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The State of the Municipal Historian

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.

Political Agenda

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.

 

18 thoughts on “The State of the Municipal Historian

  1. Mr. Feinman
    Great article. As an author of historical novels and a Masonic history researcher I agree with your proposal to help correct the problem. New York State is great at providing unfunded mandates and then patting themselves on the back saying, “There we have taken care of the problem.”

  2. Are we permitted to ask you a question or are you too busy? If so, I
    certainly understand.
    Your articles are so very informative. Thanks.

  3. Hi Peter, thanks for this post. I’m the recently-appointed County Historian for Hamilton County in the Adirondacks. Very much enjoying your blog. One of the goals on my agenda has been to create a website, still under construction, here:

    http://www.hamiltoncountyhistorian.org/

    My info as well as that of all our public historians can also be found on the official county website. I’m fortunate to work in a county that is very supportive of public history. However, I completely agree that the State of New York could be doing more, particularly by way of funding. Many rural municipalities in particular struggle to balance the books as it is, so it would be nice if the State would put its money where its pride is. Regards, Eliza

  4. I am actually three historians: Yates County, the town of Milo and the village of Penn Yan. I’m paid at least a little by all three, and the county pays for my memberships in professional organizations. I am also the county’s Records Management Officer, and because this position has state mandates, and the only mandate for the historian is to have one, I’m afraid records management absorbs more than its share of time. However, I’ve been historian for so long (28 years) that I’m pretty well known here and have perhaps a little more influence on policy than my town and village associates.

    The State Archives has been pushing more involvement by municipal historians in preserving local records; so I too have made sure there are trainings held in Penn Yan to this purpose. These are well-intended within our region, but not one of “my” historians has office space, and not all even have copying privileges. And we have the same problem many municipalities have, which is the mingling of public and private spheres.

    I’m on the board of WNYAHA, but it is almost entirely focused on museums and collections rather than actual history; and it’s hard for me to take days off work to meet my colleagues in, say, Niagara County, or, heaven forbid, Chautauqua County; especially when the issues have so little to do with my job. It’s not so much that we as historians (even when the town or whatever knows we exist) but the fact that the old-timers spent 50 years clipping from newspapers, and the young ones are cut off from what, in theory, they are supposed to be doing. /Rant

    Anyway, you are right on in your posting; I just can’t see local historians demanding the changes that are necessary. I was born pessimistic, though, so maybe I’m wrong. We don’t really have an activist leadership, and that’s what we need first.

    Fran Dumas
    Penn Yan

  5. Peter, in many case most municipal governments really don’t fully realize the contributions of the appointed government historians . We the willing, are sometimes left to conjuring up the funds, that the local government should provide. Its a constant reminder that were the lower part or the lowest of the local budget process.

  6. I have always lamented the absence of so many local historians in New York, a program that was introduced by Franklin D. Roosevelt when he was governor. I have known and worked with many who were almost always diligent, frustrated and thoroughly overwhelmed. Is there a job description? If not, the development of one might help in the effort to persuade state lawmakers and others of their value and contributions. I realize it would have to be flexible, but certain basic responsibilities should be clearly defined. Because it’s basically a volunteer job, the skill sets are probably very different so, unless there is some central agency or body that can provide website help, tips and techniques, etc., many are at a huge disadvantage.

    1. FDR’s term as governor began in 1929. The local historian program was created ten years earlier than that.

      Some job responsibilities are spelled out in the state law:

      * [to] promote the establishment and improvement of programs for the management and preservation of local government records with enduring value for historical or other research
      * [to] encourage the coordinated collection and preservation of nongovernmental historical records by libraries, historical societies, and other repositories
      * [to] carry out and actively encourage research in such records in order to add to the knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the community’s history
      * to collect and preserve material relating to the history of the political subdivision for which he or she is appointed
      * to file [material relating to the history of the political subdivision] in fireproof safes or vaults in the county, city, town or village offices
      * [to] examine into the condition, classification and safety from fire of the public records of the public offices of such county, city, town or village
      * [to] call to the attention of the local authorities and the state historian any material of local historic value which should be acquired for preservation
      * [to] make an annual report, in the month of January, to the local appointing officer or officers and to the state historian of the work which has been accomplished during the preceding year
      * [to], upon retirement or removal from office, turn over to the local county, city, town or village authorities, or to his or her successor in office, if one has been then appointed, all materials gathered during his or her incumbency and all correspondence relating thereto.

      There are other guidelines on the NYS Museum website. A 1997 manual published by the County Historians Association of New York State can be found on the APHNYS website, “But What Am I Supposed to Do? A Handbook for New York State’s Local Government Historians.”

    2. Doris-
      There is a job description: http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/services/srvguidelines.html

      I am the Town Historian for Greenwich. I have always held 2-3 jobs and have little free time to do the research I so need to do to execute my job effectively.

      I am continually frustrated by the state & unfunded mandates. I applaud the passage of the Suffrage Centennial bill in the Senate, but fear that it will be another commemoration left unfunded.

  7. Thanks for another great article, Peter.
    Is there a way to find out the number of municipal historians who are paid and what the average salary might be? Also, how do municipal historians who serve more than one municipality simultaneously avoid conflicts ? I, for example, you serve a town and a village, who is your primary “boss” to whom you are accountable? Seems like there could be messy situations, especially if the two municipalities have a history that has not always been harmonious.

