On Municipal Historians
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 firebut 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.
"I wasn't made for the great light that devours; a dim lamp was all I had been given, and patience without end to shine it on the empty shadows."