Local Government Historians: Guidelines



Introduction

The State Historian provides guidance, direction, and training to the network of Local Government Historians in New York State pursuant to section 57.13 of Arts and Cultural Affairs Law.

The network of Local Government Historians consists of:
* 5 Burough Historians in Greater New York City
* 12 Community Historians (in community districts of the Borough of Manhattan)
* 57 County Historians
* 61 City Historians
* 938 Town Historians
* 567 Village Historians
Total: 1,640 jurisdictions
Duties and Functions:

The work of the Local Government Historian falls into four broad categories. Where the historian places emphasis will largely be a matter of personal interest and inclination as well as reflect the priorities and interests of the historian's appointing authority.

1. Research and Writing

The first, and primary, responsibility of the Local Government Historian is interpretation of the past. This will involve 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. Professor Judith M. Wellman 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 responsibilities also involves the interpretation of the history of his or her community through teaching and public presentations. The Local Government Historian may teach courses in local and regional history, serve as a resource to teachers especially in the fourth and seventh grade local history curriculum, serve as a content consultant to 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 work directly with students and other individuals interested in the community's past.

3. Historic Preservation

The third category of activity for Local Government Historians is that of historic preservation. This embraces not only preservation of the built environment but also of the manuscripts and records that document a community's past, and the objects and artifacts that constitute 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 relating to history and preservation. 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 historic marker programs, and to answer questions regarding the historic significance of places and properties within his or her 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 final area of activity for Local Government Historians is that of organizer and advocate. Local Government Historians are often asked by their appointing authorities to support the local Tourism Promotion Agency or TPA. Heritage Tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of the tourism industry and depends for success on an accurate and attractive presentation of history. Successful efforts can have an important positive effect on local and regional economy.

Local Government Historians are also asked to organize and direct the commemoration of historical anniversaries and to participate in other civic or patriotic observations. To this the Local Government Historian must bring energy and knowledge of the past as well as a sense of good taste. Moreover, the Local Government Historian may be 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.

County Historians

The organizational function is especially important to County Historians who have the added responsibility of providing guidance and support to the municipal historians in their counties and of serving as a conduit of information between the State Historian in Albany and the local historians in their counties. The Local Historian Law reads:

It shall be the duty of the county historian to supervise the activities of the local historians in towns and villages within the county in performing the historical work recommended by the state historian...

County historians hold regular meeting for the local historians in their counties, sponsor in-service training sessions, monitor vacant jurisdictions, propose and carry out co-operative joint projects, and assist the work of their local historians wherever possible.

Public Access

The Local Government Historian is the officer of local government charged with responsibility for matters relating to a community's past. As a public officer access is important. This means a regular schedule of business hours that are publicly available. In a perfect world every Local Government Historian would be provided with office space in the business office of their jurisdiction. This is sometimes not the case. Local Government Historians are sometimes required to maintain offices in public libraries or on the premises of chartered historical agencies. Local Government Historians should not conduct business from their home. At a very minimum Local Government Historians must be provided with a maildrop at the village, town, or city hall or county office building, where they can be contacted at an official address.

Local Government Historians are mandated by statute to report annually to their appointing authority and to the State Historian.

It is appropriate also to clarify what Local Government Historians are not.

1. The Local Government Historian is not an antiquarian. The Local Government Historian should not just collect "facts" about their community without attempting to put this data into a larger historical framework. Nor should Local Government Historians seek to assemble collections. Collections of artifacts or documents should be referred to an appropriate repository, i.e. a museum, library or historical agency, equipped to catalogue, preserve and interpret such materials. Historians should especially eschew time-consuming activities like assembling scrapbooks of newspaper clippings. Clippings of newsprint will only survive for a few years and microfilm copies of newspapers are already preserved in several depositories in the state.

2. The Local Government Historian is not an archivist. Local Government Historians have long had to cope with the ambiguous wording of the Local Historians Law relating to archival responsibilities. Local Government Historians must keep in mind the distinction between records collection, preservation, and management, which is the responsibility of the Records Management Officer (most often the village, town, city or county clerk), and the historian's role as supporter and, most important, researcher and user of archival records. This ambiguity was clarified in 1988with the passage of the Local Government Records Law, which reads in part:

Each local government historian shall promote the establishment and improvement of programs for the management and preservation of local government records with enduring value for historical or other research; encourage the collection and preservation of non-governmental historical records by libraries, historical societies, and other repositories; and carry out and actively encourage research in such records in order to add to the knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the community's history.

