Even in these tough economic times it seems unthinkable that New York State would simply abandon its duty to educate it’s citizens, engage them in historical experience, and protect New York’s heritage, but it appears that is what many in state government are prepared to do. In hard times like these, some long-time public historians in the state are asking hard questions about our duty to New York’s state and local history, and suggesting we should be doing more.
“Basically, I am trying to be an advocate for NY state and local history these days,” says veteran historian, Bruce W. Dearstyne. “My contention [is] that we in the state and local history community have a lot to be proud of, many model programs, outstanding strengths, but that too much of our work is uncoordinated, we lack anything approaching a statewide vision or set of goals, we’re missing out on the potential of information technology, the recession is hurting our programs, and that, overall, we could and should be doing better.”
Dearstyne, who lives in Guilderland, Albany County, should know a little something about New York state and local history. Today he teaches courses on the web for University of Maryland College of Information Studies, where he was a professor for eight years. His career has included a stint on the history faculty at SUNY Potsdam, time in the Office of State History, and almost 25 years as program director at the NYS Archives.
In 2009 he proposed a paper for that year’s Conference on New York State History on the topic of “Do We Need a Vision for New York State’s History?” The conference organizers made it into the plenary session, with three other speakers, that generated a lot of discussion.
Since then, Dearstyne has been advocating for a meeting or at least an online forum to discuss the future of New York’s state and local history. “I’ve found a lot of interest, but so far no one willing to take the lead. One of the strongest advocates for an initiative along these lines is Carol Kammen, Tompkins County Historian and an expert on local history.”
In August of last year Deartsyne and Kammen created a tentative list of topics that might be discussed. Topics include the strengths, weaknesses, and needs in New York’s historical community, creating a greater sense of community, leadership, and coordination, identifying models or exemplary programs, and important state and local historical themes.
Dearstyne and Kammen are also interested in the potentials of new technologies including “broader and more imaginative use of collaborative information technologies to draw the historical community together, support collaboration, and make historical sources and history more accessible,”
For Dearstyne an open discussion among New York’s historical community is just one approach. He’s also editing a special section of the journal Public Historian entitled “A Vision for State History: Issues, Perspectives and Insights from New York,” due out later this year. He’s also been writing a series of guest opinion pieces (1, 2) for the Albany Times Union on the value of New York history, how we can learn from it, and why supporting it makes good sense.
“One of the themes I’m trying to stress is that, while we need more resources, we also need to make more effective use of existing resources,” Dearstyne says “and make the ‘business case’ for state and local history.”
Those interested in providing a more solid footing for New York’s historical community can comment. Additionally, the 2010 Conference on New York State History has at least two sessions addressing the topic: a forum on “Doing Local History” on Friday and the Wendell Tripp lecture on Friday evening on “How Historical Enterprise in New York State Became Fractured (and Sometimes Dysfunctional) in the Twentieth Century.”