To paraphrase Barbra Streisand, historians often exist in an isolated vacuum but need fellow historians to thrive. Consider this situation: you spend years in graduate school and then working on your dissertation. Finally you are done and you get a job at a college. How many colleagues will you have who share the same interest? Yes, there may be other history professors there but not necessarily with the same expertise or interest you have. So what do you do?
Once upon a time scholars believed that if you build it, they will come. As it turns back in the before time, first we gathered, then we built it. We are a social species and storytellers so we periodically need to gather with other people. That is human nature.
Last summer (is it really over!), I attended the annual conference of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). The conference provides an opportunity for scholars of similar interest to gather together and present papers (I will get around to writing about the conference itself). But it also provides an opportunity for people to see each other and break bread together. Finally after months of being trapped alone on a college campus with no adult who has the same interest, you are among your own kind, people who speak your language, who share your concerns.
Actually, this annual get-together at SHEAR is supplemented by a range of opportunities during the school year to be united with your fellow historians. Already emails have started about early American history seminars being held this semester up and down the east coast. There are programs in Boston, Providence, New York, Binghamton, Philadelphia and points south and west just to name a few. I get some of the notices and sometimes they include the possibility of downloading a paper if one cannot attend in person. Such presentations draw from scholars within a reasonable travel distance of the host site and generally include a meal. They exist because we are people who typically do not want to be limited to our silos but want to get together, catch up, share knowledge, and eat.
Earlier this month, I attended the annual conference of the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS). The conference location rotates around the state (never in New York City!). The attendance varies depending on the location and who is in close driving distance to the site so they can avoid lodging charges. Again it provides an opportunity for the municipal historians of the state who typically work with no contact with any other historian to do exactly what the history professors and grad students at the SHEAR conference are doing.
In this case, there are no monthly seminars. The state is divided into 12 regions. Each region is encouraged to have a spring conference to provide a second chance to meet-up. As a one day event, the regional conference draws people who cannot attend the more distant statewide conference with travel and lodging costs that usually are not reimbursed by the municipality. They would be if the mayor, police chief, or town clerk attended a state conference but not so much for historians. With 12 regions, as you might expect, the success of the spring conference varies, but still there is a recognition and attempt to bring people together.
One of the reasons why I advocate for county history conferences including both municipal historians and history organizations is to bring such meetings as close as possible. People who live only miles apart and do the same type of work may have no contact with each other, a major problem of the job along with the lack of reimbursement for state conferences. Do mayors never talk to other mayors? Police chiefs to other police chiefs.
One organization that has fully embraced the concept of meetups is the Museum Association of New York (MANY). Like SHEAR, APHNYS, and the New England Museum Association (NEMA), it has an annual conference that geographically rotates around the region served. In addition it has a very robust series of regional meetings throughout the state. Part of the reason it can do this is it has fulltime staff. Executive Director Erika Sanger then has the good fortune of being able to travel around the state to the ten regions (versus the APHNYS 12).
These meetings provide an opportunity to meet and perhaps get a behind the scenes tour of the host site. But they also accomplish another goal. MANY has a lobbyist. It has someone who advocates with the State Legislature on certain bills that are relevant to museums. It also is able to learn about legislation originating outside the history community that may affect the history community. Either way, by having these statewide meetings, Erika is able to bring the members of the organization up-to-date on what is going on at the state capital. MANY also had had conference calls on the legislative status. But MANY is not yet at a point where it can arrange its own advocacy day at the state capital the way so many other interest groups do.
In addition, in five of the 10 scheduled meet-ups for the fall, there is day program prior to the afternoon/evening program. That day program does have a registration fee.
There are other organizations which also promote such get together. For example, tomorrow or for you today when you are receive this blog, the Greater Hudson Heritage Network (GHHN) will be holding its annual meeting at Bear Mountain. Even in a region like Hudson Valley, it is sufficiently large to warrant rotating the location to draw people. GHHN too offers programs during the year. Some are technical in nature and require a fee; others are late afternoon/early evening get togethers and include a behind-the-scene tour of the host site.
This survey is not complete. It is meant to highlight the importance of people getting together with colleagues, with people who share similar interests and problems. My favorite session at the APHNYS session is the new historian session. You are the new historian. Now what? I love hearing the stories of people new to the position tell of the challenges to figure out just what exactly they are supposed to do (another area of weakness in the municipal historian position in New York State).
This year the sessions was doubly gratifying. I was able to prevail on the mayor of the village and town supervisor of the village and town where I live to appoint a municipal historian. It happens to be the same person but that’s fine since you really cannot tell the story of the former founded in 1868 without telling the story of the latter founded in 1660 and vice-versa. The new historian was also able to attend the conference (possibly even to be reimbursed!). And I know he greatly appreciated the chance to meet his fellow new historians and to learn about what other historians are doing.
If you can attend an annual meeting do so.
If you can attend a regional meeting in your state do so.
If you can attend a county meeting do so.
If you do not have a county meeting, create one.
You should never feel that you are in this alone and you should never be in the position alone.
1. When organizing a meeting keep in mind the National Park Service and state historic sites. Frequently these people are left outside the invited list. True they often are not allowed to attend such conferences unless on their own time, but the information at least should be sent to them to give them the chance.
2. I have omitted specialized conferences on specific topics. For example, following the GHHN conference at Bear Mountain there will be a James Fenimore Cooper conference including a field trip to Cooperstown. Maybe there are too many conferences! That is why I cannot keep up with reporting on them in these blogs.