Carol Kammen: NY Municipal Historians Report Lessons


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There are some obvious truths that emerge from the survey of New York State county and borough historians, submitted by the State Historian to all county and borough historians in September 2017 to which approximately 30 individuals responded.

What follows is apparent from the surveys and is a composite of their responses but cannot be considered absolute for all those who answered the survey. There are variables that will be discussed below.

The truths are:

One: that most (certainly not all) officials and/or governments who appoint county and borough historians do so because it is mandated in state law yet they have little understanding or even sympathy for what these historians can or should do, have minimal respect for those appointed, and hold few expectations of what might be accomplished. The position is undervalued, underfunded and underestimated.

Two: that those appointed to be county or borough historians have created their activities to fit their own skills, mostly operating without a clear job description, and with minimal and sometimes no resources or even expectations on the part of appointing officials. According to statue, the county historian is to be the leader/educator of the municipal historians within his/her geographic district, a role that some take on while others do not.

Three: That municipal historians, required by state law, of every community with 400 or more residents, have addressed the duties of municipal historian as tradition dictated or as their interests warranted without much or any guidance by the county historian. They function variously around the state, but many as volunteers, and without resources—a fact that could be attributed to the lack of interest or concern on the part of municipalities and/or to the lack of savvy among the appointed historians to seek what they need from the municipalities in order to function. In general, most municipal historians do not receive much/any training.

Taken together, on paper, New York has the most impressive array of appointed historical caretakers who, by and large, function independently and without much in the way of guidance and mostly without necessary resources. The Association of New York Public Historians holds conferences and appoints district leaders to call meetings that many find helpful but that occur as singular events without curricular structure.

That this impressive array of historians is not more effective, more prominent, and more respected stems from the weak state law that mandates their appointment while not providing adequate support and from a state governmental system that values the promotion of state history without adequate funding of it. (Take for example the I love NY campaign that points to historical spots/people/events but does little to see that these are researched, developed and made ready for visitors.)

Rather than being a strong voice for local and state history, this army of historians operates more like independent contractors with little contact with each other, or leadership. This is obviously not true everywhere but it is the general impression one gets from knowledge of the state and from reading the recent surveys.

Now: that this system works so very well is a credit to all appointed municipal, county and borough historians who take on any number of duties, use skills, research variously, and produce rather amazing results given the limitations.

I find the county and borough historians a very impressive group of people who are treasures to their municipalities, to residents, and to the doing of local history in New York. That we could be better: of course. That we do as much as we do is amazing and together we have raised public interest and knowledge and response to local history to an amazing degree.

Activities of County/Borough Historians:

The results of the survey sent out in September 2017 show that County and Borough Historians engage in a wide variety of activities. The State Historian has had a statistical analysis of the survey questions prepared. I have concentrated my attention here on questions 8 through 11 in the survey.

Question 8 asked about the relationship of the County Historian to the municipal historians [Note: Borough historians do not have appointed subordinate historians within their geographic district and deal, primarily, with historical societies, preservation groups, and other historically minded people and organizations.]

It shall be the duty of the county historian to supervise the activities of the local historians in towns and villages within the county… [and] to hold regular meeting for the local historians in their counties, sponsor in service training sessions, monitor vacant jurisdictions, propose and carry out co-operative joint projects, and assist the work of their local historians whenever possible quoted from “Duties and Functions of New York State’s Local Government Historians” distributed 2017 by State Historian.

This educational and leadership charge for county historians is hugely important. According to the survey one county historian holds no meetings with the local historians but attempts to communicate via a well-organized and interesting online newsletter. The comment was that “few respond.” Twenty respondents reported holding one meeting a year; others held 4, 6, 8, 9 or 11 meetings a year, most with approximately half of the appointed historians in their districts attending.

(Example: in one county 15 of the 26 appointed historians attended the last meeting; in another, where there are two meetings per year, 14 of 23 municipal historians attended; in another county, 6 of 14 attended; in Livingston County with particularly large attendance, 7/8s of 17 appointed historians attended. In general, approximately half of those who might attend a meeting are present when there is a scheduled meeting. One county historian noted that meetings were held but not recently and only 3 of the 13 appointed historians within the county attended.)

This indicates either: that the scheduled meetings are not seen by the appointed municipal historians as important or useful, or that the county historians do not see them as a significant part of their job.

Two county historians reported that they and their appointed municipal historians work collaboratively: [Niagara] produced a book of veterans of that county; [Tompkins] has worked collaboratively on several projects. Others collaborate, most usually the county historian and one municipal, on commemorations, etc.

Not all the historian positions have been filled in every county.

Recommendation: That county historians upon appointment be sent a list from the State Historian (SH) of the expected or possible duties beyond the charge to research and interpret county history and to respond to the questions and requests of appointing officials. Not all expectations will be met, but a guide for county historians would help highlight interesting aspects of their positions, especially if the SH with the aid of an advisory committee created a suggested curriculum to give direction to educational efforts, perhaps with a small reading list that could be worked through over time and accessed Online.

Question 9 asked about those events/activities county/borough historians thought most successful. A number of these historians found their organizational efforts successful: cooperative supply purchase, getting various people together; creating a visitor center, etc. Many also thought celebratory events were important and successful, such as noting anniversaries or creating events around a special feature of that jurisdiction.

