Local History Matters. Now, More Than Ever

Under state law, New York requires every municipality to have an official historian. When you do the math, that comes out to one historian for each of the five boroughs of New York City, 12 Community Historians in Manhattan, 62 city historians, 932 town historians, and 544 village historians.  Add to that the 62 county historians, the scores of small historical societies, and the dozens of small archives, collections, and history museums, and you have the foundation for a vibrant local history community.

            Some of these local historians are more active than others. Some have more resources at their disposal. A huge percentage of them serve as volunteers. Many of them are retirees, doing work they love with great enthusiasm in the name of preserving their community’s past.  To varying degrees, they coordinate their efforts, and meet together to discuss common interests and concerns, like the meeting of the Government Appointed Historians of Western New York (GAHWNY) I attended last fall. It is a hodge-podge, with a thousand moving parts, but the work they do is exciting and important.

            And largely separate from the work we do as academic historians.  That reality has become increasingly clear to me over the course of this past year, as I began to survey the public history landscape in New York State. It is a shame.  The academic history community has largely ignored local historians.  And as I began to meet local historians, and talk with them, it struck me that we in the academy could be doing so much more, and that we had overlooked an extraordinarily valuable community of historians doing extraordinarily valuable work.

Why not, then, form a partnership between local historians and my college that could benefit us all—students at our college interested in history or museum studies, the public history community, and those in the general public with an interest in history?  Why not form a center to encourage interest in state history at the local level?  That’s what we are trying to do at Geneseo—a Center for Local and Municipal History– and our first steps will take place on February 16th.

            Encouraging a partnership between our college and the local history community will certainly benefit our students.  Teaching is not an attractive career path for all of our students, and the withered state of the academic job market makes it difficult for us to encourage even the most talented to pursue graduate training in history.  Our students find work in a host of fields, and I believe firmly that history students emerge from our college with the skills to prosper in a variety of fields. 

Still, history itself, as a discipline, is changing.  Museum studies is a dynamic and creative field.  The broad expanse of the “digital humanities” is bringing innovation to historical research, publishing, archival work, and public education.  Thanks to the creative teaching of my colleague Yvonne Seale (@YvonneSeale) and other members of the Geneseo community, our students have the opportunity to learn these versatile digital skills.  Our students, I believe, can provide important assistance to resource-starved local and municipal historians.  Our students will benefit from the opportunity to deploy their skills in a real-world setting and local historians will benefit from the assistance our students can offer.

But there is more to it than that.

The New York State K-12 Social Studies Framework places no emphasis on local history. As a result, too many New Yorkers know too little about the history of the communities in which they live.  I suspect that this problem is not unique to New York State. The American Association of Colleges and Universities, which in part has funded our local history initiative, argues that “in this turbulent and dynamic century, our nation’s diverse democracy and interdependent global community require a more informed, engaged, and socially responsible citizenry.” This sort of civic engagement and civic learning, I would argue, can occur in a more meaningful manner when our friends and neighbors know who and what and where they are in terms of connection to a certain location in place and time.  How did we get here? Why is our community the way it is? What is the source of the challenges we face as members of communities?  How can we confront those challenges effectively, and what have we tried before.  These questions are fundamentally historical.

If you read the news, and follow developments across the political spectrum, you will note that many Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, or whether they live in the inner city, the suburbs or in rural New York, feel disconnected, like outcasts. Rootlessness. When we teach people about their own history, their own place, we teach them, at least in part, that their stories matter. It may not be enough for us any longer merely to remember the past.  We can and should do more. We can connect people who feel disconnected when we present them with the evidence that they have a role in their community’s story, that they are themselves forces in history.

