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The Municipal Historian Conference

The next conference in this series of blogs is the annual conference of the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS) on September 9-11 in Albany. This year marks the centennial of the state legislation requiring every municipality in the state including village, town, city, and county to have a municipal historian. The regulation is frequently ignored and is woefully out-of-date. It has been the source of several blogs in the past (for example, The State of Municipal Historians in New York) and will not be addressed here. I will simply note in passing that this centennial has received almost no attention which is a pretty good indicator of the state of the public historian law in New York.

APHNYS is a volunteer organization. It is experiencing a changing of the guard with a new president scheduled to take office in January.


The bylaws of this non-profit as voted on at the business meeting contain some interesting provisions with broad applicability.

There is to be an advisory council of six people: the State Historian, the past APHNYS president, and four members appointed by the current president and not the Board. I wonder what exactly this advisory council is supposed to do separate from the Board of Trustees.

There shall be a legislative committee also appointed by the president. Here again, I wonder exactly what this committee will do. As a 501(c)3, the organization can promote legislation as long as it is not a substantial part of it activities. I think an annual advocacy day at the state capital is within the purview of the organization just as I hope the Massachusetts History Alliance will one day have. In addition, the state historian functions through the Board of Regents in New York and not the state legislature so it certainly should be permissible for the organization to advocate before the Regents.

It will be interesting to see what the new president does come January 1.


My favorite session at the conference is the orientation session for new historians. The session is led by Christine Ridarksy, the City of Rochester Historian whose day job is at the library. She will be the new president and is a liaison to the National Council of Public History (NCPH), a conference which she attends.

I was especially interested in the session this year. The reason is I finally prevailed on the Mayor of the Village of Port Chester and Supervisor of the Town of Rye to appoint historians. It happens to be the same individual as of the conference date and he did attend. As far as I can tell the conference was useful in explaining what the job entailed. It also was useful because “historians who have historians are the luckiest people in the world.” It is important for historians who essentially are on their own simply to have the opportunity to meet their counterparts regardless of the specific sessions at the conference.

I am not going to discuss any of the specifics of the session. The basic problem is one of training. There is no training in what the municipal historian is supposed to do. The lack of clearcut responsibilities and guidelines carries over to the elected officials who do not know either except that there should be an historian. The remedy for this endemic problem is at the state level. As long as the position is of no priority to the Governor, it remains no priority to the mayors, town supervisors, or county executives. The result is a wide range of practices at the local level.

I can say that the people who attend the conference, both new historians and veterans, are very dedicated to their work and have a great love for the function of local history. It is too bad that the dedication and love is not reciprocated at the state level as the minimal celebration of the centennial testifies. The new president has her work cut out for her.

Barbara Russell, Town of Brookhaven Historian

The individual session that stood out the most to me is the one which should be replicated in every community if it is not already doing something like this. I mean no disrespect to the other sessions including the ones I attended, but this one is a practical hands-on activity that practically every community can do.

This particular event is actually a collaboration between the local historical society and the local municipal historian. This partnership should exist in every community but regrettably sometimes does not.

The event is a one-day walking tour of the community for the fourth graders in the multiple elementary schools in the town. The students are bused to the one school located in the center of the sites to be visited. They meet in the auditorium for a 40-45 minute talk about the town.

Ironically, the auditorium contains murals of some of the very historic sites they will be walking by. The problem was the students kept twisting and turning their heads to see the murals. The presenters then learned to create a PowerPoint so with the lights off the students faced forward.

After the presentation the students go on 90 minute walks of 1-1.5 miles in the historic district. A video has been created in the event of rain. Unfortunately, school schedules being what they are, once a date is picked and all the arrangements have been made, you are stuck with that date regardless of the weather.

There is a brochure of the tour with a map of the original settlement. One site of recent fame is the Setaucket Presbyterian Church and cemetery. It contains the grave of Abraham Woodhull, leader of the Culper Spy Ring and prominently featured in the recent AMC show “Turn” which ran for four seasons. That show has been the source of some blogs as well (AMC Mocks the Path through History). It was not promoted by New York State then but perhaps during the upcoming American Revolution 250th it will be. Although the national commission will be winding down after 1776/2026, events in New York will just be gathering steam then. Perhaps some of the fourth graders who visited the site will be involved as high school or college students in the celebrations then.

According to the brochure, one date on a history plaque is off by two days. Readers are advised that history plaques are not primary sources, a good lesson for students.

