Elevating History: How Local Government Historians Help to Sustain Communities

This article appeared in the Summer 2016 New York State Conference of Mayors & Municipal Officers Municipal Bulletin.

New York is unique among the 50 states when it comes to its history.  This is true not just because of the myriad nationally and internationally significant events that have taken place in New York and by New Yorkers, but because of the State’s long history of commitment to preserving and promoting its past.  New York is home to the nation’s first publicly owned historic site (Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, 1850), has had a State Historian since 1895 and, since 1919, has enabled municipalities to each have their own appointed Local Government Historian.  In all, the network of Local Government Historians (including cities, towns, villages, counties and the 5 boroughs) could, if all the positions were filled, number well over 1,600.  So, what is it that these historians do and why is it important?

The answer to that question is both simple and complex.  Local Government Historians utilize the historical record of their local municipality to build a foundation of knowledge that, when done correctly, helps to inform the present and prepare for the future.  This work is done in 4 core ways:

1. Research and Writing

The first, and primary, responsibility of the Local Government Historian is the interpretation of the past. This involves research and writing on aspects of the history of one's jurisdiction and may include scholarly monographs and articles as well as writing for a more general public audience in magazines and newspapers. On this subject, Professor Judith M. Wellman has noted:

“The best local historians have upheld high standards of gathering and evaluating evidence, making thoughtful and appropriate generalizations, writing well-organized and readable narratives, and sharing their work with others through the most appropriate mediums.”

2. Teaching and Public Presentations

The second category of responsibility for a Local Government Historian involves the interpretation of the history of his or her community through teaching and public presentations. In this regard, the Local Government Historian may teach courses on local and regional history, serve as a resource to local and regional teachers, especially in the fourth and seventh grade local history curriculum, serve as a content consultant for historical agency exhibit planners, speak and lecture to community groups, participate in radio talk shows, and otherwise disseminate knowledge of the history of their locality. In addition, the Local Government Historian may also be asked to work directly with students and other individuals interested in the community's past.

3. Historic Preservation

The third category of activity related to the work of Local Government Historians is that of historic preservation. This embraces not only the preservation of the built environment, but also includes the preservation of  manuscripts and records that document a community's past as well as the unique objects and artifacts that make up a community's material culture.

The Local Government Historian is both an advocate for historic preservation and a resource to his or her appointing authority on questions related to history and preservation. As such, the Local Government Historian may be asked to prepare cultural resource surveys of areas scheduled for development, to identify historic structures and districts and to prepare nominations to the State and National Register of Historic Places, to develop and manage local historic marker programs, and to answer questions regarding the historic significance of places and properties within their jurisdiction.

In addition, the Local Government Historian promotes and encourages the preservation of historic manuscripts and other records as well as artifacts by recommending appropriate repositories of historical materials, such as local government archives, local public libraries, or historical agency collections.

4. Organization, Advocacy, and Tourism Promotion

The fourth area of activity for Local Government Historians is that of organizer and advocate for their jurisdiction’s history. Local Government Historians are often asked by their appointing authorities to support the local Tourism Promotion Agency (TPA). Heritage Tourism is the largest segment of the tourism industry and studies show that heritage tourists spend more time (and more money) on their trips than other tourists.  Successfully promoting a location’s history depends on an accurate and engaging presentation. Successful efforts continue to have an important positive effect on local and regional economies.

Local Government Historians are often asked to organize and direct the commemoration of historical anniversaries and to participate in other civic observations. Again, providing historical accuracy in an engaging way is important with regards to these events. 

The Local Government Historian may be also asked to act as a fund raiser or grant writer to provide resources for historical programs or to use their knowledge of local government to lobby for or introduce legislative initiatives to promote community history.  A Local Government Historian should be knowledgeable about where and how to access grant funding as well understand their local, regional, and state governmental structure and political leaders.

In sum, the work of the Local Government Historians helps to build and sustain communities.  Preserving and promoting local history creates a strong sense of place and enables residents and visitors alike to understand the uniqueness of the community and the shared past of its inhabitants.  This need to acknowledge our part of a shared community past is a basic human desire.  Psychologists note that humans construct a sense of self through time that relies both on our own personal history as well as how our history fits into a larger historical framework.  This shared social identity—i.e.: community—allows us to reach consensus with each other as well as trust, respect, and support one another.  It forms the bedrock of our society and is the rich soil in which our democracy has grown.

Local Government Historians are the cultural curators of this shared community past.  Their work serves to provide their communities with a historical perspective of the past that sheds light on the realities of the present and the hopes of the future.  And, perhaps most importantly, a shared sense of past and place is part of the bond that keeps generations of residents living in a certain community while attracting those who may one day move themselves, their families, or their businesses there.  Therefore, sustaining a strong sense of community through preserving and promoting a shared past is a powerful tool for achieving a bright economic future.

According to § 57.07 of the New York State Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, Local Government Historians for cities and towns are appointed by the mayor.  The law allows for individuals to serve as both town and village historians.  Because of the potential value and complexity of the work conducted by the historian, it is essential that candidates for the positions locally have a strong background and working knowledge of their municipality’s history as well as the ability to conduct publishable research and present their history to a wide audience.  Though the law does not require compensation unless the municipality so choses, I encourage any and all support possible be given the historian—including office space, computer, mailing privileges, etc.—to enable them to conduct their work in an efficient and productive manner.   

Devin R. Lander
New York State Historian