Bruce Dearstyne: Strengthening the Historical Enterprise

Several recent posts on this site have demonstrated the robustness and diversity of New York’s historical programs but also pointed to the limitations, challenges, and potential for much greater achievement. The special issue of the Public Historian on “Strengthening the Management of State History: Issues, Perspectives, and Insights from New York” last August analyzed these same issues.

That discussion needs to continue. In fact, we are overdue for an examination of the state’s historical enterprise and discussion of ways of boosting its effectiveness and impact.
New York is one of the nation’s oldest states, with a history stretching back more than 400 years.

Our history is perhaps the most complex and interesting of any state. New York has some of the strongest and most innovative historical programs in the nation. This New York History website/blog is an example of the historical enterprise at its best: lots of historians involved, careful organization, using modern technology to make information broadly available. We are the only state to have a network of officially designated local government historians. A good deal of the work is done by dedicated people at no or very modest salaries, motivated by pride and love of history.

At the same time, there are many areas where the historical enterprise could and should be stronger:

New York has approximately 532 chartered historical societies, 149 historical museums, 48 historic preservation organizations, 94 historic house museums, 37 state historic sites, 20 heritage areas, several “historical trails” and hundreds of libraries with historical collections. There is a very helpful online central listing, New York History Net. But this large number of programs is a strength only up to a point: many have very limited resources and there is little coordination among them, a particularly critical issue in hard economic times when resources are stretched thin.

At the state government level, the State Museum, State Historian, State Archives, Archives Partnership Trust, Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, State Military Museum, Council on the Arts, SUNY (history programs, collections, museums) and other agencies all have a measure of responsibility for various aspects of state history. But there is no comprehensive vision, set of goals or coordinating mechanism. (New York had an Office of State History from 1966 to 1976 and it is still authorized in Article 57 of the Arts and Cultural Affairs Law but it was disbanded during the Bicentennial of the Revolution in a cost-cutting move.)

There are several outstanding associations concerned with various aspects of state and local history including the New York State Historical Association, New-York Historical Society, Association of Public Historians of New York State, and the Museum Association of New York. They all provide excellent services. But each has its own separate membership, funding sources and priorities. Cooperative ventures are rare.

Far too many history programs are underfunded, undersupported, and underdeveloped. They need more resources or they need to consider consolidating with other programs. Cutbacks in public funds during the current recession have further diminished many historical programs’ capacity to deliver quality services. We are all too familiar with stories of cutbacks, layoffs, reduced hours, and programs severely curtailing services.

There is no official state recognition or commemoration of epochal events such as the bicentennial of the War of 1812 or the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
State and local history is underappreciated by the public and historical insights and perspectives are largely absent from discussion of public issues.

New York State history is overshadowed by U.S. history and other elements in the State social studies curriculum. New Yorkers graduating from high schools know little about the history of their own state.
New York can do better in managing what is arguably one of its most important assets: its history.

Hard times (like now) are good times to take stock, seek new approaches, and plan and prepare for a more robust future. We need a broad dialog within New York’s historical community on how to proceed and what our vision for the future should be and how we can pull together.

Of course resources are critical, but that isn’t the best starting point for the discussion. The main issues are leadership and vision for closing the gap between the status quo and what we might reasonably expect by way of expanded resources and heightened impact for New York’s historical enterprise.

Here are some suggestions for how the historical community might proceed- they are similar to my essay in The Public Historian. They reflect the spirit of several other essays in that special issue and discussions with many concerned and interested people over the past few years. But the suggestions are entirely my own, offered in the hope of contributing to the discussion.

Leadership. Strong leadership is essential for any change effort. Any of the state offices or organizations noted above, or possibly others, could take the lead, for instance by calling a meeting to discuss the state of state history and what might be done to strengthen it. Or a better approach might be an alliance, possibly called the State History Leadership Council.

Possible goal. Strengthen the capacity of New York’s historical community to carry out the preservation, interpretation, teaching, learning, research, publication, study and use of New York’s history.

Possible objectives. Here are some possible objectives that might be considered:
Create a new State History Leadership Council comprised of the state agencies and organizations with responsibility for promoting and supporting New York’s state and local history. As noted above, such a council could take the lead in discussions of the future of the historical enterprise in New York.

Develop a document representing a vision and goals for the future of state and local history after soliciting ideas via meetings, a new State History website and in other ways, and after discussion.

Strengthen the role of officially appointed local government historians.

Revise chartering guidelines for historical societies and museums to factor in more provision for distinct mission, leadership, ensuring adequate resources on a continuing basis, and promoting cooperation between programs.