The comment about the history markers reminded me of a session given at various conferences about school bus trips to the markers in the Town of Deerpark. There was brochure of a map of those markers on a display table. The Pomeroy Foundation which funds such history markers also were there. History markers are potential tourist destination locations that tourist departments often ignore (VERMONT ROADSIDE HISTORY MARKERS). People do want to go to the exact spot where something occurred and take a selfie even if there is no gift shop or bathroom there.


I did play hooky during the conference. The Mohawk Valley Museum Consortium was having a meeting nearby in Saratoga County during the conference field trips to Albany. I ducked out from visiting sites I already had visited to attend a meeting hosted by the Charlton Historical Society. It was held in an old school building across from an old church. I really got to see some of the rural parts of the county to drive there.

There was a session there on “Ghosts of the Past.” It is a cemetery tour at the Green Hill Cemetery in Amsterdam. There are six one-hour tours 30 minutes apart for $10. About 300 people participate with a net profit of $1500 which is a nice chunk of change for the local historical society. This excludes, of course, the volunteer time. Once again we have an example as we do in so many communities that offer something similar of people who love their local history because they love their local community and they have great fun expressing it. It’s too bad those feelings don’t count for more in our country today. How do you budget for “love of community”?

Two quick notes.

Chris Leonard, City of Schenectady Historian, spoke on the Guyana population surge in the city. He discussed how he is collecting their stories (as well as the problems of being a new historian!). I suggested that he take the newcomers to the city on bus tour of the city to introduce them to the history of their new home and to the places they might not see in the course of their daily lives.

Paul and Mary Liz Stewart spoke on the Underground Railroad. What made this presentation new for me was their mention of the discovery of letter from William Jay found in the Jay Papers to their group in Albany. As it turns out, years ago when they spoke in an IHARE Teacherhostel/Historyhostel for me, they were in church on the Bedford commons across from the courthouse where that Jay was an abolitionist judge. But the letter had not been discovered by them yet.

This makes for a nice segue into the next conference, the National Park Service, National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom training program which began the afternoon this conference ended about 300 miles away.

The Grassroots Speak: Comments, Criticisms, and Supplements to My Blogs

The Grassroots Speak (Library of Congress

This blog is dedicated to responses from readers about my blogs. Although these comments are posted on the IHARE website, they appear after the blog has been disseminated so they tend not to be read by readers of the blog. Below are some of the responses in alphabetical order by history organization.

Columbia County History Community

In response to Historians Who Have Historians Are the Luckiest People in the World: The Need for Meetings and Meetups, I received the following:

We have organized an informal group of Columbia County municipal historians and historical societies, and some individual non-official historians, which meets about every three months to talk on topics of mutual interest.  We have a list of 50 people who receive notices of meetings but attendance at a meeting is usually about 20.

I wonder how more such gatherings there are. Certainly every county should have such countywide meetings. They can range from a formal conference with presentations to casual get-togethers.

Eastville Community Historical Society

 In my blog Columbus Day 1992: A Glance Back at the Culture War that Divides America Today, I used the logo of the Eastville Community Historical Society (ECHS) to illustrate the message to think in terms of encounters instead of zero-sum in the presentation of the past. I did so without requesting permission from ECHS.

When ECHS saw the post, they were enraged. An email of complaint was sent to the New York State Historian requesting his intervention for the unethical use of the logo. I was copied on the email. When I received it, I replied with an apology to ECHS and expressed my admiration for the logo.

ECHS accepted the apology and requested a disclaimer be posted that it was “unauthorized, this is not the view of Eastville and that of IHARE”. I will revise the website with the posting to state that the logo was used without permission and does not indicate agreement with or an endorsement of the blog.

Massachusetts History Alliance

An open response to Peter Feinman’s blog post of July 29, entitled: History Advocacy: Lessons from the Massachusetts History Alliance Conference

As a history professional working in Massachusetts, a member of the Massachusetts History Alliance Board of Directors and chair of its Advocacy Committee, I regularly read your essays and applaud your efforts to investigate and report on regional activities that impact history organizations.

It was with genuine excitement that I sat down to read your recent blog post, “History Advocacy: Lessons from the Massachusetts History Alliance Conference.” I’d like to take this opportunity to respond to your somewhat dismissive assessment of the conference as a whole and your critique of the session you attended.

