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Legislation Would Create A NYS History Commission

Recently I wrote about my lobbying experience in Albany and offered a number of suggestions about what needed to be done. Those posts generated responses on the difficultly of lobbying and the need to have an agenda.  The likelihood of the history community organizing around a single agenda seemed slim.

I am pleased to report however, that there is proposed legislation in the New York State Assembly which would mark such a giant leap forward. It’s so good, I can scarcely believe it exists. The legislation is from Steve Englebright (D- Setauket). 

At present the bill is in committee and not ready to be brought to the floor. The New York State Senate version was introduced by Senator Jose M. Serrano (D-South Bronx). The bill was introduced in March of 2013, so it has been around awhile without gathering much attention. You can read the full bill and track its progress online, but here are some of the highlights and my thoughts.

1. It defines the state historical assets as “major educational, inspirational and economic resources.” Note the inclusion of the word “educational,” a reminder that historic organizations are chartered by the Education Department and not the Tourist Department. The opening paragraph of Section 825, the first section to the legislation, does reference the sites as world class destinations, but it does not limit itself to tourist concerns. (Suggestion: I would prefer the additional mention of historical assets as community assets just like libraries and schools which also are chartered by the Education Department.)

2. The remainder of the first paragraph of the section identifies the detrimental effect of divided responsibility among various government agencies for these historical assets. Therefore the legislation proposes the creation of a Commission on New York State History to advise the Governor, the legislature, and the agencies on the best use of these assets. So there is no reorganization or consolidation here but the creation of a potentially powerful voice on behalf of history throughout the state.

3. The second paragraph provides a welcome alternative to the past 18 months. The legislation calls the historical assets “fundamental to the education of the citizenry and our concern for the quality of life of the residents of the state.” Amen, brother. How many posts have you read touting the role of the history organizations as essential to the fabric and health of the community it serves? This is the exact message we need to deliver and finally there is a legislator seeking to deliver it. The legislation calls for the recognition that the historical assets of the state “enhance the education, health, safety and welfare of the people of the state and their overall economic and social well-being.” Hallelujah! This is exactly what the Path project should be doing but doesn’t.

4. The next section provides definitions of the terms to be used in the legislation and it is in Section 827 when the Commission is defined. It would include

Commissioner of Education
Commissioner of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
Chair of the New York State Cultural Education Trust
State Librarian
State Archivist
Director, State Museum
Director, State Division of Tourism
Representative from the Native American Tribes

and 6 appointed members by the Governor, Senate president, and Assembly speaker. There is a great opportunity here to reflect the historic community of the state. A minimum of quarterly meetings are proposed. (Suggestion: One notices that municipal historians are omitted from this list, but that could be changed in Committee before the legislation is sent to the floor.)

5. Section 828 permits the hiring of staff (plural) including a director. (Suggestion: In my opinion, the State Historian should be the director of the commission. I see no constructive purpose to be served by creating a two-headed history leadership position. This legislation provides an excellent opportunity to redefine the position of State Historian.)

6. Section 828 encourages the commission to take an active, even pro-active, role in interacting with other agencies at the federal, state, and local level. It’s mission is “(t)o stimulate action by public and private organizations on issues, problems and opportunities that affect the historical assets of the state including, but not limited to, conferences, meetings, and workshops.” Implicit in this charge are the funding and staff sufficient to get the job done. It is this central staff which will have the task of promoting cooperation and coordination among the historical assets of the state. This could include training, citizen education, and assistance in the preparation of grants.

7. Section 829 calls for a statewide cultural and heritage resources management plan. Despite the bureaucratic jargon, it means the opportunity to examine the big picture instead of constantly being overwhelmed by the crisis of the day.

7. Section 830 calls for a free annual state history conference. Again funding is required to make this happen. Since the state historian is now taking an active role in the planning of the conference, this is another reason the state historian should be the director of this commission.

8. Section 830-A calls for a fellowship program to be established to coordinate, recruit, and train volunteers to help not-for-profit organizations at no cost. Let’s call this the Bruce Dearstyne Section.

Further Suggestions

As might be expected, I do have some suggestions to build on what has been proposed and in addition to the ones noted above.

1. Education is mentioned but I would like to see a mandate to encourage the teaching of local and state history at the k-12 level, the teaching of local and state history at the college and graduate level for teacher certification and for teacher staff development afterwards.

2. Municipal historians, an unfunded mandate from the state, are ignored in the proposed bill. I would like to see funding for a free annual state conference for municipal historians and for support for shorter conferences at the regional and county level.