3. The Local Government Historian is not a genealogist. Local Government Historians receive numerous requests for genealogical research and information. The Local Government Historian must, therefore, clearly understand the distinction between genealogy (the narrow pursuit of an individual's lineage), and family or community history (the use of individual lives to illuminate historical situations). Historians in the course of their work may assemble valuable data on early residents of their community and may share portions of that data, if available, in response to genealogical requests. However they are not authorized to conduct genealogical research on demand. New York State Arts and Cultural Affairs Law states:

Neither Town Law nor any other statute authorizes a town to make expenditures for the benefit of individuals seeking information about their ancestry. . .The local historian's duties are defined in relation to the history of the political subdivision, in this case a town, and there is no authority to conduct research with respect to biographical or genealogical matters which are unrelated to the town's history.

Local historians have often found it expedient to keep on file a list of contract genealogists who may be contacted to provide such services.

4. The Local Government Historian is not part of an historical agency staff.

Many local historians are active members of their local historical society. However, the office of Local Government Historian is a demanding one. It should not be diluted by the appointment of one individual to be local historian and, at the same time, director of an historical agency. Moreover, a strong potential for conflict of interest exists in this practice. The director of an historical agency is primarily responsible to a board of trustees for the direction of a private membership organization. The local historian is a public officer obliged under the public officers law to provide equal service to all the citizens of his or her jurisdiction.

5. The Local Government Historian is not a partisan political functionary. Although the Local Government Historian is sometimes a political appointment, he or she must be above partisan politics in their writing and public presentations. The Local Government Historian is a professional historian who must adhere to professional standards in striving to produce objective and unbiased history. While it is not inappropriate for the Local Government Historian to write an institutional history of his or her local government, it is inappropriate to write a "puff piece" orapologia for a particular administration or political party, or to ignore the history of other groups. Furthermore, political campaigning, fund raising, or writing campaign literature is not part of the Local Government Historian's job.

Conclusion

The 1,640 local government historians in New York State constitute the largest and most impressive network of local government historians in the country. Such a network offers the potential for comparative community history across the entire state. Today's local government historians share the prestige of a position once held by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was the historian for the Town of Hyde Park while he was governor of New York. Local government historians play an important role in their community: by studying and interpreting a community's past, they also help shape present-day perceptions of that community. An understanding of the past is as vital to a community as other services provided by government.

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Qualifications: for the Appointment of Local Government Historians

The Office of the State Historian is frequently asked to provide guidance to local officials and search committees charged with the appointment of local government historians. While the ultimate responsibility for making such appointments rests with the localities, the following constitutes our recommendations on educational requirements that would qualify a person for appointment as a local government historian. We assert that no responsible local government would hire an unqualified highway engineer or coroner. The local government historian is a public office of equal importance and the appointment deserves to be taken equally seriously.

Qualifications

* A baccalaureate degree with a major concentration in American History or some related field is the minimum recommended qualification for a local government historian.

* For the position of County Historian, which carries with it additional leadership responsibilities as well as the need to comprehend the potentially more complex history of a larger geo-political entity, a Master of Arts degree with a major concentration in American History or some related field is the recommended minimum qualification.
* For historians of the five boroughs of New York City or of other cities with populations of over one million, the Ph.D. degree, with a major concentration in American Urban History or some related field is the minimum recommended qualification.
In filling these positions the Office of the State Historian recommends:
* A public announcement of the position.
* Creation of a search committee to conduct as wide a search as possible for interested and qualified candidates. In addition to members selected by the appointing authority, the search committee should include one of more academic historians drawn from the history departments of community colleges, colleges or universities in the region, representatives of local historical or preservation societies, and one or more local government historians from adjacent jurisdictions.
* For the appointment of municipal historians, the search committee ought to include the County Historian.
* For the appointment of borough or city historians it seems appropriate to advertise the position in The Chronicle of Higher Education, with the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and other professional forums, as well as local and major metropolitan newspapers, in order to attract well-qualified candidates.

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