social media that the public can follow. The majority of Historians have an email address and a reliable phone number where they can be contacted. On the other hand, some may hang up the phone if you ask them for their email address. With the reality of an almost entirely volunteer base of Historians, most are difficult to meet with unless you can accommodate their limited office hours. Most offer public programming at schools or community centers. Some Historians simply work from home on their own research passions and rarely share their findings with the public. APHNYS has an e-newsletter and a Facebook page geared towards keeping Historians apprised of each others’ efforts. I do not have any data about this organization’s reach beyond its members, but with only 119 “likes” to date on the Facebook page, I can make the assumption that it’s not an effective tool for raising public awareness.
How is the Historian’s quality of work measured? Many Historians measure themselves against the work of their peers or they set personal research goals. Some are subject to a review process within the municipality. The State Historian’s office requests annual reports but there is no penalty for failing to submit. Most operate with such limited resources that hosting some events or publishing a few articles a year is enough to consider it a success. Others measure their impact by how many public inquires they were able to address.
Cue the Indiana Jones Theme Music
In my line of work, I have seen a series of tragedies take place that showcase how inconsistent the implementation of the Municipal Historian’s Law has been over the last century. I’ve seen persistent warnings about an irreplaceable historic structure ignored until it’s too late. I’ve seen a collection of prehistoric artifacts vanish, valuable volunteers thrown out of a facility that they’ve nurtured for forty years, and personalities clash because generosity is stretched too thin. I’ve seen young people run out of the public history profession because they are not given enough opportunity for advancement, and the elderly forced out of their volunteer roles because there’s no proper training that would enable them to keep up with technology changes. I’ve seen donations mishandled, opportunities missed, and priceless artifacts placed out on the curb.
Last month, we were able to prevent a loss. The County Historian’s office was contacted by the granddaughter of a former Municipal Historian. She had inherited his home, put it on the market, and therefore had to clean out the books and papers left behind. Unlike many in a similar situation before her, she recognized the value of his life’s research to the historical community. With hours to spare and no plan for where the papers were to go, we packed the car to the brim and brought the collection into the County office. I put a picture up on Facebook describing the last minute mission and a person contacted me to ask if he could help sort and organize the papers. The collection is being split between the current Municipal Historian, the Historical Society, and the Genealogical Society over the next few weeks. This story is entirely too common.
It Could Be Better
In July 2015 Bob Weible stepped down from his positions as NYS Historian and Chief Curator of the New York State Museum – from his “positions” – yes, even the State Historian is expected to fulfill the full-time duties with only a part-time focus. The vacancy leaves many wondering if State Government will finally wise up about the seriousness of the position.
We live in a very different time from when the first State Historian was appointed by the Governor in 1895 or when the position was contained in the State Education Department after 1911. Its current attachment to the State Museum is equally as outdated. The potential of the role in our contemporary era will not be reached unless the incoming historian is given autonomy to build collaborations throughout the State and act as a strategic planner for a wildly disparate range of challenges in local communities. The lesson is the same on every level, if the Historian is hired based on real credentials, treated as a professional and given the resources needed to do quality work, every sector of society will benefit from their perspectives and activities.
Photos, from above: A group of local historians and officials including County Legislators on the front porch of the Col. John Hathorn House; Alicia D’Amico from the Orange County Executive’s office gets updates from Veterans, Parks, Youth, Aging, Law, IT and History departments; Orange County Historian Joanna Yaun presents to the public; Village of Montgomery Historian speaks to a crowd about the history of Ward’s Bridge Inn during the 2015 Tavern Trail of Orange County; Town Historian of Minisink Teresa Gurdineer and Town of Waywayanda Historian Ed Horan, both have museums that they oversee in their communities; Joanna Yaun’s car loaded with books and papers left behind in the home of a former village historian home after his passing; and volunteer Ralph Smith of Cornwall sorting and organizing the recently acquired collection.
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Nolan Cool says
Fantastic piece, thanks for sharing!
On the point of potentially inserting students into these positions to gain field experience, I agree wholeheartedly. I’m wondering if consolidating the smaller, or even non-functional, municipal positions and developing some form of institutional outreach with public (or possibly even private) colleges or universities would serve as a viable possibility. This would seem like a more manageable “win-win” scenario for practicing public historians and policy-makers.
On the archival side of things, a digitization initiative would help save those records getting lost in transition. Perhaps a larger state-supported collaborative effort may jump-start this project, which is certainly a necessary one.
Lastly, the State Historian as a more supported, autonomous central component of the whole system offers greater opportunities for collaboration. Professionalization of the position, someone with a clear understanding of the situation on the ground in the state’s communities, and a greater level of outreach could provide nothing but steps in the right direction.
Johanna Yaun says
Precisely, I think the State should be tapping talent from the Public History departments at our SUNY schools. We need to retain our bright students by giving them careers here.
Julie Dowd says
Johanna – Thought you’d like to see my Facebook post today –
“Good article in the New York History Blog today – on municipal historians by Johanna Yaun – she starts the article with, “New York has 932 towns, 547 villages, and 62 cities. Each one of them is required by State law to appoint a Municipal Historian.”