3. Historical assets as a community resource is mentioned but could be fleshed out. Libraries and schools are funded in part by the state through the Education Department. Historical organizations which are chartered by the same department are not. In addition, there should be more recognition of the role of the local historical organizations for the civic health and well being of the community. These organizations need to have as their mission the development of a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of community in the municipalities they serve. Now more than ever we need organizations which have the potential to bring the residents of a municipality together by telling the story of that area from the Ice Age to Global Warming that includes the entire community.

4. New York is a big state and statewide conferences, meetings, and workshops aren’t enough. Without specifying details or overburdening the legislation, I would like to see more recognition of and support for the counties and regions. Even though Path, NYSOPRHP, and APHNYS among other organizations use different regional divisions, the point is they all have regions. The charge to rotate the annual state conference in the legislation implicitly recognizes this reality. Attendance is effected by location and one should not have to wait for the cycle to be played out before being able to attend a conference. Regional and county conferences mitigate that geographical challenge. Despite the internet, there still is a benefit in bringing people together and even a free state conference may mean traveling hundreds of miles and being away from home for several days. So I would prefer to see more recognition of the local as well.

It should be easy to see why I was so happy when I read this. Think of the fanfare when the Path project was rolled out in August 2012 and how quickly the excitement turned to disgust and dismay.  The project has degenerated into a giveaway to advertising agencies and an effort to generate high “body counts” on the Path weekends. Listing events the history community normally does is not an achievement worth bragging about. Only within the Capital bubble would such efforts be considered exemplary.

No effort was made to support the history infrastructure, both human and physical, necessary for the historic organizations to fulfill its tasks or even to create paths that could be given to tour operators. The people on the neglected advisory committee to the Path project knew practically from the start and know today that the project did not have the resources to get the job done. The proposed New York State History Commission does, or will have, if it is passed. Now there is hope. A better way is being considered in committee. Let us lobby so that it may see the light of day.

18 thoughts on “Legislation Would Create A NYS History Commission

  1. Peter, certainly the concerns of this bill reflect your work over the past few years, bringing the needs and possibilities of the history community to light. kudos to you .

    If we are able to make suggestions, this might be the place to recognize not only municipal historians but also county historians as possible educational links into the county and between counties. This position, poorly defined, but mostly recognized, gives a structure to what might be built upon.

    An advocate for history, such as yourself, is crucial on such a commission and I applaud your efforts. And I need to recognize the power and scope of the Internet which makes communication so very easy: just as it can make the dissemination of knowledge of sources, themes, and possibilities of our state history being a potent factor in the lives of New Yorkers and those who visit the state.

    Thank you for all you have done to make this possible.


  2. Bravo, Pete. The emphasis on education should do more than lip service. My entire 7th grade Social Studies curriculum (1960) was devoted to New York State, its culture, people and history. As a result, there isn’t a nook or corner of NY with which I don’t have some familiarity and interest. That 7th grade class has made me a better citizen and concerned New Yorker.

  3. W*O*W* ` Great Start ! Definitely think the group needs recognizable power and that the State Historian should be the director of the group, also with authority . Reinforcement for inclusion of Municipal Historians – all levels thereof- is a “no-brainer”. And, while there is inclusion of the Commissioner of Parks & Rec, I did not see an inclusion of the HUGE importance of National Register Historic Sites – folks tend to forget that, bottom line, that is Federal recognition of state sites. In addition to being historically important for a whole host of reasons, those sites have big potential for greater Tourism attention.
    Thanks for all. Leigh

  4. Thank you for sharing this information and your personal insights. I commend you for your efforts. I would love to see someone in Albany with the wherewithal to assist municipal historians like me. As the Town of Homer Historian and an advocate of heritage tourism in Central New York State, I and others are trying to get a monument designed and installed in the Village of Homer to commemorate Homer’s unique connection to President Lincoln via three native-sons: Eli DeVoe, Francis Bicknell Carpenter, and William Osborn Stoddard. Homer played a vital role in social reform, especially the emancipation of those in human bondage. This monument would serve as a magnet for tourism to the Homer Historic District (220 structures listed in the State and National Registers of Historic Places) and be “The Gateway to the Finger Lakes” for travelers northbound on I-81. The potential for economic revitalization of Cortland County in the Heart of NYS is phenomenal. State-level support for funding and expediting such endeavors would be most welcome. It does seem that the State Historian should be the Commissioner or Director; another layer of bureaucracy is not helpful. I am in full support of any legislation that does more than provide political lip-service.

  5. I contacted my NYS Representative Sandy Galef and my NYS Senator David Carlucci. Galef got back to me and said she would be a sponsor. Am waiting to hear from Carlucci. Suggest people on this forum contact their NYS elected officials and ask them to sign on as sponsors.