    Martin

    1. I am the Town Historian for Greenwich located in southern Washington County. My 2015 salary is $3,230 & my budget is $300. I am not the highest paid in Washington County, but I am not the lowest either. I report to, & am appointed by, my Town Board.

  8. Excellent article.

    There was a recent study done examining the quality of municipal websites – to no surprise, most received a failing grade. I am fortunate to have a small amount of web space available to me and I am working on developing a website for the Orleans County Dept. of History. Aside from my historian duties, I am the director and curator for a local museum. Although this is not suggested, the shortcoming of municipal historian mandates is that the law requires the appointment of a historian but does not mandate compensation. I am a firm believer that you get what you pay for and unfortunately most municipalities cannot, or refuse to pay for a qualified historian. The job description for my position requires a high school diploma. I do believe we are a little behind on the times – I come to the job with a B.S. in History and M.L.S. Much of what needs to be dealt with as Orleans County historian cannot be accomplished simply with a high school diploma.

    I would like to see the State take an active role in doing more to ensure we have qualified historians who are justly compensated for their work. It’s difficult getting paid with thank yous in a thankless job.

    I look forward to reading your posts! Regards, Matt.

    1. I am curious about the recent study you mention about municipal websites. Is it available?

      The corollary to you get what you pay for is that if you want nothing you pay nothing. This is why the job descriptions and expectations for the municipal position and why State leadership, which we know isn’t going to happen, is crucial.

      Thanks for writing,

      Peter

  9. Wish the towns would follow through. It would create a lively source for history and dialogue through the town websites and strengthen the history voice overall. Good piece.

  10. Dear Peter:

    I am not a county or municipal historian but I live in Manhattan NYC and I am an artist (watercolor painter) who is interested in historic preservation. 

    I was fascinated by your essay on the State of the Municipal Historian, a position nobody I know is even aware of it’s existence. Nor did we know how crucial this position is to municipalities.  It also appears to be a very important  part of governments that lacks attention.  You summarized the scope of the issues affecting this group very well and highlighted how overlooked their contributions are. And in doing so you illustrated that many of these historians are so busy and overwhelmed by their mandated duties that they cannot even identify the roles they play in government. You were able to see this condition from a high birds eye view of the states and counties, something each historian is unable to do because of lack of resources, lack of basic municipal support both in kind and in dollars.

    I agree with the gentleman who suggested that a resume of qualifications and duties be created. That would help define the role better for the authorities to give concrete criteria for better recognition and support for the role in each municipality. 

    I also think your suggestion that each New York City Community District should have its own historian to capture the city’s wide and complex array of historical activities is a more efficient model than relying on the historians appointed for each of the five boroughs. 

    Has APHNYS considered applying for grant funding from private major foundations and corporate foundations that give financial support for history, historical preservation and historical societies as part of their philanthropic mission?

    Now that you’ve identified a laundry list of issues plaguing the entire membership as a whole across NYS, you can apply as a consortium requesting grant support to enhance the work the these historians volunteer to do statewide and to bring the group into the 21st Century.  The grant can be awarded to APHNYS who acts as the umbrella organization that distributes grant funds to each county, municipality etc.

    In your grant proposal you could request funds to underwrite the budget and any other key issues affecting the APHNYS membership including the following:

    Funds to establish and maintain standard websites for each historian, county or region that lacks such items.

    Funds to host conferences and travel to convene members in order to share info and best practices and planning.

    Funds to support the costs of running each municipal historian’s sphere eg: phones, copying, computers, equipment and supplies.

    Funds to upgrade and improve your state database.

    Funds to support grassroots efforts by the group to lobby State government, our Governor and other officials to obtain proper attention, salaried positions, official recognition and financial support to sustain the membership’s work.

    Funds  to commence and maintain a public awareness campaign across the state highlighting what APHNYS does through the work of its membership.

    You can apply for funding to support a two-year or three year-pilot program as well as a portion of the budget to support the pilot program’s evaluation.

    If grant funds are awarded and you are successful in moving APHNYS forward after the pilot period is over, thereafter you can apply to expand the pilot and request support for multi-year funding. In the meantime you also continue to lobby the NYS State Government officials to establish salaried positions and better recognition and services for your membership to be accorded all the rights and entitlements of regular state government employees.

    Something to think about.

    Selwyn Garraway
    Manhattan, New York
    Cell: 917-513-6795
    Office: 212-964-5570

    1. Thanks for writing Selwyn. Unfortunately lobbying for money in Albany isn’t one of the strong points of the history community in New York. To do so would require an agenda of “asks” to be created as if what are we “asking” the elected officials to do. There would then need to be people to actually do the asking at both the local and state level. The Museum Education Act of the Museum Association of New York (MANY) represents the first step in that process although it is for museums and not municipal historians. I shall be writing about this more in my next post.

      Peter

  11. Peter,

    One of the things that bothers me is driving around and seeing older historic markers unpainted and rusty. It seems to me this is one responsibility shared by both the county and town historians. While I was county historian, our head of highways worked with me to remove and repaint several signs each winter when work was slow. Over the course of 6 years, we got them all rehabilitated. Last week I rode along Route 9G from Catskill to Rhinebeck and saw several signs in rotten condition. I don’t see any excuse for this.

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