Regular readers know that I am a strong advocate of the role of the county historian as a promoter of historical education, community heritage, and cultural tourism. Although the position is a required by state law, the actual job requirements and benefits are left up to the individual counties.
Unfortunately some counties have no historians, some use an organization to fulfill the role, some have volunteers perhaps with some office support, some have part-time historians, and others have full-time positions where individuals take a leadership role.
Today, I’d like to focus on the example of Livingston County as a case study of what can be done. I do not mean to suggest that comparable work isn’t being done elsewhere, but simply that I happen to meet Amie Alden, the Livingston County Historian, at a conference and had the opportunity to learn about what she is doing which is quite impressive.
Livingston County is located at the western edge of the Finger Lakes vacation region, but it also may be considered part of Western New York. It’s population of around 65,000 is comparable to many other counties outside the New York City metropolitan area.
There are two simple ways of indicating the strong commitment of the County to County Historian. Is the position of County Historian is listed on the County website under the alphabetical listing of departments in the county? While that may seem trivial, I speak from experience in saying that the municipal historian position is not always listed on the municipality’s webpage. In addition, the department is listed separately on the webpage- it is not part of another department such as records or archives or clerk.
The Livingston County Historian Department consists of a full time county historian who oversees a research center mainly comprised of books, subject binders, and archival documents with a part time clerk and a part time deputy in its own facility. The county has a separate full time Records Manager who oversees government records. It would be interesting to know at both the county and local level for municipal historians
1. How many have their own facility
2. How many are full-time, part-time, or volunteers
3. How many have a staff and if so, of what size
4. How many maintain collections separate from the records manager
Defining precisely what records are government and what are historical is a subjective decision and it is perfectly reasonable for a county to have one person in overall responsibility for both provided sufficient staff, space, and facilities for the maintenance of historical collections exist. The Livingston County Board of Supervisors and the County Administrator are to be commended for their support of the County Historian function.
What does the Livingston County Historian actually do? One easy to overlook task is to maintain a record of who all the municipal historians are in the county. As one who has organized county history conferences in the past, I can say that an up-to-date central repository of information at the county level of the municipal historians (and historical organizations) is not always easy to come by. In the case of Livingston County, there are 17 towns and Amie knows who they are because is in contact with them by phone and email.
Note: Some of the 17 town historians do double duty as village historians in the 9 villages, 8 of which have the same name as the town. Such double duty is common in many counties although it also is common for them to be two different individuals.
That information, of course, is used for a constructive purpose as Amie describes:
“I coordinate quarterly meetings and out of the 17 towns in the county attendance is usually around 75-80% plus the historians will often bring a deputy, volunteer, or spouse. So together with my part time clerk, and a couple of long time volunteers we often have between 20 and 25 for the meeting. In addition I send out invitations to the town supervisor and former town historians. The meetings move around the county and sometimes we go to a restaurant (if they have a big room and I can negotiate lunch for $10 or less), or I have it catered (soup and sandwich or dish to pass) at a town hall, church, or historic site. Summertime I arrange a picnic in a park and a cookout. The meeting are very informal but I always bring the historians up to date on what’s happening in my office, special events, etc. I communicate with most via emails throughout the year so there’s no need to take up too much with announcements. I usually line up a special speaker but if not then I allow the historians to give brief updates on what they are doing. Given the size of the group, they have a couple of minutes each!
I think attendance reminds high because I always have them RSVP and we call the ‘-usual suspects’ a day or two before to give them a reminder. Since many are elderly they really seem to enjoy just getting together and catching up on what’s happening.”
Whether it is a brown-bag lunch or an informal gathering at a restaurant, this is exactly what should be done. I remember writing about some county history conferences that in part were like reunions of people who hadn’t seen each other in years: “Your kids are in college now! Where has the time gone?” Regular get-togethers at locations throughout the county should be a requirement of the county historian position.
In addition to the face-to-face meetings, a newsletter of events, personal notes, and activities, is published at least annually. It is distributed to all county departments and Board of Supervisors so they know what is going on as well as to the town historians. All newsletters may be accessed through the on the County Historian page of the County website.
One important activity Amie participated in was a presentation at the County School Superintendents luncheon Amie’s presented the newly developed Sullivancampaignlivingstoncounty.com interactive website and gave a brief history in of the campaign. The project was financed primarily by the Livingston County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. Communication with school superintendents should be another requirement of the county historian position. County historians also should know who the social studies curriculum people are in each district as well and if there are teacher meetings or professional development workshops for teachers that can be attended. Such communication works both ways:
1. Municipal historians need to be kept abreast of what it means to teach to standards and what the impact of the proposed Common Core Curriculum will be teaching state and local history
2. Superintendents need to know about anniversaries and exhibits underway and forthcoming so there can be a dialogue between the two groups of educators.
Amie also presented at a AP class and at a BOCES Career Day.
Organizational Responsibilities and Activities
There are, of course, the standard types of activities which one associates with the position. Public talks, radio interviews, attending historic events such as for the Sesquicentennial, and attending conferences. As Amie said,
“(T)he three main reasons that I attend are education, contacts, and sharing of experiences. I am indeed fortunate to have a travel, training budget. Connecting with others working in the field of local history is what I find most beneficial. Often times people I meet at these conferences provide links to reso
urces that assist in my research and vice versa. And I enjoy these give me a chance to travel around the state and enjoy all the sites!”
A new development is the attempt to create a regional group. Statewide conferences frequently rotate throughout the state. Even the MANY/Museumwise conference in Albany may be stretch for many historic organizations downstate as well as in western NY. While NYSHA in Niagara was not too far away this year for western historians, next year it will be in Poughkeepsie. There really is a need for a three-tier structure of state-wide, regional, and county conferences that bring together the history community including teachers, archaeologists, archivists, municipal historians, historic organizations, and scholars.
The Government Appointed Historians of Western New York (GAHWNY) represents an attempt to resolve this issue. Amie is a founding member and serves as treasurer, helped organized the spring meeting and attended the fall meeting last year. Another such effort was the creation of the Friends of Livingston County History by Amie in collaboration with Anna Kowalchuk, Livingston County Historical Society Museum Administrator (Amie has served on its Board), and Joan Schumaker, President of the Western New York Association of Historical Agencies with the purpose to establish a closer network with historical societies that operate museums and to provide assistance and training with biannual meetings.
As you can see from this brief snapshot into the world of one county historian, she is involved in a great many tasks at the county, regional and state levels and with education, tourism, and public events. I deliberately am not mentioning the archival and research duties because I prefer to focus on other themes. I have commented in past posts on the fractured history community in the state and on its inability to speak forcefully in Albany on critical issues such as the Common Core Curriculum (what will be taught on local and state schools), community heritage (how do we develop a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of community among our residents), and cultural heritage tourism (how to we show off our role in American history). Amie Alden, Livingston County Historian, shows how one person can make a difference in her community and her example can serve as a model for counties that have yet to embrace or recognize the importance of the County Historian position. What are we the people of the state doing to ensure there are more people like her in the history community and that they have the resources and support they need to get this vital job done?
Illustration courtesy Harvest of History.
Peter Feinman founder and president of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, a non-profit organization which provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development program for teachers, public programs including leading Historyhostels and Teacherhostels to the historic sites in the state, promotes county history conferences and the more effective use of New York State Heritage Weekend and the Ramble.