First of all, thank you for attending the conference. While it has co-sponsored conferences in the past, the Mass History Alliance is a relatively young organization that is wholly volunteer-driven.  We are working to define our purpose and to assess the needs of local history organizations in Massachusetts. As a collaborative clearinghouse for resources and information, we have developed the infrastructure for a robust web presence that can make tools, opportunities, partnership models, empowering stories and a range of other resources freely accessible to all.

The session that you attended at the conference reflects this practical approach. It was intended to provide useful information that might assist individuals representing their organizations.  You observed, “the session was entirely geared towards individual people representing individual organizations advocating for individual items on behalf of the individual organization.”

I understand that you had hoped to see that the MHA had progressed quickly towards becoming a “statewide organization [that can] arrange for a history advocacy day in support of statewide history concerns.”  We still have a long way to go until we can operate effectively as a voice for history at the statewide level.

The advocacy session might have been better, and we are striving to make everything we do better. However, contrary to your observation, I believe the session had everything to do with “what the history community really needs.”   Creating a shared voice and a shared vision out of the many members of the MHA is the first step to becoming a strong and purposeful voice for the hundreds of mom & pop museums, archives and societies spread across our state, struggling to keep their doors open and their programs running. Our intent is to inspire and empower them to hold on, to thrive and to grow. We cannot hold a “history advocacy day” until we have a clear and cogent message that comes directly from our membership and speaks to its vision and its needs. We are in the early stages of learning from our members about the specific challenges they face and the support and resources they need to survive and flourish. In the meantime, our advocacy session was organized with individuals working alone or in small groups all over the Commonwealth who might benefit from insider tips on approaching representatives.

As you noted, ‘the history community does not do a good job advocating for itself,” and I agree with you. The Mass History Alliance aspires to be an umbrella organization, a convener and a clearinghouse for support and collegiality, but there is much work to be done. We need to expand our membership, gain trust and legitimacy through our programs and refine our advocacy efforts. Your agenda for public history projects in need of advocacy for is spot on.

The MHA aims to become a voice for the history community, but first it must learn from and listen to that community.

Grassroots efforts may be slow but we have seen great progress.  In the midst of your critique and concerns, you may have missed the overall success of the 2019 Mass History Alliance Conference. 237 participants representing over 150 organizations attended. We came close to surpassing all previous attendance rates and we welcomed representatives from more organizations than ever before.

Moreover, there was a palpable sense in the building that public historians in our state, more than ever, want a place to express their collective commitments to preserve and share their histories. Your suggestions for statewide and regional advocacy and cooperation are well-taken and your recommendations for state programs and teacher training in local history are important.

In the meantime, the MHA Board has just expanded to twelve members and welcomed leaders in our state’s history community. Their dedication and the collegiality and enthusiasm of the conference attendees are evidence that something special may be happening. Indeed, I believe we are getting our act together.  Please join us in a spirit of cooperation and support around our shared commitments to preserving the past!


Eric Peterson
Director of Operations, Waterworks Museum
Director, Massachusetts History Alliance

When I received this private email, I asked Eric if I could post it and received permission. I actually agree with this comment. I am not a resident of Massachusetts but have attended the conference three times. I want the Alliance to work. I want it to be exactly what Eric wants it to be. The blog was intended to express my frustration and disappointment that more has not been done. I expressed similar disappointment when in New York, the New York Historical Association withdrew from all statewide functions. That longtime void still has not been filled. That is part of why I was excited about the prospect of Massachusetts doing what the New York history community has not done. Maybe Massachusetts will succeed where New York has failed. The Museum Association of New York (MANY) fills part of the void but more is needed.

Old Saybrook Historical Society

In response to the blog entitled Happy Seventh Birthday Path through History: Creating a Cultural Heritage Trail, I received the following:

Peter– Always enjoy and benefit from your writings.  Think that most towns have a sufficient number of related sites to establish their own “trails.”  Here, briefly, what we did in Old Saybrook.

I won’t include the entire description. Here is the conclusion.

The Old Saybrook Historical Society was desirous of telling this story [from 1635] and working with the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center identified the location of the fort, the “Neck ambush,” the attack at Cornfield Point, Warehouse Point, Guardhouse Point and other areas of significance.

Text and visuals for historic markers were designed and the local Historic District Commission provided funds to purchase 6 historic signs and the local Department of Public Works installed them at the appropriate locations.

Information about each of the sites was developed in further detail, visuals were selected, and the locations placed on a map and connected by a route, or trail if you will, highlighting routes for walking or biking to the sites.  The map with 12 Saybrook Fort and Pequot War sites was printed through the generosity of the local Planning Commission and is now available without cost to the public.

