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Ethics for a Town Historian

The following address was presented before the Town Historians at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Towns of New York State on February 8, 1972. It has been reproduced and distributed by the Office of State History with the consent of Mrs. MacNab and the Brighton Board of Supervisors.

"Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you -- and do it first!" That is probably as good a way to sum up a code of ethics as any general statement that can be made for a town historian or anyone else.

The duties of a town historian are prescribed by law (and it is presumed that any historian is familiar with the requirements of the state law affecting his position), but much freedom is left to the historian as to precisely how and how far these prescribed conditions are carried out. Considering that local historians' salaries vary from zero to five figures, it would seem only practical to recognize that interpretations of this freedom vary widely and depend somewhat on the interest and conscience of the historian. Carrying out the letter of the law is to be expected of any appointee, but more importantly carrying out the intent and spirit of the law makes up the ethical historian.

Primarily, the responsibility of the town historian is to the town and the town's code of ethics. The supervisor is free to appoint the historian without the approval of anyone else, so it behooves the appointee to realize that he serves at the pleasure of the supervisor. Of course, if the historian is to be paid, approval of such payment must be made by the town council, so for practical purposes it is advisable to cooperate with the town officials who wiggle the purse strings. After all, who's the boss? A historian working at cross-purposes with his government is doing himself and his town a disservice.

Historians' duties are not limited to the letter of the law or to putting on anniversary programs or writing the town history. There are many opportunities to be of service to local, state, or even national government, and the value of a historian can be enhanced when officials discover that a knowledqeable historian can be of service. Locatinq some old road minutes can help the highway department. Checking an old map for lot lines gives the town engineer a lift. Answering the genealogy query for the town clerk even adds to the historian's knowledge. These are just examples of areas where a historian has opportunities to raise the esteem and respect for the profession. Conversely, refusal to cooperate with the local government, a rather stupid attitude it would seem, is bound to work to the dissatisfaction and and eventual down-grading of the office.

It is hardly necessary to say that the town historian should confine his professional work to his own territory. Professional courtesy would indicate that in the case of overlapping history one should work in conjunction with the official historian rather than trying to move in on one. It has happened that historians have been removed from office because they spent more time in historical work outside their own assigned area than on their own problems. Town boundaries are the limits of authority for a town official. This is not to say that history stops at town borderlines, but to say that there should be respect for other jurisdictions.

As a public servant the historian should cultivate good public relations, particularly with the cultural and educational organizations of the community. Requests for tours, talks, or demonstrations from a school should carry a high priority in local history, for children are the future historians and the inheritors of our work. Contributions to their knowledge reach out into the homes and affairs of a community beyond our lifetimes. Presentation of programs to them should be adapted to their vocabulary and experience level. It is sometimes difficult to remember that for then the assassination of John Kennedy is as far away as the assassination of McKinley is to the older generation.

Similarly, programs presented to other groups continue a share-the-history-wealth policy. Service clubs, garden clubs, genealogy clubs are examples of agencies interested in history programs. Scout troops not only use information from the town historian, but are often of assistance in developing historical projects in earning their required citizenship badges. Casting the historical bread upon the waters in this way frequently brings it back buttered, as constituents become involved. It encourages donations of help, manuscripts, books, and reminiscences that would otherwise remain hidden or end up in fireplaces.

More and more historians are serving as resource people for college thesis assignments and news media background. Accuracy in this work is absolutely essential, for once an error has crept into common knowledge or in print, it is practically impossible to correct. There has probably never been a history published which is one hundred percent perfect, but at least the author should conscientiously try to present facts, not aggrandizements or fiction; and try to guarantee that the public receives an honest factual account.

The relationships between town historians and local historical societies present a tremendous variation. Some societies are the official historians, some work with the historian, and some compete with the historian. Some historians have the personality and ingenuity to develop and work with a historical society or museum. Others use them as a resource, serve as an advisor, or give service when requested. Cultivation of these inter-relationships with mutual trust and understanding can be invaluable to both parties.

Another institution that merits devotion is the library. As all historians know, a library is a gold mine that provides pay dirt with easy digging, so it pays to love your library.

Historians are probably one of the most generous and helpful groups of people in the world, sharing their know-ledge and problems on all levels. Meeting and dealing with other historians is one of the privileges that the local historian rapidly comes to appreciate. They take satisfaction in seeing that something interesting of another community that comes into their hands arrives in its appropriate place, not pigeonholed in some distant office where it might as well be lost for all the good it is doing.

Invariably in a meeting of local historians the matter of gifts and compensation comes up for discussion. A historian, possibly serving with little or no remuneration from the town, feels that any contributions of historical material become his personal property as part of the payment for the job. Even admitting that there is a little larceny in the best of us and that every man has his price, this attitude cannot be justified or condoned. Historical material donated to the town historian as agent of the town is not to be diverted to the private property of that person. In the absence of any declaration that it is an explicit gift to the person himself, it becomes the property of the town. History is not to be regarded as the private personal property of one person to the exclusion of others.

Another financial problem faces the town historian. May a town historian charge for his services to individuals? What about being paid for the research when someone wants to know how old his house is or whether his great-grandparents were here in 1810? Should one charge fees? Can a tip be accepted? The best answer to these questions is that the town taxpayers pay the historian. A taxpayer should be entitled to service without additional compensation to the historian. But what about the request that comes in from Florida or California asking for information? The local taxpayers who employ the historian can hardly be expected to foot the bills for a citizen of someother constituency and pay the bills for research and expenses for him. Yet it may be argued that the information in the request itself and the research necessary to provide an answer add to knowledge of the community in many instances. On that basis a response without charge could certainly be justified. These policies for payment might better be determined by the governing body of the town rather than the historian.

The last act of a town historian is to turn over the town's material to a successor. It is difficult sometimes, remembering the labor, sweat, and pride of accomplishment, to be if not gracious, at the very least adult. Reacting like the four-year-old who says, "I'd rather be mad," helps neither the former nor the new historian. Time and again over the years, a new historian checking into the material delivered to him finds -- practically nothing; none of the mandatory annual reports, no collections of current history, a few old programs or publications, or some ragged old newspapers. Or perhaps the historian died and the family has simply taken over ownership of the materials. Because securing this town property is at times more trouble and causes more trouble than officials feel its value warrants, the matter is simply glossed over and the new historian must start from scratch.

The ethical historian, realizing the short tenure of one generation, in the centuries of history, takes the long viewpoint. For a short time, by this way of thinking, a historian is trust officer and custodian of the town's story. The trust is maintained and increased over the generations of office-holders as one historian yields to another. The incumbent, passing his accomplishments to his successor, ensures the heritage of the tcwn. He has done as he would be done by -- and done it first!

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