I appreciate the focus on our state’s history and the concern of many to ensure that our heritage is properly preserved for everyone. Unfortunately, too little attention has been paid to a system that already exists that links and networks with every other agency in the state – the Association of Public Historians of New York State.
Local and county historical societies are valuable collectors of original examples of material culture of our state, and many offer solid programs of education and heritage tourism. But these societies are not located in every municipality, and while some are vibrant organizations, many others struggle to exist. In addition, although they are chartered by the state, they are membership driven agencies who must work to continue to exist through constant membership renewal in an era where all similar type agencies are having difficult times. Nevertheless, they are a valuable partner in the history network.
In large part due to both the promise and perils of relying on the luck of having an area historical society, the New York State government took the unprecedented step of creating a law in 1919 that required that every town, village, city and borough have an appointed historian. Shortly after that, the law also added that counties also appoint a county historian. Regrettably, the state took the familiar step of giving each municipality the option of compensating the historian for their work. Thus, the state created an unfunded mandate that has existed for nearly a century which has created an appointed person in very one of the 1600+ communities in our state.
The promise of these historians has never been recognized – they must ensure that the history and heritage of their respective areas are preserved and promoted in a proper repository. That does not mean they must collect it themselves, but to make sure it is protected and available –whether that is at the local library, museum, historical society or their office. The historian must work to educate by answering inquiries, giving lectures, writing books, articles, or blogs. They must be the promoter for both historic preservation and proper record management. In short, they are the advocate and the built-in network for New York State history that already exists.
On top of that, the county historian is added the responsibility to ensure that the local historians in their county are performing their duties and following the guidelines and direction of the New York State Historian. This is not saying that the county historian is superior or above the local historian, nor their bosses, but more of a mentor to help guide them in their efforts.
Due to the fact that localities are not “forced” to compensate these officers of their towns, village, cities, boroughs, and counties, the state has created a valuable network that runs the gamut of fiscal strength to do their jobs. They are historians with a single purpose to do well in their performance, but without always having that same support from their appointing officials.
Into the maelstrom comes the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS). This is a relatively new organization of just over a decade in existence whose purpose is to promote the local historians, encourage increased professionalism, create educational opportunities through conferences and meetings and to network with each other and with the other historical agencies across the state. In its opening days, the Association created twelve regions, dividing the state into geographic areas to allow for more local meetings that provide historians that chance to network with each other, to learn about both local and statewide issues related to history and to increase their value to their appointed areas.
Early in its existence, the New York State Archives quickly recognized that the Association and the appointed historians provide that agency with a built in network that touched every community in the state. The Board of Regents and the Education Department recognize the Association as the sole organization representing these historians. The Association pushed for several years to have the state fulfill its legal obligations to have an official state historian, and now that office is once again occupied and interacting with the 1600 historians across the state. State Historian Robert Weible is a contributor here at New York History.
The Association is far from complete in its work. The regional system still needs improvement and a series of new appointments for regional coordinators along with a set of given responsibilities will improve its performance. The creation of a speaker’s bureau will provide better educational opportunities for both the Association and other historical agencies who may wish to tap the abilities of the Association’s members. An improved website will bring a long-awaited manual for historians to the public. The Association is working on a statewide initiative to promote inventorying, protecting and promoting historical markers. This initiative sprang up in the Hudson River region, and now will be promoted through our regional meetings.
The Association is closely working with other historical agencies to assist both those agencies and the historian. We have presented panels on the Conference on New York State History and will continue to promote that opportunity. We are working diligently to increase membership by affiliated groups such as federal and state parks and historical sites, museums, and historical societies.
While the Association of Public Historians of New York State continues to improve and grow, it holds the promise to connect every historian and historical agency to better the varied network of groups that protect our important heritage. It is this promise that needs to be recognized and encouraged – historians working together from all levels and areas to bring excellence to the history community.
Gerald R. Smith is President of