We in Clinton County are pretty well covered – we have a County Historian – a City Historian for Plattsburgh – 14 Town Historians – and 3 Village Historians – and at least 19 historical and genealogical societies that actively collect and preserve the history of Clinton County. We also have an association open to all that meets every month to discuss how these societies can better work together. We are so far ahead of many counties in New York, we should be proud of ourselves.
If you’re interested in local history, read Johanna’s article. You’ll recognize some of the tragedies and triumphs that take place in counties all over the state. The key is to know who to call when you’d like something historic preserved. https://newyorkalmanack.com/…/johanna-yaun-on-municipal…/…
One reason I drive a mini van.”
Carol Kammen says
Johanna Yaun’s essay is important and should be read by every appointed historian in the state and all those others who care about our state’s history. She raises crucial questions not only about who is an appointed historian but about what we do and how we do it and how we are regarded by our appointing officials. I think the key issue has to do with education and communication. We also need:
*An effective State Historian.
*County Historians recognized as educational leaders, as is Aime Alden out in Livingston County.
*Municipal historians who know that their efforts are appreciated and that their annual reports mean something.
*There are many who are not officially appointed yet who spend their time doing local history in a variety of ways: collecting materials, putting up exhibits, running historical agencies, collecting oral history, saving buildings, researching and writing essays and books. They should also be brought into the conversation and recognized for the good work that they do.
*We should be supporting this blog because it is the most effective means we have now of communicating across the state.
I appreciate Johanna Yaun’s thoughts and hope others see and comment on them. I will be sending this essay out to all the appointed and friends of local history in Tompkins County. We need to keep talking about this and advocating for historical awareness among the public and good historical practices among those engaged in researching our hamlets, villages, towns, cities, and counties. And we would all benefit by conversations about the work we do.
with appreciation for your attention to this subject,
Tompkins County Historian
author of “On Doing Local History,” “Plain as a Pipestem: Essays on Local History”–collected essays from a series on New York local history first published in “New York History,”;
editor of “Encyclopedia of Local History,” (2000 and 2013) and editorial writer for “History News,” the journal of the American Association for State and Local History
Roy Clement Jr says
Onondaga County has always had a slot for County Historian but it has never been filled as far as I
know it’s still vacant. During the time of Michael J Bragman all Town Historians were forced to turn
there historical records into the County Seat in Syracuse so he could control all historical records. If
there is no County Historian than who has these records I know The Onondaga County Historical Society and who is the controller of this organization other than the president . I could tell you some
sad stories about this organization some of it is truly pathetic .
Fran Dumas says
I’m the historian for Yates County, and have a full time job. The reason for this is that the title includes the also-mandated position of Records Manager. For me, this is a fairly natural fit; we have a research room to provide a comfortable spot for visitors, and I look on both parts of the job as focused on access to the County’s public records.
However, I’m planning on retirement sometime early next spring. The big issue is not, unfortunately, whether to have a full-time historian (we will not) but whether to have a full- or part time Records Manager (we’d better). If our legislature takes the easy way out, they could I suppose appoint the local historical society, which would do nothing to relieve the burden on the County Clerk (now they just send researchers to us) who like every other local government these days, is overworked and understaffed. A part time Records Manager would not be able to keep the full-week all-day access to the County’s de facto archive alive, and they are unlikely to find anyone with the requisite technical skills willing to work part time (and hence no benefits) at the very low pay that’s likely to be offered. I have been here nearly 30 years and created the reasonably successful program we have now. We just started this year a digitization program meant to integrate records management with departmental workflows. The regular program needs to be improved, the new program needs to be expanded and maintained (not to mention coordinated), and there is literally no one else here who can do this on even an interim basis.
If I sound, at the same time, cynical and despairing, that about pegs it. I don’t suppose our situation is unique. Our bosses are so focused on the bottom line and keeping taxes under the cap that they are ready to discard any function that isn’t self-supporting or that brings in too little revenue. That certainly describes about any county’s records department. Mandate or no mandate, this view of the role of government leads to the kinds of situations described in the main article.
I have no solution to offer, only sleepless nights. The LGRMIF has distributed millions of dollars across the state to improve the preservation of public records; but even that is getting squeezed nowadays. There really is a need for some leadership on these issues, which is always a problem with New York’s dysfunctional government. There is such great pressure to shift state expenses to local governments, while at the same time limiting or even reducing the distribution of resources. To me it seems like I’m retiring just in time.
Chris Philippo says
“If our legislature takes the easy way out, they could I suppose appoint the local historical society, which would do nothing to relieve the burden on the County Clerk (now they just send researchers to us) who like every other local government these days, is overworked and understaffed”
A local historian is a municipal officer, and municipal officers have to meet the requirements of the N. Y. Public Officers Law. I’m pretty sure historical societies don’t.
Shawn Purcell says
Wonderful piece Johanna. These are things for those concerned with history to lose sleep over, and another glaring case of governmental failure.