    1. NYS Senator David Carlucci’s Office advised me yesterday that the Senator has signed on to be a sponsor of the proposed NYS Historical Commission. Am urging everyone who follows the New York History Blog to contact their elected NYS Representative and Senator to back this legislation and to report back on their response is. It is vital to track the progress of this proposed legislation if it is to have any chance of success. It will definitely fail if our elected NYS officials do not hear from the historically-oriented community.

  6. It sounds fairly good, though restoring funding and staffing to the Office of State History to levels it once had might help?

    The State never properly funded past history endeavors; the following two, for example, fell by the wayside. Many materials were collected, but it pretty much died at that stage.

    “Resolved (if the senate concur) that the State historian be authorized to collect, collate, compile, edit and prepare for publication sufficient material, statistics and data for a history of the State of New York in the world war against Germany and its allies and to write such history. That the manuscript thus prepared be delivered to the commissioner of education and when completed be printed under his direction as a supplement to the annual report of the education department. And that all plates used in printing the first edition shall become the property of the State and used for such future editions as shall be necessary.”

    “The Historical Album of New York State—such is the comprehensive name given to one of the most inclusive historical projects ever undertaken in America. In this photographic and literary survey of the Empire state, three divisions of the State Education Department are cooperating with the Federal Works Progress administration.”
    Pound, Arthur. “History of State in News of Today.” Oswego Palladium-Times. February 25, 1941: 7 col 4.

  7. A representative of The New York Cultural Heritage Tourism Network would be an excellent resource to be included in the Commission. The Network a very effective organization for many smaller groups and museums, as well as larger ones, throughout the State. The Network is a gathering of arts, culture and heritage attractions and venues — many relating directly to New York State history — from across New York that have come together with two major goals that are key to the ongoing success, given minimal state funding of these important resources.
    1. Increase visitation and improve the cash position of each attraction and/or venue
    2. Develop and expand cultural heritage tourism for the benefit of local economies and residents, cultural & educational institutions, traveling consumers and the travel and tourism industry.
    The Network has developed the first ever inventory of arts, culture and heritage attractions and venues in New York State that numbers over 2400 sites and is creating New York’s premier cultural heritage tour package purchase on-line site. Its membership of over one hundred, meets bi-monthly and the general public is always welcome.

  8. The NY History Commission is an important addition to the State. Under the direction of the State Historian it would advance the policies and promotion of history and especially local historical tourism, which is a growing need. We here in the North Country are preparing for our 200th anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh. We hope for a coordinated effort by such a commission to help promote the offerings of such historic activities all across the state, including an attempt to list all such happenings for the public to consider attending.
    Stan Ransom,
    Retired Library Director, folklorist and singer-songwriter on New York State history

  9. It is essential as a nation for us to acknowledge our history state by state. In New York, we have a rich history that we are still uncovering. Those who courageously work to uncover this history should be recognized. Everyone benefits from this work and hopefully those who benefit and those who do the work will come together and insist that all educational systems reference this history and make it available through library books, curriculum, event programs, symposiums, and conferences all the rich history that belongs to all of us. Renee Moore, Founder, Solomon Northup Day.

  10. Peter – In no means do I want to put a damper on your efforts. But your email blast says: “Legislation Would Create A NYS History Commission: Public Hearing Thursday, May 29 Legislative Office Building, 1:00 Room 711A.”
    Can you tell me where that hearing is listed? Hearings are generally not held on legislation of this type – particularly at this point in the session. Neither of the committees of reference have the bill on their agenda this week (both are meeting), and 711A is not generally a committee hearing room. I would certainly attend if there truly was a hearing on it.

    1. Tom,

      It’s not a hearing, it’s a round-table. It’s open to the public, but the public will not be able to speak. Unfortunately, only those who are invited will be able to speak.


  11. Good work, Peter! You have endless energy and faith in the ability of bureaucracy to change! I think this is a good sign and maybe timely as well since the State Archives just sent letters to current regional providers that they are ending regional services (bad for me) and possibly creating one central DHP service – I’d like to see it as part of the Commission – but stay regional in execution!

    1. Peter, this is incredibly exciting. It is obvious that you have managed to shake the old oak trees. If this legislation gets passed, and if your persistence continues to drive things forward, then the State would be remiss if it didnt ask you to participate on the Commission. What can I do to help get this supported???

      1. Dear Person with the same last name as mine,

        Thank you for your calmly rational objective analysis of the situation. At some point it would be beneficial to have individual legislators co-sponsor the bill or indicate their support. The fall campaign might be an an appropriate time unless you know one personally and can reach out during the summer recess. Organizing the history community in your area also is a way of generating support. The finally way,naturally is money. There may come a time when it will be beneficial to bring people to Albany as part of a lobbying effort. When that happens there are sure to be costs involved.

        PS The Commission jobs don’t pay anything under the legislation just in case you thought otherwise. In fact, they will cost money since there would be traveling involved.

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