Local communities have important stories to tell and remaining sites and/or structures to develop their own trails.   Dedicated individuals plus some research plus supportive residents and thoughtful town officials equals success.  It’s not complicated.

I quite agree the observation about trails. Some trails may only be of interest to local people such as part of school civics trips, some may have county, state, and/or national interest. It is important for the civic health of the community, county, state, and country that such trails be developed.

St. Lawrence County

This response was also from Historians Who Have Historians Are the Luckiest People in the World: The Need for Meetings and Meetups. It raises issues with the performance of one statewide organization, the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS).

There are some major problems with APHNYS. I live in St Lawrence County. I have been a municipal historian for going on 20 years. Our region has had two meetings and never a conference in that time. The region is unworkable always has been.

Who can travel 6 hours for a regional meeting? The region is too large. I have brought this issue up repeatedly at APHNYS to no avail. St Lawrence county alone has twice the land mass of all of Long Island. APHNYS serves some of the state but not all. Ask the people in western NY who have their own organization not part of APHNYS.

We have an active county historian’s group that APHNYS does not recognize. We meet several times per year. Without their recognition attendance doesn’t count for their historian certification program.

I forwarded this comment to the current and incoming presidents of APHNYS. I received a reply which I was authorized to send to this individual in order to start (or continue) a dialog on resolving this situation. I note in passing the upcoming New England Museum Association (NEMA) conference in Vermont. New England like New York is a big area and we all know about LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. Driving times can be long and the expense of unreimbursed conferences prohibitive. That is one reason why local conferences at the county level are so important.

Wayne County

Hi Peter,

I wanted to make you aware of a project that our local historians are working on.  We think it is unique and hope that others might be interested in doing something similar for their counties.  If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.  Jim Paprocki is our computer expert that took the concept from an Excel spreadsheet to the on-line version we have now.

Gene Bavis
Walworth Town Historian
Chair, Wayne Historians Organization (WHO)
Co-Chair, Wayne County Bicentennial, 1823-2023

The Wayne Historians Organization (WHO) is a loosely organized collaboration of municipal historians and historical society representatives.  The group meets bi-monthly to discuss topics of interest to the participants and works to share best practices and important information.  The County Historian’s Office assists in coordinating WHO activities.  Wayne County is one of the few counties in New York State to have such a group dedicated to local history

The Wayne Historians Organization (WHO) has created a website dedicated to the historic sites of Wayne County.  Town Historians and representatives of our local historical societies have worked together to develop an online database of historic sites which includes: museums, historic markers, architectural treasures, churches, schools, cemeteries, industries, transportation, murals, organizations, and much more.  Not all of these sites are “old”.  They are, however, part of the history of our county.  The goal of this project is to create a greater awareness of our unique cultural heritage and to encourage visitors and residents alike to enjoy some of our wonderful historic sites.

It is important to remember that most of the sites of interest to historians and cultural heritage tourists are on private property and are not open to the public.  The sites are included because they are interesting and you can generally see them from public streets.  Some sites have a considerable amount of historical information and some don’t.  Site administrators have the ability to add photographs and written text as well as links to other websites.  Whenever possible, it is great to have both historic and modern photos of the site.  The database is, and probably always will be, a work in progress.  In fact, at this time the database is only about 2/3 complete but historians are working hard to add more information.  As local historians learn more about various sites they will add information and photos.  If citizens have additional information or photos, or have suggestions for other sites that should be added, or if they find errors, please contact the administrators of the WHO website. 

An interesting feature of the website is the capability to search individual towns or topics.  When you click on each site, a new page opens and you will get detailed information and pictures.  Sometimes you will find links to more information on other sites.  While you are on the specific site’s page, you will find a hot link to the GPS coordinates.  If you click it, a map will appear showing you the location of the historic site.  We also have a few tours listed in the menu bar and others will be added in the future.

To visit the Wayne Historians Organization database, go to:

Imagine if every county had such an organization and such a database!

History organizations also have shared their activities at various conferences. I know I need to catchup in blogs on the conferences I have attended plus some I have not but which have online abstracts. The goal in these posts is to share constructive ideas and actions that have been taken with as wide an audience as possible.

Historians Who Have Historians Are the Luckiest People in the World: The Need for Meetings and Meetups

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.

Two P.S.’s.
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.