As an aside, NYGenWeb is a great one-stop online clearinghouse for historical and genealogical resources, particularly for those doing research or tracing their family history from out of state, but you see the same lack of consistency there. On the one hand, it’s nice that it’s sort of decentralized and homegrown, but so many of the county pages are moribund in nature, which gets into the thorny “ownership” issue.
There should probably be some uniform standards for the home page or site index, the most important of which would be a current and easy-to-find list of municipal historians with as much contact information as they wish to supply.
William Hosley says
I did a little math – not knowing how many of NY’s towns are one size or the other. The amazing thing in life is how little money it often takes to signal respect – always more than NOTHING – which signals the opposite of respect. But this is what I figure:
932 towns, 547 villages, and 62 cities.
350 – Population 1000-5000 $1,000/year = 350k
250 – Population 5000-10000 $2,000/year 500k
150 Population – 10k-50k – – $3,000/year 450k
150 Population 50k-150k – 4000/year 600k
100 Population 150k-500k – 5000/year 500k
32 Population 500k+ – $7500/year 240k
Is it possible that as little as $2.7 million/year could transform this important function; maybe throw in another $100k/year for someone with a budget to coordinate continuing ed and engagement -but really – this isn’t even a rounding error in terms of NYS budget – though I AM sympathetic to the need to contain sprawling costs . Heck Sheldon Silver embezzled more money than this
Johanna Yaun says
Dare I say it… Path Through History money would be better spent by providing funds to municipal historians to build context and write community programming. Would elected officials would be choosier about who fills the positions if there was funding at stake?
Anna Hennesey says
Re: the APHNYS Facebook page. Why not take a survey? Please use snail mail to do it. And find out how many municipal historians know what Facebook is, how many have EVER been on Facebook, and how many have a Facebook page.
John Warren says
According to the Pew Center for Research 87% of American adults use the internet and 71% of online adults use Facebook.
Chris Philippo says
Historically many government historians have been seniors and that same Pew survey indicated: “Older adults have lagged behind younger adults in their adoption, but now a clear majority (58%) of senior citizens uses the internet.” The percentage might (?) perhaps be higher among senior citizens who are municipal historians given how useful the Internet can be for historical research.
The APHNYS list of historians has quite a lot of blank e-mail fields, and of the ones with e-mail addresses it looks like relatively few are municipal e-mail addresses. For archival purposes perhaps municipal addresses should be used more widely – aside from which Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union has stated “Government business should never be conducted through private email accounts”.
The APHNYS list doesn’t have websites or social media on it, but perhaps they keep track of that information separately?
John Warren says
It doesn’t matter so much to me how many senior citizens use the internet. If you take on the mantle and responsibility of being your community’s historian, you’re not doing a very good job if you don’t have a public e-mail.
Chris Philippo says
We’re in agreement!
Johanna Yaun says
The hostility to use common technology is not acceptable. I know of two local historians in my region who are very elderly. Rather than refuse to adapt, they have younger volunteers check email and post on a Facebook page on their behalf. They are mindful of training new historians and blending their talents in the meantime. Those who refuse to engage this way lose out. We are all under so much professional pressure that the card writing/ personal phone call way of doing business is extinct. It’s more than that too – it’s an issue of empowerment – communication through APHNYS, this blog, our own e-blast lists, Facebook, etc. give us greater visibility to decision makers.
They don’t know what we do. At every first impression with a politician, I have to start by explaining what a historian does. Talking about what we do is essential. It has to be done in the modern forum for it to have an impact.
Anna Hennesey says
That’s why I’m interested in how many municipal historians DON’T use social media besides the ones that I know of.
Johanna Yaun says
I appreciate everyone’s comments here. We all know this is just the tip of the iceberg and I look forward to continuing the conversation.
Cindy Amrhein, Wyoming County Historian says
I am very fortunate in Wyoming County. I took over as County Historian in June (part time assistant for 8 years previous) and I am full time. I also have a part time assistant. We also have a full time records management officer and she has an assistant.
I have an office, a house actually we share with vetran’s services. As we speak I am in the midst of painting, with plans to get the collection better organized. Next year I plan to visit the college for students who need internship hours to help us get the work done.
This was a great post and summed up the problems perfectly. We recently had a vacancy due to death so I emailed the clerk to ask if a historian had been appointed. I included parts of the NYState law about historians so they had some idea of duties. I’m glad to say the position was filled. We have an organization, Government Appointed Historians of Western New York. gahwny.org where we keep our list constantly updated, and recently there was a website revamp. We have a one day conference in spring and fall and get 60-70 historians in attendance. Getting the historians together is key I think in terms of helping each other and to energize each other with new ideas. Some of our historians are also members of APHNYS.
I guess the other thing is to make yourself important to your governing body as well as the public. I go to my county committe meeting every month to tell them what I’m doing and also see if there is anything they need. If I can help them with an issue, be it finding an old waterline, see who is responsible for a certain bridge, I make myself valuable. Recently I’ve made the county history quarterly (published since 1947) available on Amazon for Kindle.it gets our county out there.