Author Archives: Bruce Dearstyne

Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books forthcoming in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH).

The Elizabeth Cady Stanton Bicentennial


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Elizabeth Cady Stanton circa 1880It’s not too early to start planning for New York State History Month in November. One of the themes that the state’s history community might consider this year is reform in New York State. There are few better examples of a New York reform leader than Elizabeth Cady Stanton and November 15 is the bicentennial of her birth.

She was born Elizabeth Cady in Johnstown on November 15, 1815. She observed how the law treated women as subordinate to men through observing the work of her father, an attorney and judge. She derived a hatred of slavery and confidence in political change from her cousin, Gerrit Smith, who lived in nearby Peterboro. She married a leading abolitionist, Henry Stanton, in 1840, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton was always independent, opinionated, determined, sometimes headstrong, never resting. Continue reading

Corruption in the Legislature: A Sense of Déjà Vu?


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nycapitolThe indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on federal corruption charges is the latest manifestation of corruption in the New York State legislature. Since 2000, about 25 state lawmakers have left office because of criminal or ethical issues. U. S. Attorney Preet Bhahara, who brought the charges against Silver, says the legislature is a “cauldron of corruption.” Governor Andrew Cuomo established a controversial, short-lived Moreland Commission to deal with corruption and has inserted an ethics package in his proposed budget to force the legislative reform.

Bhahara’s sweeping characterization of the legislature is exaggerated. Over the years, the New York’s legislature has been one of the most important in the nation, usually keeping our state at the forefront of minority rights, social reform, and progressive policies. Throughout history, though, there have always been a few corrupt legislators who violate the laws and public trust.  But legislative wrongdoing is probably no worse today than it was many times in our history. Continue reading

Last of the Mohicans: Fiction Trumps History


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First edition Last of the mohicansIn early February 1826, Carey & Lea, one of the nation’s most prominent and successful publishers, announced the publication of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. Cooper was already a best-selling author, widely hailed for presenting non-stop, exciting adventures set in the wilderness, wartime, or other bracing settings. Carey & Lea, hoping that his new book would do as well as his previous ones, had paid the author a $5,000 advance.

They were not to be disappointed. The Last of the Mohicans was an instant best-seller, reprinted many times, made into movies a number of times, and became one of the most important books in American literary history. Continue reading

Local History And The Power of Place


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teaching geographyThere is lots of discussion these days about the “power of place” – the importance of geography and the influence of locales and surroundings. The concept dovetails naturally with local history, which explores the historical development of communities.

New York is in an excellent position to explore the connection between the power of place and local history. Our state has hundreds of local historical societies and other public history programs and is the only state in the nation with officially designated local historians. Continue reading

The Fracking Report In Historical Perspective


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George Bellows - Up the Hudson (1908)Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision in December to ban the use of hydrofracking in New York State was politically astute. The governor asserted he is merely following the recommendations in a new report from the State Health Department, A Public Review of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing for Shale Gas Development.

That report, based on four years of research, is also politically judicious. It avoids condemning hydrofracking or sensationalizing its potential health risks. Instead, it concludes that “the overall weight of the evidence from the cumulative body of information” studied for the report demonstrates that there are “significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes that may be associated with HVHF [High Volume Hydraulic Fracking], the likelihood of the occurrence of adverse health outcomes, and the effectiveness of some of the mitigation measures in reducing or preventing environmental impact which could adversely affect public health.” The 184-page report is buttressed by 74 references, mostly well-documented studies and reports from the past few years. Continue reading

Bruce Dearstyne: Mixed Message for NYS History


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Half Moon Dutch Ship SketchFour recent news items have pointed to the resource limitations that history programs face but also to the potential for new sources of support.

The first was the radio interview with Dr. Charles Gehring, the long-time translator of the Dutch colonial records held by the State Library and State Archives.  Gehring confirmed the immense historical research importance of these records. His discussion of the records’ value reinforced the importance of New York’s Dutch origins. Continue reading

Lessons From New York’s History of Resilience


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BigULeveeThe recent revival of “Evacuation Day” – November 25, 1783, the day British military forces left New York City at the end of the Revolution – is a reminder of New York City’s resilience. The city had been occupied for several years but soon after the British left and New Yorkers got control of their city, it began a recovery and remarkable upward trajectory.

“Resilience” is an often-used term these days. Andrew Zoli and Annmarie Healy’s 2012 book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back summarized recent scholarship and help popularize the term. Continue reading

Bruce Dearstyne: Leadership and NYS History Month


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New York State History MonthNew York State History Month (November) is just over half through. November was designated in statute in 1997 as State History Month but it has been mostly ignored, until this year.

Last year, State Historian Bob Weible wrote a post in these pages entitled “Is NYS History Month Dead?” which suggested using the month for public history events. Thanks to Bob’s leadership and initiative, State History Month now has a higher visibility and momentum, as described in his recent follow-up. Continue reading

Bruce Dearsyne: Strengthening Public History in NYS


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New-York-State-Map1Over the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion here on The New York History Blog about the status and role of local government historians, including, for instance, a summary of a special issue of the journal Public Historian three years ago on the status of history in New York State, and, most recently, Peter Feinman’s post “The State of Municipal Historians,” which resulted in many comments.

