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The New York State Historian Position: Creating the New York State History Advisory Coalition

The investigation into the hiring of Devin Lander, former executive director of MANY and legislative aide to Assemblyman Engelbright continues by drilling down the state bureaucracy. In the previous post, the position of the Commissioner of Education was reviewed. Mary Ellen Elia had received an open letter from two prominent state historians about the state historian position. In this post, we consider what happened next.

The Commissioner did not respond directly to the letter.  The letter called for reinstating the Office of State Historian as an independent position, reporting directly to the Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Education. If the Commissioner of Education did not wish to respond, she had every right to delegate it to the Commissioner of Cultural Education.

In case you are not clear on exactly what that position is, there is an Office of Cultural Education. The name itself does not provide a clear indication of its areas of responsibilities. According to its website this department consists of the self-explanatory

New York State Archives
New York State Library
New York State museum which includes the state historian

and the less obvious

Office of Educational Television and Public Broadcasting which asks on the website “Are you surprised to find that your public television and radio stations are directly connected with the State Education Department?”

New York State Summer School of the Arts (NYSSSA) comprised of seven residential schools that offer four-week training in the specific disciplines of ballet, choral studies, dance, media arts, orchestral studies, theatre and visual arts at college campuses.

Only the website of the Library resembles that of the Office of Cultural Education itself and one may reasonably conclude that these entities have had a varied history before being lumped together here.

There is a Committee on Cultural Education within the Board of Regents. The Chair is Roger Tilles of Long Island. His contact information is He has spoken at MANY and attended the History Roundtable held by Assemblyman Engelbright on May 29, 2014, regarding the proposed NYS History Committee. I was at both events and have had some innocuous email exchanges with him. He definitely is someone for the History Community to contact regarding the position of the State Historian as well as the status of history in general in the state.

JudithJohnson from Westchester is another person on the committee to consider contacting ( She was a superintendent in the Peekskill school system. While there, she spoke at an Underground Railroad conference held in Peekskill. When a tree on the campus of the high school used in the Revolution to hang spies finally died, she mourned the loss as part of the heritage of the community. These actions are suggestive of someone who has an interest in history and how to bring local history to students.

The other members are:

Christine Cea, Staten Island (
James Cottrell, member at large, Brooklyn (
Judith Chin, Queens ( who is identified as a lifelong educator and was supervising superintendent in the NYC school system with an interest in immigration based on her own family history
Beverly Ouderkirk, North Country ( who is identified as having been a teacher, principal, and superintendent in a variety of locations throughout the state.

I have had no contact with any of them. This committee should not be ignored in the effort to strengthen the status of state and local history in the schools and communities of the state as well as in the state bureaucracy.

As for the position of the Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Cultural Education, it is vacant at present. The proposed Office of New York State Historian probably would report to this person parallel with the Archives, Library, and Museum as Judy Wellman and Carol Kammen suggested in their correspondence. They recommended that decisions about the state historian position be deferred until this position was filled. However, as it turned out there were regulatory constraints best known to those inside the Albany bubble requiring filling the state historian position by May 19 and that deadline took priority.

This meant if Commissioner of Education Mary Ellen Elia wanted to delegate responding to the letter from Carol and Judy, there effectively was no one to delegate it to. The request being made was to elevate the present position of the state historian to the position reporting directly to the presently-vacant Deputy Commissioner for Cultural Education. For Mary Ellen to delegate the response to Mark Schaming, the Director of the State Museum was inappropriate. Even if he agrees whole heartedly with the request, he does not have the authority to comply with it: he can not elevate a position to his own level or to direct reporting to the Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Education. Presumably that individual could once hired if so inclined but Mark can not.

Why then did Mary Ellen delegate the response to someone who lacks the authority to act on it? Did she not understand what was being asked? Did a staff assistant who screens the mail to her simply tell her the subject was the state historian position so she delegated it without reading it? Did she read and understand the request, reject it, and delegate it to Mark to write the brushoff? There is insufficient information available to me to make this determination but no matter which of the three it is, it reflects poorly on her.

As for Mark’s response, much of it is standard blather jargon thanking you for writing without engaging the actual letter. There is nothing personal in this, it is simply standard operating procedure within the government especially if you are asking someone to do something different.

Mark’s response to Judy and Carol contributed to a post by former State Historian Bob Weible on New York History Blog on May 10,  What’sNext for the New York State Historian? In his post, he characterized the response rather harshly:

His inept and condescending response simply thanked Kammen and Wellman for their interest and clumsily assured them that things were being handled appropriately. He never answered the question of why the department chose to ignore its 2011 Regents-approved strategic plan to “reinvent” the Office of State History.

