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A Call For Municipal Historian Reform In NYS

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.

17 thoughts on “A Call For Municipal Historian Reform In NYS

  1. Peter, I think you know how I feel about the need for real and consistent support of municipal historians. It is a VERY important position and needs to be recognized and promoted as such. Not only does the “Hand Book’ (I got a hard copy C 1999) need to be updated but the Laws pertaining Municipal Historians need to be SERIOUSLY and REALISTICALLY updated to put “teeth” into the position (and funding). How about using the word “MUST” in place of “shall” “may” “should”. It seems that a while back APHNYS was given the assignment of training new Historians through a series of work shops leading to “Registered Historian” status. That project was enthusiastically promoted and pursued. It was a fine idea that appears to have foundered. What can be done to get on the track of obtaining serious legislation and enforcement of it ?

    Sorry I was unable to be at the conference. Thanks for all you do. Leigh
    Leigh C. Eckmair, Registered Historian (2005), Village of Gilbertsville and Town of Butternuts

    1. Leigh, Yes, I certainly am aware of your feelings and thank you for your numerous comments to New York History in response to my posts. You certainly are right to point out the need for a thorough revision of the regulations and the handbook. I suggested a college such as SUNY Albany perform this task in cooperation with the State Historian and APHNYS because neither Bob Weible nor the volunteer organization have the resources to do it.


  2. Some other details: it’s not just fireproofing, of course, but humidity control, materials conservation and handling, digitization for backup and public access, public access to the records in general, and as you allude to, incorporation of the public history mission with the open records preservation and access issues which beset our government in the state at all levels. Excellent post, thanks for this.

    1. It goes even beyond preservation and access which in a small community may be easy or difficult depending on the personalities involved and the relation between the municipal historical society and the municipal historian. There also is the issue of death: if a municipal historian has possession of municipal records at home and dies, what happens then? Will the family know what not to discard? Will the municipality know what to look for? These situations may not arise frequently but the potential is there.

      Thanks for writing.

  3. Peter….While I support training for municipal historians, I think a more practical approach would be to have the state historian offer a certification process on-line, rather than hold meetings that require travel costs, travel time, instructors, rented training facilities, etc. Participants could get certified taking on-line training on their own schedule at home. Annual CEU credits might be offered to keep certifications current and provide updates on relevant issues and new training courses. Webinars could also be offered from the state historian. Hopefully, such a certification process is working in another state that could be used as a model. With budgets strained for travel and manpower, I think this would be a more feasible approach for historian training.

    1. On-line certification certainly has its place. I also would recommend a train-the trainers approach where the state historian trains the county historians who would then have responsibility for training any new municipal historians in the county. This personal component would help ensure the that the county historians know who the municipal historians are in the county, that the local officials realize the importance of the position, and the historians are par of a larger network. On-line certification and CEU’s definitely could work but as we realize during this season of high school graduations, there is something to be said for receiving a certification in a ceremony.

      Thanks for writing.

  4. Peter,

    Once again you get right to the “meat” of the problem. As you know, I cam on as Historian with a box of material from the former historian’s farm house. Luckily, his son was also a short-term Clay historian who cleaned out his father’s farm “office and knew a lot as to how to save everything. He kept his family genealogy files and passed on the rest. So there was a good head start, Now that I have an office, and a computer thanks to a former Supervisor’s secretary, people know who to contact and donate. It has been over eight years and there are boxes that still need sorting. I agree that the historian should not only have a background and knowledge of the municipality’s history, but experience and even education in organizing materials, promoting historic events, dealing with people, archiving, presenting programs and talks, giving tours, educating children in local history, writing articles and the list goes on and on.
    A handbook for reference is the first step.

    Thank you, Peter, for bring this essential need to the public eye!

    Dorothy Heller, Historian
    Town of Clay

    1. Dorothy,

      I tend to agree that historians should have a background in accepted organizational standards. Unfortunately, the way that many local governments pay their historians it is nearly impossible to find a candidate who fits the qualifications and who is also crazy enough to work for nearly nothing (unless retired). I came on the scene to a collection scattered throughout multiple rooms in a basement office. Much was stacked in piles without any rhyme or reason. I am now engulfed in a multi-year project that will require an almost complete reorganization of the department’s holdings. I don’t blame the past historians as they were very knowledgeable – organization just wasn’t their thing. It seems as though municipalities need to recognize the need to establish practices that fit into acceptable standards to allow for smooth transitions. Access to items held by the historians is essential and one must have a complete understanding of what is held in the collections in order to provide access.

      Matthew Ballard, Historian
      County of Orleans

      1. You raise some excellent points regarding the practical reality of what it means to be a municipal historian. This is why it is so important to have clearly defined regulations about the responsibilities of the municipal historian along with mandated training. A simple thing like a check list for the mayor, town supervisor, or county executive to sign and submit will emphasize the importance of the position. As will the ability of the proposed candidate to say, “According to the regulations this is what I have to do so you have to pay me to do it.”

  5. Among other things which shed some light on the thinking behind the local historian law, there’s some relevant letters preserved in the NYS Archives as well as a number of newspaper articles I’ve found. E.g. the following letter by State Historian James Sullivan to the bill’s sponsor Louis M. Martin, which contains a number of points that do exist in the law, and some that were not included.