Local government historians are unique to New York State. They give us an edge over other states in the local history arena. Their potential is immense. But their status and role need to be strengthened. Continue reading

November Is New York State History Month


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New York State History MonthNovember is New York State History Month, designated by Section 52.04 of the Arts and Cultural Affairs Law as the time “to celebrate the history of New York state and recognize the contributions of state and local historians.”

This is the perfect time to get some well-deserved recognition for officially designated local government historians, historical societies, and others who are preserving, interpreting, and presenting state and local history. It should be a particularly good opportunity for local government historians — their appointments are authorized by law and State History Month is designated by law. Continue reading

Ignoring New York’s 350th Birthday


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Articles about the Transfer of New Netherland on the 27th of August, Old Style, Anno 1664One of the news items in a recent summary of “This Week’s Top New York History News” here at The New York History Blog had a link to an article from the Albany Times Union (reprinted from the New York Times), entitled “New York Won’t Celebrate 350th Birthday.” The article noted that neither the city nor the state was commemorating the takeover of New Netherland by the British in August, 1664.

The writer suggested that “a dispassion for the past” among the public was a basic explanation. Continue reading

Bruce Dearstyne: New York History And Education


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State Education Building by Matt Wade Photography (Wikimedia User UpstateNYer)How, and how much, should New York’s young people learn about the history of their own state and community?

The answer to the question of what young people learn about history comes down mostly to what they learn in school social studies classes. New York revised its social studies curriculum from 2012 to 2014 and you can review the results, adopted by the Regents last April online. There is more New York history at the 4th grade level than in the older standards, but almost nothing about local history. Continue reading

Bruce Dearstyne:
Do We Need A State History Commission?


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nycapitolAssemblyman Steve Englebright’s bill (A. 6226A) to create a Commission on New York State History would help coordinate state programs and elevate and strengthen public history in New York.

“The state’s historical assets are world class destinations for visitors from around the world and should be promoted as such,” the bill declares. “Having the management, interpretation and promotion of the state’s historical assets spread among several agencies and departments has often been detrimental to the full utilization of these assets for the people of the state.” Continue reading

Bruce Dearstyne: The Proposed NYS History Commission


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nycapitolLast week, Assemblyman Steve Englebright held a “roundtable” on his bill to create a Commission on New York State History (Assembly 6226-A) at the Legislative Office Building in Albany.

I was unaware of the bill before being invited to attend and speak at the meeting, but was very encouraged after reading the bill, and even more encouraged after hearing from Assemblyman Englebright. The proposed Commission is the most promising development in state and local history policy in several years.

The bill has the potential to lead and coordinate activities and programs that now operate mostly in isolation from each other, provide support and advice for historical programs, strengthen the role of officially designated local historians, foster more extensive and creative use of public history, encourage the use of technology, help with heritage tourism, and overall strengthen the state’s historical enterprise. Continue reading

Bruce Dearstyne On Lobbying at Albany


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nycapitolPeter Feinman and Tom Shanahan’s recent posts (1, 2) on lobbing were very informative and enlightening. To make progress, though, the state’s historical community would need at least three things.

One, leadership in Albany. This might come from the State Historian, State Historic Preservation Officer, State Archivist, or an association such as the New York State Historical Association or the Association of Public Historians of New York State. Better yet would be leadership from a consortium broadly representing the state’s historical community, such as a new State History Council. This has been under consideration for a number of years, dating back at least to the plenary session at the 2009 State History Conference in Plattsburgh on the status and future of state history, and discussed in the 2011 special issue of the Public Historian, “Strengthening the Management of State History: Issues, Perspectives, and Insights from New York.” Continue reading

Common Core: New York History in New York Schools


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SchoolShould New York students learn about the history of their own state in New York schools?

The question has not been resolved. The State Education Department has been seeking reactions to the latest draft of the New York State Common Core K-12 Social Studies Framework.

The current social studies curriculum dates from the 1990’s. A draft revision completed in 2012 was discussed a number of times in this New York State History Blog over the past couple of years. Continue reading

Bruce Dearstyne: Creativity and Leadership


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Creativity in Museum PracticePosts here on The New York History Blog reveal a lot about the creativity and leadership of the individuals who direct the programs that comprise New York’s historical enterprise. Creativity, broadly defined, refers to derivation of new ideas that help organizations do existing work better or take on new things. Leadership is mostly about strengthening programs and guiding them into the future.

Creative leaders, said an IBM study a few years ago, “embrace the dynamic tension between creative disruption and operational efficiency… encourage others to drop outmoded approaches and take balanced risk.” They “embark on transforming tomorrow into what was once never thought possible.”

Many of our programs could benefit from that kind of boost.

Continue reading

New York State History Month: What Can We Do?


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poster1997lgNovember is New York State History Month. The purpose, according to Section 52.02 of the state Arts and Cultural Affairs Law is to “celebrate the history of New York State and recognize the contributions of state and local historians.”

State Historian Bob Weible’s very informative October 22 post on the history of History Month reminds us that “its fate really depends on us.”

That’s certainly true for History Month, and true for the future of the historical enterprise generally. Continue reading

Concerted Action to Strengthen the Historical Enterprise: What Others Are Doing


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NYSPeter Feinman’s September 18th post describes discussions leading toward more cooperation, a more concerted approach to the historical enterprise here in New York, and hopefully a meeting to get things going.

That is a very encouraging development.

The needs, and opportunities, for cooperative action have been under discussion at least since the plenary session at the state history conference in Plattsburgh in 2009 on “Do We Need a Vision for New York State History?” Continue reading