New York prides itself as being the only state in the country to require each municipality to have an historian. Unfortunately, besides taking pride in this action, the State does little or nothing to support those historians.
In previous posts, I have reported the following based on an analysis of a download of the municipal listings from the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS):
1. Not every municipality has an historian
2. Municipalities may designate an organization rather than a person as the historian
3. Municipalities with web sites do not necessarily include the historian on the website
4. Municipalities with municipal email addresses do not necessarily provide the historian with one, meaning a personal email address may be used for official business.
It should also be noted that once upon a time the State Historian was a prominent figure reporting to the Governor and with a supporting department. Now the position is now far down the food chain with extremely limited resources.
With these thoughts in mind, I recently attended the annual APHNYS conference held in Corning, April 9-12.
There is good news that this private volunteer organization headed by Gerry Smith is now financially stable and operating on its own.
There is good news that this organization is collaborating with other history organizations. At its annual conference this year, the Museum Association of New York (MANY) conducted a session; APHNYS participated last year, and will again this year, in the annual Conference On New York State History.
There is good news in the greater emphasis in designating regional coordinators who will conduct regional meetings throughout the year. With the annual APHNYS conference shifting to the fall in 2016, it’s hoped these meetings will be more likely to be held each spring.
There is bad news that municipal historians still don’t get the respect they deserved.
The membership totals have increased from 235 in 2013 to 384 in 2014 but dropped slightly to 379 this year. The total number of municipalities is given as 1,583 up from 1,580 – but I suspect we’d learn there are even more if a full census were taken. So not only is the APHNYS membership a fraction of the total municipalities, it is fraction of the actual number of municipal historians. The totals also includes 20 deputy, assistant, and associate historians meaning a municipality may have more than one member, additionally there are 17 “affiliates” (regular folks like me).
In addition to the paid members, there also is a municipal historians database with 949 listings – significantly less than the total number of municipalities. Of those in the database over half, 545, do not have emails. So it is not as if APHNYS isn’t aware of the problems, the absence of email addresses necessitates mailings (twice a year) at considerable expense as APHNYS seeks to fulfill its mission to keep municipal historians abreast of events, even those who are not members of the organization.
During the business meeting I asked how the database is maintained. The herculean efforts of Rosemarie Tucker, 1st VP and Groton historian are to be commended. Clearly this is an area where the State is negligent in enforcing its own regulations. Thus at present there is no state list or any comprehensive list used for compliance with state regulations. The county historian should be on the front line for the maintenance of county databases of municipal historians.
As an example, back in 2011, when I initiated a series of county history conferences in the Hudson Valley, trying to figure out who the municipal historians were was a major challenge. In Dutchess County, there was no municipal historian and no up-to-date list. Now there is a (full-time and paid) county historian. There is also a list of the municipal historians and the historical societies in each municipality. If you are interested in doing the same for your own county, take a look at their website. I don’t mean to suggest that other counties don’t have something similar; just that it would be good to know which ones do and which ones don’t.
One anomaly in the municipal historian world is the treatment of New York City. While the boroughs are required to have municipal historians the arithmetic is absurd. There could be 5 historians for over 8 million people or over 40% of the state population while the almost 60% of the population would have about 1,575 historians if everyone was in compliance. This is a travesty which mocks the supposed benefit and purpose of having municipal historians.
There is bad news that the municipal historian community remains divided.
The Government Appointed Historians of Western New York (founded in 2008) is dedicated to the promotion, research, interpretation and preservation of history relating to the western portion of the State of New York.
The purpose of this organization is to provide assistance and support to its membership which consist of all officially appointed local government historians: City, County, Town and Village Historians; all duly appointed Deputies/Assistants of the same and Representatives appointed by the Seneca, Tonawanda or Tuscarora Nations within Western New York comprised of the counties within the Niagara, Southern Tier and Finger Lakes Regions of New York State.
The goal of this organization is to provide an administrative service that produces a website and two annual meetings / programs that encourage the betterment of historians within Western New York through education and training.
GAWHNY held its annual conference in Batavia on April 18, less than a week after the APHNYS conference in Corning. I don’t know what happened in 2008 to lead to 11 counties breaking away to form their own organization and I would hope that whatever precipitated that rupture now can be resolved. If every one of the 12 APHNYS regions had a website and two annual meetings like the western region, the municipal historians in the state would be much better off.
This observation leads to the political issue of what needs to be done in Albany on behalf of the municipal historians the state requires all municipalities to have. From what I presented here (and there will be another one on the APHNYS conference), it is possible to develop a political agenda for municipal historians. What follows are my proposed ideas.
1.The municipal historian should be an individual human being and not an organization.
2 There should be a municipal historian for each community district in New York City.
3.The County Executive or Borough President should annually certify that all municipalities in the county or borough have an historian and maintain a webpage listing them.
4. An official statewide list of municipal historians should be maintained by the state historian which also means the state historian should have the resources to do so.
5. The state historian should have the resources and time to attend the annual municipal conference and one regional conference for each of the 12 regions.
6. Municipal historians should be treated the same as other government employees, at least on the municipal website, with a municipal email address, phone number, and mailing address, especially if other municipal staff have them.
7. The municipal historian’s expense for membership in APHNYS and for attending the state and a regional conference should be covered by the municipality with state support so it is not an unfunded mandate.
To accomplish these ends requires political action on a scale far beyond what municipal historians are accomplishing today. This will have to be a statewide grassroots effort.