An Agenda for New York’s Historical Enterprise

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What does New York’s historical community want?

In the wake of NYSHA’s demise, Ken Jackson and his colleagues have addressed an open letter of concern and protest. Peter Feinman included the letter in a recent post and followed with a response from Paul D’Ambrosio in another post. John Warren continues to report on developments, attesting to the essential importance of the New York History Blog.

State Historian Devin Lander is doing an outstanding job but he is still working without staff. New York passed its 240th anniversary last spring with no official commemoration. The Researching New York Conference last month was one of the best ever, but the New York State History Conference has been discontinued. November, New York State History Month, has come and gone once again with little public attention. The demise of NYSHA leaves a big gap in the state’s historical enterprise.

Many people in the state’s historical community are concerned with some of the recent events. There are renewed calls for an advocacy group (the new Massachusetts History Alliance might be one model), lobbying the legislature, etc.

All of that is very positive.

But what should we ask for?

We need something by way of an agenda or list of objectives, something that gets all of us in the concerned history community pulling in the same direction. The rest of this post constitutes one attempt at a preliminary draft, just to get the discussion restarted. It is probably too long and we would need to be selective. Some are my ideas; most are suggestions from discussions with historians around the state over the past few years. Some of these have been proposed and discussed before; some are new.


Strengthen the capacity of New York’s historical programs and history community to carry out the preservation, management, interpretation, teaching, learning, research, publication, study, and use of New York’s state and local history. (The current mission of the Office of State History)


1. Elevate the State Historian’s role and capacity to lead, coordinate, foster, and support efforts to achieve the goal.

1.A. Upgrade the State Historian’s position to a level commensurate with its responsibilities.
1.B. Provide the State Historian with adequate staff and other resources.
1.C. Continue the State Historian’s Office of State History website as a key source for guidance, advice, information on model programs, and other information.
1.D.Expand the State Historian’s advisory services.

2. Strengthen the role and elevate the status of officially designated local government Historians.

2.A. Distribute and publicize the State Historian’s document Duties and Functions of New York State’s Local Government Historians and use it to define expectations for the work and role of Historians.
2.B. Develop a companion publication on The Value and Importance of Local History, emphasizing the multiple roles of history including strengthening a sense of community and providing insights into contemporary issues and events. This would make the case for history for a public audience, local government officials, and associations of local governments.
2.C. Develop strategies to ensure recognition and support of local Historians by the governments where they serve.
2.D. Develop training venues for Historians, including at conferences and online.
2.E. Commemorate the Centennial of New York’s Local Historians in 1919 by reviewing the history, assessing their status, and, most important, developing plans to further strengthen their roles.

3. Increase online sources of information on state and local history.

3.A. Identify and secure resources to fully support the New York History Blog and increase its role as the central independent forum for information on New York’s historical enterprise.
3.B. Develop an online Encyclopedia of New York History.
3.C. Expand the availability of historical materials and accounts online.

4. Improve the capacity of historical societies, history museums, and other public history programs to carry out their work and engage the public.

4.A. Develop a website or social media for sharing and discussing issues, models, and best practices from history programs in New York but also drawing on associations such as the American Association for State and Local History, the National Council for Public History, programs in other states and Canada and other sources as appropriate.
4.B. Provide training and development opportunities for historical program directors, staff, and trustees, emphasizing leadership, management, advocacy, and funding and support.
4.C. Develop strategies to substantially increase access to historical sources and history generally via the Internet and the Web.

5. Expand the teaching of New York state and local history in the schools and at the college/university level.

5.A. Expand and strengthen connections between (a) teachers and schools and (b) officially appointed local government Historians, historical societies, and other public history programs.
5.B. Develop a social studies curriculum for at least a full year’s coverage of New York history, either separately or integrated into U.S. history, at the middle or high school levels.
5.C. Increase the number of New York State history courses in SUNY colleges and university centers and in private colleges and universities.

6. Increase research and publication of New York state and local history.

6.A. Continue the Researching New York Conference each year.
6.B. Develop a second annual conference similar to (or a revival of) the New York State History Conference.
6.C. Ensure the continued publication of New York History as a peer-reviewed, scholarly journal.
6.D. Establish and support a new online journal, which might be called New York State Historical Journal, to supplement current publications such as New York History, Hudson River Valley Review and New York Archives. Special emphasis might be on the strongest papers given at the Researching New York Conference. Or, it might be more of a popular journal.