To be fair to Mark, he has no authority to reinvent that Office. He never should have been charged with responding to the letter in the first place. The responsibility belongs higher up with the Commissioner of Education who delegated when she should have taken charge. The tone of Bob’s comment also sheds light on the background of his abrupt departure last summer immediately after the New York State History Conference. It is reasonable to conclude that these two people had come to a parting of the ways perhaps even about the very position of the state historian.

Bob also referred to a letter from the New York Academy of History (NYAH) to Governor Cuomo advocating for a more vigorous effort on behalf of New York State history. I had the good fortune of having lunch with Ken Jackson, the founder and president of the organization, and Lisa Keller, a board member, at the annual meeting of the Greater Hudson Heritage Network last October when he delivered the keynote address. I’d like to think given our discussion that I played some role in the generation of the letter to Cuomo which also seems to have gone nowhere…and this from the person who gave the opening address when the Path through History project was rolled out on August 28, 2012 (as to what he said about the project three years later in his keynote at the GHHN is best left unreported!).

What then should the history community do now? One of the suggestions to Cuomo was the creation of an Advisory Board consisting of professional historians. According to the website of NYAH its own advisory board consists of:

Kenneth T. Jackson (Committee Chair), Barzun Professor of History, Columbia University
Carol Berkin, Distinguished Professor of History Emerita, Baruch College
Laurence Hauptman, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History
Lisa Keller, Professor of History, Purchase College SUNY
Susan Lewis, Associate Professor, Deputy Chair and Graduate Advisor, Department of History, SUNY New Paltz
Dr. Dennis J. Maika, New Netherland Institute.

Expanding on that list of concerned historians, the open letter of Carol and Judy was sent to:

Rose Harvey, Commissioner, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation
Thomas J. Ruller, Archivist, New York State Archives
Gavin Landry, Director, I Love New York

Amie Alden, Executive Chair, Government Appointed Historians of Western New York
Paul D’Ambrosio, President and CEO, New York State Historical Association
Jay DeLorenzo, Executive Director, Preservation League of New York State
Carol Faulkner, President, Upstate New York Women’s History Group
Peter Feinman, Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education (blogger)
Lynn (Spike) Herzing, Director, New York Cultural and Heritage Tourism Network
Carol Kammen, Historian, Tompkins CountyLisa Keller, New York Academy of History
Devin Lander, Executive Director, Museum Association of New York [now the State historian]
Sara Ogger, New York Humanities Council
Gerry Smith, President, Association of Public Historians, New York State
John Warren, New York History Blog
Judith Wellman Director, Historical New York Research Associates.

Some additional individuals in the private sector with a statewide perspective to be considered for an advisory board are

Robert E. Bullock, The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government
Bruce Dearstyne, former archivist and author/blogger/columnist
John McEneny, former municipal historian and state legislator
Bob Weible, former state historian

and representatives from the New York State Archaeological Association/New York Archaeological Council and New York State Council of Social Studies among others.

Carol and Judy had to write an open letter because there is no venue through which to express their concerns. There is no state-wide organization advocating on behalf of the history community. I recommend that the history community take it upon itself to form such an advisory group rather than wait for the Governor’s permission to do. The New York State History Advisory Coalition consist of state-minded representatives of the history committee who meet on a quarterly basis in Albany to discuss, develop, and advocate with the State legislature, State Education Department, Board of Regents, NYSOPRHP as appropriate in support of a history agenda in New York State. Topics for consideration by such a group include but are not limited to:

1. The position of the State Historian including staff, resources, and funding

2. The duties and responsibilities of the municipal historians including training, funding, and revised guidelines

3. The place of state and local history in the k-12 curriculum and the training, certification, and professional development of teachers accordingly

4. The development and promotion of the history heritage of the state for cultural heritage tourism so for example people watching AMC’s “Turn” about Washington’s spy ring in Long Island don’t just see ads for “Virginia is for Lovers” but are directed to real New York Paths through History about the State’s role in the American Revolution

5. Establishing funding sources through the REDC process for anniversaries, state heritage areas, and Paths through History that encourage cooperation and collaboration so they aren’t merely jargon buzz words but the State puts its money where its mouth is.

6.  Connecting the residents of the state to their local and state history as a matter of civics to enhance the social fabric so we can live with each other as fellow New Yorkers.

7. Maintaining a database of the academic publications related to state history and supporting the conferences, symposia, and history weekends which are held throughout the state.

Suggestions welcomed. Comments appreciated. Who is willing to host the first meeting? Who would attend?