    December 30, 1918
    Hon. L.M. Martin
    Clinton, N.Y.
    My dear Mr Martin:
    I am submitting to you for your consideration some of the points which I think ought to be covered in your bill for the local historians.
    1. There should be a local historian in each town, incorporated village, city of the second and third class, and in each borough of cities of the first class.
    2. They should serve without remuneration or receive such honorarium as the local unit will be willing to provide. Expenses for postage, stationary and cost of materials to be met by the local political unit.
    3. The appointment to be by the supervisor, president of the village board, mayor and borough president upon nomination by the executive officers of the local historical society, where there is such a society, or by the executive officers of the county historical society, where there is no society for the smaller political unit, and by the executive officers of the New York Historical Association and the State Historian, where there is no historical society for the local unit or the county.
    4. He or she shall be a resident of the local political unit in which service is to be rendered.
    5. It shall be his or her duty, in cooperation with the State Historian, to collect and preserve material relating to the history of the political unit for which he or she is acting as historian, and to file such material in fireproof safes or vaults in the town, village and city offices.
    6. He or she shall look into the condition, classification and safety from fire of the public records in the public offices of the political unit for which he or she acts as historian, and shall call to the attention of the local boards and the State Historian any material of local historic value which should be acquired for preservation.
    7. He or she should make an annual report to the appointing official and to the State Historian of the work which has been accomplished during the year.
    8. He or she should hold office for an indeterminate period and subject to the efficient fulfillment of his or her duties.
    9. He or she may be removed from office for cause and on the presentation of charges by the nominating officials or the State Historian.
    10. He or she shall upon retirement or removal from office turn over to the local town, village, city or borough offices all materials gathered during his or her incumbency and all correspondence relating to it.
    11. Notice of official appointment shall be sent to the local historian upon forms provided by the State Historian, signed by the local appointing official and countersigned by the State Historian.
    12. The local town, village, city or borough officials shall provide the local historian with sufficient space in the safe, vault or other fireproof building for the preservation of materials which are collected.
    13. The State Historian shall at regular intervals, not less than once a year, indicate to the local historians the general lines along which the local history material is to be collected.
    It might be advisable to name a stated honorarium of we will say $25.00 a year, but of this I am in serious doubt as the local towns and villages would probably seriously object.
    Very truly yours

    Photos (not the best) of the above letter can be seen here:

  6. The New York State Archives are responsible for government record-keeping policies and procedures for all municipal offices in the state, from village to county to state. The State Archives has regional representatives farmed out across the state to ensure that public records are handled in accordance with the law. Part of their job is to prevent a well-meaning civil servant from arbitrarily deciding, “Let’s give that old stuff to the historical society.” The state has clear records-retention policies.

    Other than published government reports & studies, which are meant to be distributed to the public, I never accept an offer of archival material from any government office or official unless the transfer has been approved by the State Archives.

    I suspect that many newly appointed municipal historians are not aware of the State Archives’ authority in this regard. They set out with the best of intentions to ‘save” important government stuff, this transferring it from appropriate public custody to something not so public or appropriate.

    The first order of business for any new municipal historian is to meet their regional state archives representative and learn what the State Archives does, so that they do not duplicate or undermine it.

    1. Your comment highlights the importance of establishing clearcut procedures and training for each newly-appointed municipal historian. Since you appear to be based at a library, it also suggests a logical home for the municipal historian in the event the municipality does not own and operate historic sites. In my post, I mentioned that the presenter at the new historian session at APHNYS was Christine Ridarsky who works at the Rochester library.

      1. Indeed, I run a library at a history museum. And I didn’t mean to question the professionalism of our county, city, town, and village clerks; they get good training on records retention policies.

        But employees embedded within large bureaucracies, such as a teacher in a school district, is an educator, not a records manager, and may have never heard of the State Archives and its requirements.

        The municipal historian position needs to be revised so that it is clear whether they are yet another legal collecting entity in addition to municipal clerks, libraries, and museums, or whether they serve an interpretive function instead of a collecting function.

  7. Peter, I love your articles. May I say, what I have seen of the local appointed historians: the results are only what they are willing to put into it. At least in my area, it is a appointed volunteer position with a stipend of less than $200. a year, which barely covers a set of ink cartridges for our personal printers. I have been amazed at how little history was saved or survived in the town where I live. In situations such as ours, reform would have to move slowly. Many towns are without historians. The volunteer generation is growing leaner. I agree, much needs to be done but certification and training for people who barely have time to lend to the appointed position can be a bit scary. Personally, I have found the local county historical society has provided much needed help to the town historians. If there isn’t strong support at the county level, that should be one of the next steps.
    Thanks again!
    Mary Ellen P. Kunst

  8. Peter, I appreciate the chance to give you my input. I am an appointed
    historian for the Town of Hunter N.Y. with a much more generous
    town board then what I’m hearing about. I have a much more generous salary (Not getting rich, but much better than the norm), with a very generous supply budget. I’d love to chat more about this. Dede
    I love my job and appreciate my town board.

  9. If any local historians have on file any of their predecessors’ annual reports for any year from 1919 to 1960, I’d appreciate their getting in touch with me.

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