Public History and Debate of Public Issues

How important is “public history?”

The essay on public history in the newly published second edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History, provides some fresh insights. The Encyclopedia, edited by Tompkins County Historian Carol Kammen, a long-time leader in the field, and Amy H. Wilson, an independent museum consultant and former director of the Chemung County Historical Society in Elmira, is  a rich source of fresh insights on all aspects of local history.

The essay on public history is written by Allen S. Newell, founder of Historical  Research Associates, a public history consulting firm. Public historians “employ the same methods and analytical approaches that all historians utilize,” the essay notes. They are concerned with “the way in which historical thought is communicated to various ‘publics.’” They are interested in getting the word out about how history creates insights and sheds light on current issues.

“The emphasis is on ensuring that history reaches as wide a community as possible….Public history may be characterized more as an attitude or perception about the use and value of history than as a distinct field of history,” says Newell.

Public history should be used to shed light on public issues. It needs to be part of the public debate.  That is relatively easy to do in New York, where so many contemporary issues have been debated for many years through our rich, vibrant history.

Just a few examples:

  • Thruway and heritage tourism. Governor Cuomo has initiated a “Path Through History” initiative to encourage heritage tourism, particularly along the Thruway. That initiative has lots of promise. But there is historical precedent that can provide guidance.  Governor Thomas Dewey frequently cited tourism in justifying the costs of, and securing support for, construction of the Thruway in the 1940’s and early 1950’s.  Thruway Authority publicity from those early years of the road also highlighted history. The famed author, news commentator, and world traveler Lowell Thomas, encouraged by Dewey and the Thruway Authority,  wrote a  book, The New York Thruway Story, in 1956  which  described in detail the “historical buildings, museums, parks and monuments” along the route.
  • School district consolidation. There is a good deal of discussion these days about consolidation of public schools  to save money. That debate goes back to the 1920’s, when the state provided incentives in the form of state aid to construct centralized schools and buy buses to transport students. The issues sound familiar: desire for local control, debate over how much power the Education Department should have over local education, local taxes, use of state funds to drive and support change, and gubernatorial leadership (governors Al Smith, Franklin Roosevelt, and Herbert Lehman supported school consolidation similar to what governor Andrew Cuomo is doing today).
  • State Senate. Because of the closeness of the election last month,  it is unclear which party will control the state senate.   But control of the senate has been uncertain before. In the 1891 election, each party won fourteen seats. The results in four other seats were disputed. A controversial series of recounts by county boards of canvassers and  the state board of canvassers (predecessors of today’s county and state boards of elections) and court decisions eventually resulted in a Democratic majority.
  • Natural disasters. What lessons should be drawn from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy?  An indirect result of the Blizzard of 1888 was the recognition of the vulnerability of New York City’s electricity and phone lines on poles and its  “rapid transit” system of the era, elevated railroads. The City ordered utility lines moved to underground conduits and eventually constructed a subway system to keep bad weather from disrupting mass transit in the city (which the subways, opened in 1904,  mostly did until Hurricane Sandy). On the other hand, after the great Hurricane of 1938 which devastated much of Long Island, people quickly rebuilt in the most vulnerable areas, along the shoreline.
  • Environmental policy. The Department of Environmental Conservation has posted draft regulations to govern the extraction of natural gas using the process known as hydrofracking, if the governor approves. The State Health Department is making its own study of the health impacts. Both agencies will have something to say about probable impact on water supplies. If there is a lack of consistency and closure because two state agencies have different perspectives – conservation of the environment vs. public health &#8212- it would be something we’ve seen before. For instance, in the period 1910-1930, the state Conservation Department (and its predecessor, the Conservation Commission) and the Health Department had different perspectives and issued their own reports  on issues such as water quality standards and pollution of streams and lakes.

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4 thoughts on “Public History and Debate of Public Issues

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Bruce Dearstyle always has interesting and thoughtful things to say about how to think about and do local and state history in New York. His examples here of public history intersections with the past is acute.

    I am delighted that he had brought attention to the newly published second edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History (Alta Mira Press and the American Association for State and Local History) but the cover of the book shown with this essay is that of the first edition. I will try to transmit a copy of the cover of the second, a book greatly expanded from the original (2000) with a number of New York state contributors, including associate editors James Folts of the New York State Archives,Virginia Cole and Robert Kibbee of the Cornell University Library, and Linda Norris of Riverhill Partners.My co editor Amy H. Wilson was for some years the director of the Chemung County Historical Society and is now an independent historical consultant in Roswell, Georgia.

    One of the new features of the second edition of the Encyclopedia are the essays about each state in the nation and all the Canadian provinces (these edited by Bruce Elliott of Carleton University near Ottawa) that look at history doing and making in each of these geographical units over time giving us an interesting and important benchmark showing where history has been and where it is today.

    There are many other topics included in the new Encyclopedia, such as a number of discussions about museums and the importance of a variety of sources and of technology.

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I am also delighted that Bruce Dearstyle is bringing attention to the new second edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History. I sincerely hope that libraries are made aware that there are significant additions to this second edition and, just because the book has “history” in the title and they have the first edition on their shelves, does not mean that they can do without this new edition. We should all suggest purchase of this new edition to our libraries and consider donating the book if the library really can’t afford it.

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Bruce Dearstyne’s piece should be widely disseminated. Both state and local officials might learn something from it. History does teach us and we can learn from the past. We need to know what was tried in the past, what worked and why, and what didn’t and why not.
    His examples are timely and might expedite ongoing examination of difficult issues.
    Hope springs eternal!

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Just FYI, I’ve fixed the photo.

    John Warren


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