The essay on public history in the newly published second edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History, provides some fresh insights. The Encyclopedia, edited by Tompkins County Historian Carol Kammen, a long-time leader in the field, and Amy H. Wilson, an independent museum consultant and former director of the Chemung County Historical Society in Elmira, is a rich source of fresh insights on all aspects of local history.
The essay on public history is written by Allen S. Newell, founder of Historical Research Associates, a public history consulting firm. Public historians “employ the same methods and analytical approaches that all historians utilize,” the essay notes. They are concerned with “the way in which historical thought is communicated to various ‘publics.’” They are interested in getting the word out about how history creates insights and sheds light on current issues.
“The emphasis is on ensuring that history reaches as wide a community as possible….Public history may be characterized more as an attitude or perception about the use and value of history than as a distinct field of history,” says Newell.
Public history should be used to shed light on public issues. It needs to be part of the public debate. That is relatively easy to do in New York, where so many contemporary issues have been debated for many years through our rich, vibrant history.
Just a few examples:
- Thruway and heritage tourism. Governor Cuomo has initiated a “Path Through History” initiative to encourage heritage tourism, particularly along the Thruway. That initiative has lots of promise. But there is historical precedent that can provide guidance. Governor Thomas Dewey frequently cited tourism in justifying the costs of, and securing support for, construction of the Thruway in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. Thruway Authority publicity from those early years of the road also highlighted history. The famed author, news commentator, and world traveler Lowell Thomas, encouraged by Dewey and the Thruway Authority, wrote a book, The New York Thruway Story, in 1956 which described in detail the “historical buildings, museums, parks and monuments” along the route.
- School district consolidation. There is a good deal of discussion these days about consolidation of public schools to save money. That debate goes back to the 1920’s, when the state provided incentives in the form of state aid to construct centralized schools and buy buses to transport students. The issues sound familiar: desire for local control, debate over how much power the Education Department should have over local education, local taxes, use of state funds to drive and support change, and gubernatorial leadership (governors Al Smith, Franklin Roosevelt, and Herbert Lehman supported school consolidation similar to what governor Andrew Cuomo is doing today).
- State Senate. Because of the closeness of the election last month, it is unclear which party will control the state senate. But control of the senate has been uncertain before. In the 1891 election, each party won fourteen seats. The results in four other seats were disputed. A controversial series of recounts by county boards of canvassers and the state board of canvassers (predecessors of today’s county and state boards of elections) and court decisions eventually resulted in a Democratic majority.
- Natural disasters. What lessons should be drawn from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy? An indirect result of the Blizzard of 1888 was the recognition of the vulnerability of New York City’s electricity and phone lines on poles and its “rapid transit” system of the era, elevated railroads. The City ordered utility lines moved to underground conduits and eventually constructed a subway system to keep bad weather from disrupting mass transit in the city (which the subways, opened in 1904, mostly did until Hurricane Sandy). On the other hand, after the great Hurricane of 1938 which devastated much of Long Island, people quickly rebuilt in the most vulnerable areas, along the shoreline.
- Environmental policy. The Department of Environmental Conservation has posted draft regulations to govern the extraction of natural gas using the process known as hydrofracking, if the governor approves. The State Health Department is making its own study of the health impacts. Both agencies will have something to say about probable impact on water supplies. If there is a lack of consistency and closure because two state agencies have different perspectives – conservation of the environment vs. public health — it would be something we’ve seen before. For instance, in the period 1910-1930, the state Conservation Department (and its predecessor, the Conservation Commission) and the Health Department had different perspectives and issued their own reports on issues such as water quality standards and pollution of streams and lakes.