Traditional events also show up as significant, such as giving lectures, informal talks, writing books or newspaper articles. Several pursued and received grants for their activities; many created archives or an online presence of archival materials, making them more available to others. Trails and historic markers were also mentioned as successes. The Sullivan County Historian teaches a course on local history at the community college.

In all, these activities fall under the category of traditional, interactive, and opportunistic, in that today grants are available and the Internet provides great opportunity in a number of ways to transmit knowledge of history.

Question 10 asked about the biggest challenges faced by county/borough historians. Here the answers are not unexpected: everyone cited the need for more time and greater resources. Many county/borough historians do not hold full time positions; some have other jobs by which they support themselves, some also serve as records manager for their county. Many report that the position should be full time.

All note, one way or another the necessity of resources for travel, greater IT support and adequate office space to do a good job. Two noted that the size of their county made it difficult to see all the municipal historians; one uses his own money when he needs something for himself to be a better historian, or for the history office. One noted that getting others involved and then following through was an issue while another noted that weekend activities were an imposition, yet he “felt obligated” to attend. Another noted the disgruntlement of older appointed municipal historians at a younger person gaining the position of county historian.

The Sullivan County Historian wrote: “Initially, it was the lack of resources, which I gradually learned to ignore and began to do things on my own at my own expense. Also, a lack of understanding on the part of many government officials of the importance of local history as other than nostalgia, a novelty or a “cute story.” This lack of understanding leads to a lack of appreciation of a historian’s skill set and also breeds poor, lackluster or uninspired choices in appointments of municipal historians, which makes my job that much more difficult. I am pleased to say that after nearly 25 years I feel as if I have finally made some headway in this regard.” [Quoted with permission of the author.]

Question 11 asked what would aid in making one a better county/borough historian. The answers are not surprising: all wanted more time and some asked for staff; many believed the position should be full time. Many asked for better resources, better technology support, remote access to meetings.

Three answers stand out: One county historian would appreciate “a strong commitment to history in local government and community.” Another would like support from the county government and to have them “take seriously the notion that our history can be a valuable economic development tool,” and that the county historian be treated as an “educated, skilled professional.” A third commented: “I would like to see the county legislature take more of an interest in history and in what I do.”

Conclusions:

None of these historians requested more education or even more cooperation with other county or municipal historians yet these two actions could improve the perception and execution of the position and strengthen the doing of local history in the state.

The State Historian might promote activities for these potential leaders and spokespeople for history with advocacy, with education, and with promotion of exceptional historical research, scholarship, promotion of local history and leadership.

Overall

The situation of county and borough historians, with loose requirements and even mild expectations, depends on the strengths of those appointed to these positions to use their background, education, experience and creativity to become important officers of their municipalities and spokespeople for local knowledge. I am always amazed at what others achieve and am so glad to be in your company.

4 thoughts on “Carol Kammen: NY Municipal Historians Report Lessons

  1. Deborah J. Martin-Plugh

    Wonderful piece, Carol! As a researcher and writer working with historians across New York State, I have had such great experiences with local historians. The enthusiasm for the places they live in and love is clearly one of the great driving forces for the preservation of history. When their time permits, I take them to lunch and spend time listening to them and learning local history that makes them treasures. They are busy and dedicated and making ‘do’ with great resourcefulness. If there EVER is a gathering of these amazing people, please invite me to attend. Let’s do lunch!

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  2. William Hosley

    Is New York the only state that has embedded the role of county and municipal historian so deeply in law? It would be interesting to know when and how this was done. Would not surprise me to learn that the now-defunct NYSHA (NY State Historical Association) was behind it. The grimmest line in this superb essay is “a lack of understanding on the part of many government officials of the importance of local history as other than nostalgia, a novelty or a “cute story.” ….leads to a lack of appreciation of a historian’s skill set and also breeds poor, lackluster or uninspired choices in appointments of municipal historians.” Needless to say. And paying them, alas, would likely politicize the role more than it already is – where appointments wind up more about know who than know how. What might help would be a grantline – designed with the needs of local history and local historians in mind – to support PROJECTS that demonstrate the power and potential of local history – that it is way more than “nostalgia, a novelty or a “cute story.” It would also help if there was more leadership on this issue coming from the handful of NY-based historical orgs with plenty of money.

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  3. Carol Kammen

    Bill The Historians Bill originates in 1919 when soldiers of the Civil War were dying off, generating a good deal of interest in who they were and where they served, and as the soldiers were returning from The Great War in Europe and it was thought prudent to document who they were and where they served.

    The bill mandated that every community with a population of 400 or more appoint a local historian, now sometimes called municipal historians. That person was to locate and save materials from the area, to educate the community about its history.

    County historians came into being in the 1950s and are county officials generally appointed by the county administrator. Their duties are to locate, save, preserve materials, to generate interest and knowledge in county history, and to aid in the education of the municipal historians within the county.

    All serve according to the conditions of each municipality.

    Thanks for your interest in this unique program. Indiana has a system of county historians but the situation in New York is unique–and a treasure to our communities and the state.

    Reply
  4. Roberta Walsh

    I realize that the rate of return on internal surveys is generally about 30-40% and that the return on this survey was higher at 50% but I am still disappointed that only 1/2 of the historians who received the survey thought that it was worth their effort to return it.

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