7. Expand efforts to promote the value, importance, and usefulness of New York’s state and local history.

7.A. Initiate a statewide history association as a successor to NYSHA.
7.B. Develop a New York State History Advocacy Group.
7.C. Continue the State Historian’s New York History Advisory Group as an advisory and advocacy group.
7.D. Develop and implement strategies to capitalize on New York State History Month (November), including strategies, a press kit, local activities, and essays on New York history in the schools.
7.E. Designate April as New York Statehood Month and use it to commemorate New York State’s origins and key themes and events in its historical development.

8. Develop or expand sources for support of New York state and local history.

8.A. Identify foundations, philanthropic sources, businesses, and other non-government sources that would be interested in supporting state and local history.(The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and Historica Canada might be two possible models.)
8.B. Expand and strengthen the state’s Path Through History program.
8.C. Develop proposals for funding under the state’s Regional Economic Development Councils grants.
8.D. Strengthen the state historic sites program.

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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

6 thoughts on “An Agenda for New York’s Historical Enterprise

  1. Keith Bennett

    A collaborative effort was launched a couple of years ago by several interested people at Albany County Historical Asso. to involve and collaborate with the other Historical Societies within Albany County. See Web site created, attempting to be kept up and looking for leadership to move forward. Two sided rack cards have been distributed to area hotel lobbies promoting the web site for visitors looking for activities while visiting the area. Group has had some success but is lacking leadership at present and full involvement by all Slbsny County societies.

  2. Ellen Apperson Brown

    I’m impressed with this set of plans and ideas for New York’s Historical Enterprise, and hope many of them can be implemented soon. From my perspective, living in North Carolina, yet having spent more than twenty years researching New York’s early preservation movement, I would like to add a few comments about what seems to be missing. I have published a book about John Apperson and his activist friends. His papers (40 cubic feet) are in Schenectady at the Kelly Adirondack Center (Union College). I own copies of only a fraction of his letters and photographs and am doing the best I know how to do, writing articles, and publishing materials onto a new website, a digital archive. It would be wonderful if Union College would expand its curriculum to encourage students to take courses in environmental history, making use of the fabulous primary source documents in the Apperson/Schaefer collections. I wish there were an organization to turn to, that could support my efforts to create a digital archive, allow for grant funding to support historians in an effort to investigate the archives and help researchers. like me, to find other letters and photos to expand my work. This project of mine has often been characterized as regional history ( thus not of much interest to a national audience), but I keep wondering, would anyone say that John Muir’s work in trying to save Hetch-Hetchy was just a story about a dam in California? John Apperson’s work in trying to create a Lake George Park, and fighting against loggers, developers, and paper mills has important lessons for us all. New York played a very important role in the Wilderness movement, but how can an independent scholar like myself find funding and support without an active and effective “NY Historical Enterprise,” as you describe?

  3. Paul D'Ambrosio


    There is still plenty of work in support of New York history happening at Cooperstown, albeit under the name of Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers’ Museum. You may or may not be aware of the funding we recently received from the Gardiner Foundation to support a publication on our Alexander Hamilton papers. Additional funding from the Gardiner will support training for historical societies on Long Island and continued support for National History Day, the latter being the major program for youth engagement in history in New York State, which we coordinate. The press release, which has not been carried by the New York History Blog for reasons that are unclear to me, appears here: We have also emphasized that we are committed to the continued publication of New York History and that its future is not in jeopardy, and that our Research Library is fully staffed and operational as it has been for decades.

    All that being said, the history community should know that our museums will work as active partners with the State Historian’s office and other entities to continue to foster knowledge and appreciation of our state’s rich past. We are also members of MANY and fully support its advocacy efforts. In the meantime, readers should know that Fenimore Art Museum is very active in bringing world-class art experiences to the people of the state, and we work to provide a great deal of historical context to the art exhibitions for which we have become so well known.

    Thank you, as always, for your interest.

    1. John WarrenJohn Warren


      I located your press release in our spam folder. I’ve put it in the queue. As always, feel free to e-mail me directly at if you need. As you know, you’re also welcome to contribute your perspectives to this space more formally.

      John Warren

  4. Carol Jo Thompson

    Thanks to all of you for attempting to keep the work of New York’s Historical Enterprise alive and moving forward!


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