In recent articles several authors have pointed out the multifaceted world that is New York history. Museums, historical societies, historical agencies on all levels and the local government historians all play a role in our efforts to ensure the continued importance of this state’s history and heritage. Is this the right approach or should there be a more top down method to our madness? Whatever your answer is to that question, the same divergent pattern is found in historic preservation in the Empire State.
One can find people working toward a common theme of preservation in many levels. It is possible in a relatively small geographic area within New York to find representatives of the National Park Service, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Preservation League, members of the review board of a Certified Local Government, an architectural/planning board, architectural historians, museums, preservation groups, and historical societies.
One often forgotten cog in this enormous wheel is the local government historian. These historians are found in every town, village, city, county and borough in the state. One of the major roles for these historians is to act as an advocate for historic preservation. After all, they have the knowledge of their community, are aware of its resources, and be a significant player in efforts to protect, restore or promote local architecture. But often these historians are forgotten as a resource, or do not promote themselves as a resource.
What would make an historian shy away this role? Unfortunately, the world of historic preservation on a local level is frequently ripe with the same divisive strains we currently see on the political spectrum. In some cases, litigation and retribution seem to more norm than the exception. It has been seen in some areas that historians who have taken one side over another may be on losing end and may be replaced by their appointing bodies. This is not a right approach, but it has happened. This type of event only makes some historians wary of promoting preservation.
Despite the fears of many historians to dip their feet into the world of historic preservation, it is one where the historian plays an essential role. Their knowledge, their love of community and their dedication are important parts in successful preservation efforts. In the last two decades we have seen preservation efforts reach far from absolute views toward preservation or against it. There has developed a more merged theory toward respectful preservation and adaptive reuse of buildings. Many communities have become aware that heritage tourism is profitable, and attractive and historic main streets are a large part of this movement.
It should be, then, that the local government historian is a part of that picture. We as historians should put away our fears or our lack of interest and realize that we as a group can and should be an important part of the preservation world. By acting with responsible and dutiful measure we can shape and promote preservation in our own communities and throughout the state.
Gerald Smith is President of the Association of Public Historian of New York State.