Devin Lander, the New York State Historian, is approaching his one-year anniversary in May. One of the changes he made since he attained this full-time historian position involves the creation of a State Historian website announced on September 16, 2016. In his message he wrote:
Find statewide history at your fingertips.
The idea for this website is to provide an online conduit for information exchange between the New York’s historical field and the work of the NYS Museum Office of State History. The website includes links to various history related resources that provide information on grants, best practices, conferences, etc. The website also provides information on what the Office of State History is working on related to exhibits, publications, lectures, research, and events.
The website also has a calendar of history-related events taking place related across the state. This calendar seeks to present simple content (date, time, location, brief description) created by historians for their event and either sent to me for posting. Types of events can include: historical celebrations, lectures, exhibit openings, fairs, festivals, meetings, reenactments, etc.
Please email your events for posting to: email@example.com
The website’s news and articles division also seeks content from the field. My voice should not be the only voice heard. My colleagues in the Office of State History will be writing entries describing the work they are doing. I also hope to feature “guest” authors who will write about the work they are doing related to New York State History. I am seeking article entries from Local Government Historians, academic historians, Federal Government historians, historians from other State agencies, and historical museums and society staff. Please send me ideas! The entries should be brief (1,200-1,500 words) and related to interesting work being done on New York State history.
The website is a positive addition for people interested in the state of New York State history but I confess I had not paid it much attention since its inaugural. It was there if you looked for it but how did you know if there was anything new to look at? Perhaps if Devin sent notifications of changes to John Warren, a former teacher of his and editor of New York State History Blog, it would help disseminate the information to a broader audience.
I was reintroduced to the website when I conducted a search for a canal barge program to be done by Corning Glass (subject of a future post). At that point, I noticed his admittedly belated New Year posting dated February 14. It contained information about the newly established History Advisory Group that was the subject of a recent post by me on March 13. My source for the post was public information from press releases but it turns out there was additional information from Devin’s post which deserves attention.
On December 6th, 2016, the NYS Museum hosted a gathering of the newly formed New York State History Advisory Group. This Advisory Group was brought together at my request to provide guidance and suggestions to me related to the field of history in New York, including opportunities and challenges. The group is purely advisory and volunteer in nature and includes representatives from various perspectives including local government historians, state agencies, the National Park Service, heritage areas, academia, historic preservation, and history museums. The intent is for the group to meet twice a year and for the members to serve two-year terms to ensure a rotating diversity of viewpoints and perspectives. The mission of the Advisory Group is to advise the State Historian on ways to strengthen the capacity of New York’s historical programs and history community to carry out the preservation, management, interpretation, teaching, learning, research, publication, study and use of New York’s state and local history and to elevate history as a field of endeavor at the national, state and local level.
After listing the members, Devin proceeded to reveal some of what the attendees actually discussed when they met, information not in the press notices I read.
At the December 6th meeting, there were several points of interest that were discussed by the group. One topic discussed was updating the document “Duties and Functions of New York State’s Local Government Historians,” which is being amended and is now posted on the website. It is a brief document that serves as a de facto “job description” for local government historians. It can act as a guiding document for local government historians as the Association of Public Historians of NYS (APHNYS) works to create a comprehensive manual.
Another topic that generated much discussion was the possibility of changing NYS History month from November to a different, more accessible, month. November tends to be a problematic month because so many historic sites that might host History Month programming and events close after Columbus Day. The Advisory Group discussed what possible months may be better and suggestions included October (which is already Archives Month) and possibly April (which is the month when New York’s first Constitution was ratified). April might run into some of the same issues as November with many sites not opening for their season until May. To change History Month from November to another month requires an amendment to the existing law which would require an act of the Legislature. Further input from the field is welcomed going forward.
The duties and functions of the municipal historian is a topic which has been discussed here on several occasions (for example, see, County Clerks/County Historians: A Match Made in Albany? One of my favorite sessions at the annual conference of the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS) is the new historian session. Unfortunately the tale of woe remains constant: no training, and no guidance as people are thrown into the job. The lack of clearly defined specified responsibilities makes it easy for county executives, mayors, and town supervisors to dismiss, disregard, and diminish the position. A SUNY grad student composed guidelines in 1997. They need to be updated to take into account the new technologies. I have suggested a week-long training session for county historians in Albany with the various related state agencies. Based on the principle of “start at the very beginning, a very good place to start” and take it one step at a time, defining the position would be a major step forward in improving the status of the position throughout the state. Creating these guidelines and procedures along with the requisite training should be a top priority.
As for State History Month, a relevant question is “what are we trying to achieve with this month or designation?” We have a black history month and a women’s history month. What are the goals of these months and what needs to be done to achieve those goals? Does anyone think that without State History Month, Path through History weekends, and the other officially-designated time periods there would be no talks, tours, walks, events, or anniversaries? In fact many talks, tours, walks, events, and anniversaries occur at otherwise ordinary times that do not fall within the rubric of being part of an officially-designated time period. In baseball there is WAR or “wins over replacement.” It means what does someone contribute above over not being there. For example, George Bailey added a lot to the fabric of life in Bedford Hills by being present; subtract him and it’s a big loss to the community. How much of these specially-designated time periods are merely padding a resume for show without really adding value? Let’s use the issue of State History Month to seriously think about what we want to accomplish by highlighting a specific time interval and what are the ways to accomplish it.
Wouldn’t the annual conference of the Museum Association of New York (MANY) just held in Saratoga Springs have been an ideal venue to reach out to the history community to discuss this and other issues? If there could be separate discussion sessions for executive directors, collections and exhibit design staff, on programs, for students, and fundraising, why couldn’t there be a session with the State Historian? The same for the annual conferences of APHNYS and GHHN.
Just as I was preparing to write this blog, another change was introduced into the mix. Devin sent out an email about a listserv he has created:
Office of State History Newsletter
You are receiving this email from the Office of State History Listserv because of your interest or work within the field of New York State History. This listserv has been created by the New York State Historian as a way to communicate with the field regarding important events, news, or other information that will be made available on the Office of State History website at: http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/research-collections/state-history.
The listserv will only be used to direct your attention to updates to the website. If you are not interested in receiving these updates through the listserv, you may unsubscribe at any time.
If you would like to have public historical events or historical news items posted on the website, or if you have an idea for a more in depth historical posting, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am not sure exactly how one subscribes to the list if one is not already on it. Every municipal historian at the village, town, city, and county level should be a subscriber. Of course, that would necessitate a database of all such individuals. APHNYS strives to maintain such a file but it is a daunting challenge for a volunteer organization. One regulatory change I would support is for all county executives to annual certify the names and contact information of the historians for each of the municipalities in the county…starting with the county historian position.
In addition, I think all statewide organizations both private and public should include New York History Blog in the distribution so news isn’t simply restricted to one’s members. Certainly every county historian should do so as well…but then not every county has a county historian and even those that do don’t necessarily send out monthly or even quarterly messages to the history community of the county on what is going on. Now we are back at the beginning of the process whereby creating the guidelines for what municipal historians are supposed to do is the first step. Imagine if full-time Orange County historian Johanna Yuan’s monthly newsletter was available as a template for all counties to use simply by plugging in their photos, logo, and information so everyone wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Who really knows what is going on out there among the county historians, a subject for a forthcoming post.
In conclusion, I would like to thank Devin for being a dedicated reader of my posts and for the steps he has taken on behalf of New York State history so far, undoubtedly with more to come.