This question of what municipal historians should be doing came up at the recent annual conference of the Association of Public Historians of New York (APNYS). The setting was a session at the conference for first-time municipal historians and was chaired by Christine Ridarsky, the City of Rochester Historian who works at the Central Library in Rochester and serves on the APHNYS board.
The stories told during the session did not reflect well on the state of the municipal historian position in New York State. Some had stumbled into the job based on very local circumstances. They didn’t know what the job entailed, nor did the municipal leaders who appointed them.
Then there was the issue of the historian’s records, which are often held by the previous municipal historian, but come under the charge of the newly appointed one. This is consistent with the tenor of the N.Y. ACA Law 57.09, which outlines the duties of the municipal historian:
He or she shall, 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 appointed, all materials gathered during his or her incumbency and all correspondence relating thereto.
And Section 57.07:
The local authorities of the city, town, village or county for which such historian is appointed, may provide the historian with sufficient space in a safe, vault or other fire proof structure for the preservation of historical records collected.
Just as the municipal authority may provide jail cells for the police department, firehouses for the fire department, schools for teachers, and libraries for librarians, the municipal historian may be provided with space! So not only don’t municipal historians necessarily have a municipal email address, a municipal website presence, a municipal telephone number, they may not even have municipal storage space. Clearly we are dealing with second-class municipal appointees.
The regulations aren’t even consistent. According to Section 57.09:
It shall be he duty of each local historian, appointed as provided in the last section, in cooperation, to collect and preserve material relating to the history of the political subdivision for which he or she is appointed, and to file such material in fireproof safes or vaults in the county, city, town or village offices.
So which is it: the municipal authority “may provide” or “shall”? These regulations should provide the municipal historian the opportunity to go to the municipal authorities and say: “This is what I need by law to do my job.” It would help if the regulations were specific, consistent, and the municipal historians knew what they were.
As part of this learning experience, APHNYS does provide some help. During the session, which included a very tiny portion of the state’s municipal historians, Ridarsky distributed the state regulations, and some other handouts, including:
1. The APHNYS Code of Ethics which has printed on it an Albany mailing address, phone number, and email address (the contact information at APHNYS’s website directs people to addresses in Chenango Bridge and Setauket, NY).
2. “Learning the Job as New Historian” which has printed on it the Chenango Bridge mailing address, phone number, and email address.
Clearly these forms could use some updating themselves.
She also distributed “Appendix B: Recommended Job Description (for Local Government Historians).” That got me curious. Was there an Appendix A? It turns out that on the APHNYS website there are five appendices:
A. Historian’s Law
B. Recommended Job Description
C. A Filing System for Historical Information
D. Museum Bibliography
E. Office of the State Historian of New York: A Brief History
These are part of a 275-page handbook, plus the appendices, entitled “What Am I Supposed to Do?” by former Jefferson County Historian Laura Lynne Scharer (published in 1997). Part of the work was done when she was a graduate student at SUNY Albany under the direction of now-retired Ivan Steen. The handbook can be found online here. In includes the following message:
The book offers basic information and resources to public historians who are often appointed without any real guidance and what and how to do their jobs. After Laura Lynne Scharer’s death, APHNYS vowed to update this important publication and make it available to historians. That project is still ongoing so that all information can be current and vital to the job of the local government historian. Until that project is completed, we have uploaded the original publication in chapter format. On occasion, drafts of the updated chapters will also be viewable on this page.
I would venture to say it is time for a review and update of the handbook, craft a legislative agenda for municipal historians, and also revisit former State Legislator and Municipal Historian Jack McEneny’s failed effort to establish a state-funded training center to certify municipal historians. I made some recommendations in my recent post “The State of the Municipal Historian,” and here is an outline of steps I think should be taken to reform the municipal historians.
1. The Historians Manual should be revised and updated.
A. It should address the new technologies for the maintenance of government records.
B. It should account for the different sizes of the municipalities when defining the responsibilities of the municipal historian.
C. It should be done in cooperation with a public history program at a college with periodic updates as needed.
2. Training sessions on the use of the historians manual should be held for new historians should be held quarterly with the state historian.
3. Once the new historians manual is completed, regional training sessions should be held in each of the 12 regions to familiarize current municipal historians with the new manual.
4. Travel expenses for the training sessions should be paid for by state and/or local municipality.
This investigation has led to additional avenues of research regarding the municipal historian position particularly in conjunction with the local municipal historical society. As it turns out, not surprisingly, the efforts to reform one inevitably leads to considerations of reforming the other.
Note: For comments on these issues by municipal historians and others, readers are encourage to go to “The State of the Municipal Historian” post and read the comments there.