Local historians are already doing much of this important work.  They will do it with or without the support of the academic history community. Just before Christmas, I met with Larry Naukam, formerly with the Rochester Public Library, and a gentleman with a mastery of the work being done by local historians and archivists in upstate New York.  We met at the Starbucks in Brighton, at Twelve Corners, not far from my house.  There, Larry showed me all sorts of fantastic work.  He showed me, for instance, the digitized church and cemetery records on the Rochester Genealogical Society webpage. Then the Rochester Churches Indexing Project (RCIP), started some time ago by individual researchers affiliated with the RGS. The Cayuga Heights History Project contains a wealth of information on Ithaca, New York, as does the History Forge.  Amie Alden, the County Historian in Livingston County, where SUNY-Geneseo is located, has valuable information on her department’s website, including records relating to Civil War deserters and wills and other archival sources. Historians in Wayne have assembled a useful collection of materials on historic sites in that county. Small museums, like that belonging to the Walworth Historical Society, posts records and resources. Somehow, I had missed the Digital Public Library of America, which houses many millions of images from across the country, many with a local focus. The New York Heritage Digital Collections page is also worth your time. The Fulton NY Post Cards website is a crazy scene and clunky to use, but it includes millions of pages of digitized New York newspapers. 

All this from one conversation, in one hour, in one coffee shop.  There is so much material available to reconstruct local histories.  These records allow those of us who study the past to tell the stories of the ordinary people who spent their lives in the communities we now call home.  Geneseo students, I hope, will join in our efforts to recover, preserve, and present the documents containing these stories to the public, and to convince our friends and neighbors that this effort is worthwhile. In these collections we find people who appear nowhere else in the historical record.  They appear fleetingly and incompletely in these documents.  But tracking them down, as Arlette Farge put it, is part of the “allure of the archives,” those “encounters with the silhouettes of the past,” which possess “an obscure beauty in so many existences, barely illuminated by words.” So many people appear in these archives, and the stories of so many places.  “What,” Farge asks, “can be done with these countless individuals, their tenuous plans, their many disjointed movemnts?”  Farge likened what she found to the shifting images one sees when gazing into a kaleidoscope, dynamic always, appearing and disappearing, passing quickly out of your field of view sometimes before you get a clear sense of what you are looking at.

We at Geneseo want to talk about these stories, and enlist our students in the effort. Our first step is going to be a gathering on campus on February 16th, to discuss what can be done to forge a strong and viable partnership between different stakeholders and students.  I expect nearly 60 people to attend our meeting, including New York State Historian Devin Lander and Professor Taylor Stoermer, who teaches in the Museum Studies program at Johns Hopkins.  Prior to joining the Museum Studies faculty, Dr. Stoermer was Instructor of Public History at Harvard University, Director of Historic Huguenot Street (a National Historic Landmark District in New York), Chief Historian of Colonial Williamsburg, Invited Research Scholar at Brown University. He has held Fellowships at Yale University, the Huntington Library, the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, and the Virginia Historical Society. He is an alumnus of Johns Hopkins, the Tulane University School of Law, Harvard, and the University of Virginia, where he earned his Ph.D. in History, specializing in colonial Virginia and the American Revolution. Dr. Stoermer is also the author of Colonial Williamsburg: The Official Guide (2014) and Public History: A Field Guide (Forthcoming, 2019).

 I am looking forward to a lively discussion from which I hope to learn a great deal. Then, during the first summer session in May, I will teach a course at Geneseo called “Local History Workshop.”  Students who enroll in the course will work in tandem with a local historian or historical society on projects that engage the public.  If the course is popular, I will add it to my regular rotation.  If these steps succeed, we will begin to raise money for the establishment of a center on campus.  1500 Local Historians, and none of the SUNY campuses devotes much attention to them.  We at Geneseo hope to lead the way. The local historians with whom I have spoken are enthusiastic.  They need the help.  I expect we will find students willing and ready to join in the effort.  If you are interested in joining us, please feel free to drop me a line.  Local history matters, now more than ever.

14 thoughts on “Local History Matters. Now, More Than Ever”

  1. This is important and exciting work. I look forward to learning more.

    I’m struck by your recognition that Academics…”could be doing so much more, and that we had overlooked an extraordinarily valuable community of historians doing extraordinarily valuable work.”

    In part, this “overlooking”somewhat reflective of an overall
    attitude within higher education that there are “true” scholars and that others with no (or less) formal education have little/nothing to offer.

    It is exciting to read about collaborative opportunities that will benefit academia, NYS, other professionals, and students.

    I would also add that in addition to local historians, there are opportunities to interface with local social justice organizations to preserve artifacts, historical accounts, etc. related to LGBT history, HIV/AIDS, community organizing, black lives matter, Rochester riots, the subway system, etc.

    Your new class sounds fascinating!