The Commissioner of Education and the NYS Historian

At present the position of the New York State Historians lies deep within the bowels of the state bureaucracy, starved for resources, and scarcely able to see the light of day through all the bureaucratic levels above it.

Formerly, the State Historian reported to the Director of the New York State Museum, who reports to the Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Culture and Education, who reports to the Executive Deputy Commissioner of Education, who reports to Commissioner of Education, who answers to the Board of Regents.

But what does that mean? Continue reading “The Commissioner of Education and the NYS Historian”

New York State Historian: The Weible Years

A Fitting Title for the Situation in Albany

New York State now has a new historian. In some ways that should seem like a routine announcement since the State is required to fill that position. However as people in the history community well know, the State, like many counties, cities, towns, and villages does not always comply with regulatory requirements. There is no penalty to the State for the failure to comply either and only a trivial unenforced one at the municipal level.

Even when the State and the municipalities do comply with the letter of the law, they don’t necessarily comply with the spirit. The position is often disrespected and/or disregarded excluding some ceremonial occasions and is not taken seriously when the real decisions of government are involved. The diminished State position sets a poor but accurate example to the county executives, mayors, and town supervisors that local and state history really aren’t important regardless of any lip service at the press release level. How often is the voice of the history community actually heard in the REDC funding process [which is now beginning again for the 2016 cycle]. How much funding is there for collaboration in the Path through History project regardless of how often the jargon is spoken? Message received.

On the other hand, how often does the history community make its voice heard? Does it even have one? How often does the history collaboratively ask for anything?

With these thoughts in mind, let’s consider the latest chapter in the story of the New York State Historian: the Bob Weible years. Just to put things in perspective, here are some excerpts from the press release by the NYS Museum on February 4, 2008, announcing Bob as the new state historian. According to the State:

Weible was selected following an exhaustive search that began in 2006 as soon as funds became available for the position. Following the budget crisis of the 90’s the Museum has faced an uphill battle to obtain the funds necessary to rebuild capacity as several key positions were vacated due to retirement and other budgetary factors.

The heroic State Museum persevered against all odds and finally prevailed despite the adversity.

However, Bob paints a different picture in his post to New York History Blog on Former NYS Historian Weible On State Ed Bureaucracy, Responsibilities on February 22, 2016:

State Historians subsequently fought through various internal reorganizations to meet external as well as internal demands, but the position lost support and became vacant in 2001. And it remained so until 2008, when pressure from county and municipal historians persuaded the State Education Department to fill the vacancy.

Note the different in emphases in the two versions: budgetary concerns versus a degradation of the position until the grassroots history community forced a changed. The State Museum versus the State Education Department. What really happened? Here is an interesting historical challenge for historians of public history in New York to investigate.

Turning to the individual who would fill the long-vacant position, the press release stated:

A native New Yorker and nationally recognized historian, who has held various leadership positions on the state and national level for the past 28 years, has been appointed the new chief historian.

“Robert is a public historian who has built strong partnerships throughout his career with diverse community groups, universities, cultural organizations and local historical societies,” said Museum Director Dr. Clifford Siegfried. 

Siegfried specifically cited him “for the renewal of the Museum galleries and the transfer of our extensive history collection to a new storage facility” which gives a pretty good indication of what his real work would be along with the new exhibits in the Museum.

The press release went to state that the new historian “also will work with local historians and academic and cultural institutions to increase the public’s understanding of New York State history and its role in U.S. history.”  In English, this meant about 25% of his time.

The tricky part was in the second “also”: He will also oversee management of the Museum’s history collections and help develop content for public programs and teacher workshops. Public programs and teacher workshops?? I know I initiated a couple of them in the New York State Museum with Bob, but I would say overall this is an area that needs serious work.

Here is how Bob described the situation in his February 22, 2016, blog:

But the decision to combine two very different positions into one was really a kind of bureaucratic sleight-of-hand: the State Historian position may have been officially filled, but as was made clear to me, the Museum’s institutional priority had remained the same: research and collections care.

Bob generously acknowledged the budgetary constraints on the state government in general and added his own perspective:

But it is true that without proper leadership and public support, bureaucrats can easily lose sight of the larger social goals their organizations were created to achieve and become nihilistic, self-serving careerists dedicated simply to perpetuating their positions and authority.

By referencing proper leadership and public support, Bob addresses the two sides of the dynamic: leadership from the top meaning the Governor and advocates from the grassroots meaning the history community. While it’s easy to fault our Governor for his lack of support beyond signs and fixing roofs, it is also true that the history community doesn’t ask for anything beyond signs for its own site and fixing the roof of its own site. The requests of the history community tend to be small and local, lacking in statewide vision and ignore the necessity of civics for the health of the social fabric.

