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.

The proposed Commission is somewhat similar to a state history council which has been proposed and discussed a number of times since the plenary session at the 2009 state history conference in Plattsburgh explored these issues. It is an effective vehicle for drawing New York’s historical community together and advancing the cause of state and local history.

The Commission could address a number of issues:

  • New York is arguably the nation’s most historically significant state but we are reticent about our history. New York has been a leader in many areas – for many years, the most populous state, a leader in commerce, banking, agriculture, literature, and culture. Many of the nation’s most important social, economic, and political movements started here. But most New Yorkers know little about the history of their own state. It has been slighted in our public schools. New York provided more troops, material, and finance, and sustained more casualties, than any other state in the Civil War but has no official Civil War sesquicentennial office. The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is passing with little official recognition. The law designates November as NY State History Month but that passes every year with no official activities. The Commission could help in all these areas and restore an understanding of New York’s historical importance.
  • As the bill’s statement of legislative findings notes, “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.” The Commission would provide a forum for state agencies to cooperate and coordinate and dovetail their work.
  • We have hundreds of programs but many are underdeveloped and their work is uncoordinated. Statewide leadership is needed. The history community includes some strong programs and thousands of talented, dedicated people. But the history community is splintered, and there is no common agenda. An estimate a few years ago: 532 chartered historical societies, 149 history museums, 48 historic preservation programs, 94 historic house museums, 37 state historic sites, 20 “heritage areas” and hundreds of libraries with historical collections. We are the only state in the nation with officially designated local government historians, but their work needs much more recognition and support. Many of the programs need advice and assistance to strengthen their work, incorporate best practices, encourage cooperation, and make their historical holdings more broadly known and widely used. The Commission would address these issues.
  • State history should be more of a source of civic pride and insight into current public issues. The Commission could help raise public understanding of state history; foster its study in schools; and help us draw on insights and precedents that would shed light on current problems and policy debates. Examples would include environmental policy, transportation policy, policy to encourage and regulate business, social justice issues, and governmental reform. It would help put history to work for the public good. Better appreciation of community history would also help foster a sense of connections and pride in communities.
  • The Commission would encourage increased public and private resources for state and local history.
  • The Commission could stimulate innovative approaches and solutions.One of the most intriguing sections is 830-A, a State History Fellowship Program, to establish a group of experts to advise and assist historical programs.

The discussion at the roundtable meeting was far-ranging and insightful. A few minor revisions of the bill were proposed, e.g., adding local government historians to the commission, including public members, and more explicit language to encourage the study of state and local history in the schools and the use of modern information technology.

This is a chance to significantly strengthen and elevate the historical enterprise in New York State, but it is likely to pass only if the state’s historical community gets behind it and vigorously campaigns for its passage.

Some possibilities for action:

  • Write the sponsors with endorsement and/or suggestions for changes that you think are needed. The more they hear from the field, the more interest and support they will recognize and the more confident they are likely to be in pushing the bill.
  • Ask your own state Assembly member and Senator to sign on as a sponsor. It is helpful to cite examples from your own work showing why current programs are insufficient and the Commission is needed. Getting co-sponsorship from around the state is an excellent strategy to ensure passage.
  • Write the governor asking him to make this a program bill (something Assemblyman Englebright specifically noted would be very helpful). Governor Cuomo is the most history-minded governor in many years. He often points to the Erie Canal as an example of New York’s historical leadership, has a history website, a history exhibit in the capitol, started the Path Through History Initiative, and hailed New York’s exceptionalism in his acceptance speech last month.
  • It will be very helpful if state and regional associations publicly endorse the bill and announce their endorsement.
  • Invite Assemblyman Englebright to speak at the conference on New York State History next week and the Researching New York conference in November. Invite him, other sponsors, or members of their staffs, to speak at other statewide and regional meetings.
  • Write the Regent from your area asking for Regents endorsement and support for the bill. Regent Roger Tilles, Chair of the Regents’ Committee on Cultural Education, attended the Roundtable. (You can find contact information at
  • Begin working now on using New York State History Month (November) for meetings and initiatives to organize support for the bill in the 2015 legislative session if it does not pass this year.

Assemblyman Englebright is very knowledgeable about state and local history and the issues that the history community faces. He hails from Setauket on Long Island, the location of a band of Patriot spies during the American Revolution, featured in Alexander Rose’s book “Washington’s Spies” and the topic of the current AMC television series “TURN.”

It would be helpful to have a discussion and exchange of views about the bill, and strategies for its passage, on this website. John Warren, editor of this site, attended the Roundtable. Because of John’s energy and dedication, this website is available to publicize the excellent work being done by local historians and historical programs throughout the state; demonstrate the potential for even more expansive and excellent work; identify issues, needs and challenges we face; and give us a forum for staying in touch as the bill advances. Without this website New York’s history community would have no common “meeting ground.” It is another reason to hail — and support — John’s work!

You can read the bill at: It was also summarized in Peter Feinman’s May 21 post here at The New York State History Blog. All posts about the Commission here on The New York Hsitory Blog will be found here.

The bill is co-sponsored in the Assembly by Assemblywoman Margaret M. Markey (who also attended part of the roundtable) and in the Senate by Senator José M. Serrano. Senator Serrano could not attend but Senator George Latimer was there representing the Senate.


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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 published 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). He can bereached at

4 thoughts on “Bruce Dearstyne: The Proposed NYS History Commission

  1. Leigh C. Eckmair

    The potential and possibilities of this commission are endlessly wonderful. It must have a structure with authority and power to overcome the position of just another unfunded mandate.

    Leigh C. Eckmair, Historian
    Town of Butternuts and
    Village of Gilbertsville, a National Register Historic Site

  2. Carol Kammen

    Thank you for your strong support and useful suggestions for this commission. I think it is probably up to us to show the importance of this and the good things that might flow from it by advocating for it.
    with appreciation

  3. Roy Clement Jr

    This the greatest news that I have ever heard out of my beloved Empire State. If this all happens I’ll be able to write a biography of my Great Grandfather Leonard Burdette Parish with out worrying about the New York State Police harrasment or bodily injury.


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