Encourage more cooperative ventures among historical programs.

Develop forums for enabling practitioners of state and local history to keep in touch and cooperate. This web site/blog and New York History Net, mentioned above, are invaluable forums for information gathering and dissemination, but we need to go further. For instance, An Enterprise Portal for Practitioners of New York State and Local History, a central meeting and contact point for collaboration, discussion, exchange of ideas, and sharing of best practices. A New York State History Information Central Website with news, on reports, publications, conferences, professional development opportunities and other information.

Expand the circle of interest and involvement in state and local history beyond the history community and familiar affinity groups to include, for instance, the State Business Council, the State Bar Association, unions, political leaders, local chambers of commerce, legal groups, and civic groups.

Build the business case for state and local history and use it as the basis for broader appeals for public and non-public resources. We need to be less modest and more expansive and assertive in making the case for the importance of history. That would involve building up such arguments as the use of history to shed light on and provide guidance on critical public issues- historic preservation as an anchor for downtown revitalization, promoting environmental stewardship through adaptive reuse of existing structures, and generally fostering smart economic growth- historical and cultural facilities and related “quality of life” considerations as factors people and businesses consider when deciding to stay in (or move to) a particular community- history inspiring pride and a sense of place in young people- and explaining that archival programs enhance efficient information management at the same time that they preserve history.

Build on the expanded circle of interest and involvement and the expanded business case to appeal for increased resources, particularly from the non-government sector, for well-defined priorities.

Create a forum or program for retiring New York executives and managers to help historical agencies address leadership, planning, management, advocacy, and resource issues.
Revise the state social studies curriculum to expand the study of New York state and local history in New York’s public schools at the middle and high school levels.

Make broader use of social networking and other information technologies. These are mostly free and available everywhere. Of course, resources are needed to take advantage of them and keep up the content, but because of their reach, this is a good investment of those resources. A few possibilities:

An online Encyclopedia of New York State and Local History (possibly built from the 2005 publication Encyclopedia of New York State), including provision for officially designated local government historians to post local histories.

A New York history channel on YouTube

New York historical photos on Flickr and other public online sites

Link and present historical sources to reveal relationships and tell important stories (a couple of examples: The Valley of the Shadow and London Lives)

More online publication of the results of research and writing, to supplement New York History, New York Archives and Hudson River Valley Review.

Research wikis for researchers to collaborate on specific historical topics.

 

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3 thoughts on “Bruce Dearstyne: Strengthening the Historical Enterprise

  1. Carol Kammen

    New York History has proved itself to be a useful and interesting forum for discussing New York History and I certainly agree with much of what Bruce Dearstyne, and earlier Ken Jackson, has said about New York neglecting its own history.

    I wonder if New York History might be able to play an expanded role in bringing together people interested in the state’s history and present.

    Could this be a place where people can register their research interests and connect with others?

    Or might it be a place where we can accumulate topical information, such as all the interesting books now appearing on the Civil War as it played out in the state. Within a year, two new books have been published in my county with previously unknown war letters. A roster of new material and useful old material about subjects would be a good way of strengthening interest in a topic and to see how it is being disseminated .

    There is a great deal that can be done to increase our historical presence;some of these efforts might have come from Albany but failing that, I am delighted to see New York History develop aid and community: thanks to John Warren for his efforts.

    Reply
  2. Vox Connecticut

    This is an inspiring call to action. A group of us in New England are grappling with a plan to launch a national campaign knows as “History Matters!” (see Facebook for beta). When teachers advocate for more and better instruction in history (vs, the more fungible and unappealing “social studies”) we talk abut how it enriches language skills and critical thinking – or, as we prefer to describe it, the ability to put the challenges, opportunities and information in context. It is no long fashionable to say that human conduct illuminated through history provides models of moral courage – but its a fact and it’s never been needed more. There’s a reason that figures like Lincoln and Washington are iconic. Almost every community furnishes local examples that are equally compelling. But the final reason history matters – and it may be the most important- is because it builds civic attachment – a sense of knowing, caring and belonging to a community where we can add value and lead our lives.

    Wendell Berry writes “If the word community is to mean or amount to anything, it must refer to a place.”

    Hence, state, and especially local, history not only matters – it may be the reason history matters most.

    Reply
  3. Debi Duke

    Yes, yes, yes to Vox Connecticut and Wendell Berry. That’s what place-based education is all about and it’s what we’re trying to do at TeachingtheHudsonValley.org.

    Reply

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