    1. Thanks for reading, Jen. I agree with you strongly that there is important “local history” work to be done with a huge variety of organizations. My intent is to reach out to as many of those as I can, but I am still new at this, and have much to learn still. If you have contacts that you think might be interested, I hope you will share this post with them. Or if you are willing to send along some suggestions, I can assure you I will make every effort to follow up. The more organizations and potential internship sites we have, the happier I will be, and the better it is for compiling a rich and representative community history. If you would like to join us on the 16th, please let me know. I think this can be a great program for our students, and your interest is energizing.

  2. When I did my history of Livingston Co in the 20th century, I asked for a contribution by each of Livingston County’s 17 town historians. Each is published in the book. There is a wide variety in skill and energy to be sure. But they play many important roles including the preservation of materials they were given or sought. One of my students, Adam Tabelski, did a study of the GAR in Livingston County, largely depending on town historians’ collections. He later became mayor of Medina and a city councilman in Batavia!

    1. The meeting you and Randy hosted my first year at Geneseo is part of the inspiration behind this, and with the digital humanities skills Professor Seale is imparting to our students, as well as a more “disciplined” interest in public history, I am optimistic that we can do something of significance with this project.

  3. It is very important that all those involved in history work together, and not wast time, money, and energy in competition. “Citizen historians” and others involved in community generated projects (which I have written about in the in Depth Genealogist online magazine) are a vital part of this movement as assuredly as are academics and official historians.

    1. I could not agree with you more, Larry. Though the means we use to do our work may differ, we are all, or we all ought to be, pursuing the same ends.

  4. Thanks for taking a lead in connecting local history, Michael. It brings to mind several issues I have discussed in the past.

    Several semesters I used my Issues in U.S. History II course as a class in family history/history of the family. In those classes students were required to interview elder family members to gain insight into their family’s role in history. While there was some negative feedback, it was amazing how many students wrote about how eye opening their research and writing was and how they learned to value becoming acquainted with their older family members and how they also became aware of historical connections with their famnilies. I still have copies of a few of those papers and wish there was someway to archive them.

    As for New York State history, I agree it should be unacceptable that it is no longer taught in New York schools. When I was growing up, New York State History was a required course in either seventh or eighth grades. And until that requirement was abolished, a New York State History course was required for all History/Social Studies students in colleges that offered education degrees. I took the last New York State History course the late Professor Ira Wilson taught at SUNY Geneseo. (The same person for whom the campus ice rink is named.) John Rogers taught the course after that until it was dropped from the curriculum. At the same time, when I became more interested in genealogy and family history, our late professor and friend, Dr. Bill Derby, referred to those studies as “little history” as compared to his concept of “big history.” Bill and Mary’s daughter, Sister ? Derby, became the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester archivist.

    I don’t know if Larry Naukam mentioned it, but during my two terms as president of the Rochester Genealogical Society we brought in many speakers from academia to provide historical context and background to genealogical and family history research. This was during a period when both the late Professor Larry Blackman (Philosophy emeritus) and I served and vice-presidents for programing at RGS, as well as both of our stints as RGS presidents. It was also during my tenure that RGS completed their last volume of the Mount Hope Cemetery index, and the establishment of the Church Records Committee. RGS has remained in the forefront of research and preservation of local historical records, and a great resource for researchers.

    The event you have scheduled in February sounds like a gateway event and you are to be congratulated on bring together so many scholars and amateurs to heighten awareness of the value of local history. I look forward to hear more about this initiative.

  5. Raising my hand as a local historian who is process of essentially building a museum from scratch. I would love to work with a student in my area to help with this process. The building is being renovated and being built from the ground up in terms of accessioning, displays, storage etc. Our small community has a big dream and limited funding so it’s all hands on deck.

  6. I am pleased that you recognize that social studies with regard to local history is missing in our schools. As a town historian and former school employee it is a constant uphill struggle to get students interested in the subject. As a member of three historical societies, we continually look to find ways to get the message of the importance of that history across to the school system and get kids into the museums.
    Carol S. Bailey, Historian
    Town of Lyons and NYS Grange

  7. Important work you are doing. As a child growing up in Weschester County, History was important and there were qualified Historians emphasizing the history of our area of New York as well as the history of New York State. I don’t see that in California as much as I would like. Keep perservering as you know it is important.

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