During his tenure as State Historian, Bob had the opportunity to discuss some of these issues.

On March 17, 2014, in Saratoga Springs at the annual meeting of the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS) in his State of the State’s History address, Bob called for the need to cooperate. He challenged the attendees with the declaration that if we can learn to work cooperatively with each other we can find out how powerful we are. He said that history is what unites us as Americans, as New Yorkers, as members of our local community. He equated a community that forgets its past with a person with Alzheimer’s. A community’s memory is important for identity, for pride of place, for a strong sense of place. Advertising is not enough for quality heritage tourism. Civics needs to be taught in our schools. With these thoughts, the State Historian had raised important issues about:

  1. the dysfunctional organization of the State
  2. the funding or lack thereof for state and local history particularly for cooperative and collaborative projects
  3. what the history community can contribute to the economic growth and social wellbeing of the state.

But like the proverbial tree falling in woods that no one hears fall, Bob’s words in Saratoga Springs were not heard in Albany.

One year later he returned to some of these issues in his State of the State’s History address on April 10, 2015, at the APHNYS conference in Corning. He spoke about the history markers, a favorite topic of his, about the lack of a state database of history markers, about how they promote tourism and the way people think about their own community. He spoke of the underutilization of heritage resources and the lackluster historical presentations on behalf of heritage tourism. He called for innovative and engaging history storytelling that would reinforce community identity and attract visitors seeking an authentic experience. But once again he was the proverbial tree falling in the woods that no one hears fall. Bob’s words in Corning were not heard in Albany.

On March 30, 2016, Bob tried to make sure he would be heard in Albany. In an article published in the Albany Times Union entitled New York State’s Former Chief Historian Warns the Bureaucracy Is Putting History at Risk, Bob spoke publicly now that he was free of bureaucratic constraints and the necessity to know his place and mind his business. His tale of woe included the observation that “The state once led the nation in creating and supporting institutions that ensured the survival and use of historic documents, artifacts, buildings and sites.” Times changed and now “New York has also witnessed the dismantling of a unique network of historians that had long enabled both classroom and lifelong learners to become informed, more active citizens.”

He repeated the charge he levied in his February post to New York History Blog on how the grassroots push was the driving force behind the State finally complying with Stare regulations and filling the position of state historian. Then with the exquisite subtlety of a maestro at work, he gently said:

The bottom line here is that, without proper leadership, New York’s entire history community has for decades been compromised in its ability to live up to its public service responsibilities.

Again there is the juxtaposition of the State and the history community with the abdication of the State of its responsibilities as the primary problem. He then asked:

Can the situation be reversed?

Bob even provided a solution to the problem:

In 2011, the Board of Regents approved a plan to investigate the possibility of reinventing the Office of State History. Unfortunately, internal opposition has kept that from happening. And after my recent retirement, the museum even announced plans to downgrade — and further undermine — the state historian position. Not surprisingly, this idea has raised serious questions within the state’s history community.

Bob is more optimistic than I am. While I prefer to be optimistic I have zero confidence that the State on its own initiative will do the right thing after decades of dismal neglect. Nothing in the REDC process or the Path through History project as they have operated so far suggests any serious interest in nurturing, developing, and promoting state and local history for the health of the social fabric or the growth of the economy. I also have grave doubts over whether the history community itself can make its voice heard and advocate in Albany. Nonetheless, some people are trying to be heard in what the AAA calls “Albany’s Alice-in-Wonderland environment.” Those efforts related to the State Historian position will be the subject of a future post.


Bob Weible’s Swan Song

Whither The New York State Historian?

The sudden retirement of Bob Weible, the New York State Historian, provides an opportunity to reassess the position. What does the history community want from the state historian – assuming there even should be one in the first place? Continue reading “Whither The New York State Historian?”

What’s On Your New York History Reading List?

Another one bites the dust. That was the message of a recent article in the New York Times (Mourning a Cultural Hub Disguised as a Used Bookstore, November 28, 2011) about the closing of a book store in Metuchen, NJ. As one patron of the bookstore noted of the owner, “(H)e turned it into a kind of a clubhouse for the community [where everyone knew your name] and somehow it worked.” Continue reading “What’s On Your New York History Reading List?”

County Historical Societies

This is the third in a series of posts on the New York State History infrastructure. The previous ones were on County Historians and Municipal Historians. These posts draw on my experiences in initiating a series of county history conferences in the Hudson Valley this year and on Teacherhostels/Historyhostels I have conducted such as the one to the Mohawk Valley this past summer prior to Irene. Continue reading “County Historical Societies”