Library of Congress

Is this still a good idea?

I grew up on Long Island, in the kind of town where students paint Halloween murals on local storefronts and dress up as wrapped gifts to march in the holiday parade. To me, our town historian, with his dress-like-your-favorite-Christmas-Carol-character parties, was just another marker on the small-town quaint-o-meter.

As it turns out, Sayville, my hometown, has an official historian because it's the law.

Back in 1919, the New York state legislature mandated that every "city, town, or village" must have an official historian. It's a regulation that's unique among the 50 states, and basically unenforceable. Towns are not required to pay these record-keepers, who are appointed by a town mayor or manager. Municipalities that fail to find a volunteer are sent a strongly worded letter, but little else can be done.

Still, New York's cities have managed to fill the vast majority of these 1,600 positions, even tiny towns like Broome, population 204. The folks in these roles are an eclectic bunch, to say the least - the oldest town historian to serve was 103, the youngest is 13 - drawn to the gig by that crucial mix of obsession, pride, and boosterism.

"Each makes of it what they want," says Queens historian Jack Eichenbaum (behemoth New York is required to have a historian for every borough), a local college professor. "If you talked to the Manhattan borough historian or the Bronx, we do very different things."

Eichenbaum offers a lot of walking tours, and tries to avoid writing history papers and public speaking. "What happens in upstate counties is something else entirely," he says. "I've never attended a meeting with them."

There is little continuity among the work of the historians, who aren't saddled with any particular task, and for the most part, receive no pay. Instead, they're free to serve their town's particular historical needs as they see fit. It's a relatively harmless, even sweet idea. But in an age when the contents of entire libraries can be made available to anyone with an internet connection, does having a town historian still matter?

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The phenomenon of local historians came of age in the early days of the Industrial age. As Americans began populating "the frontier," they struggled to define themselves and their role in the places they called home. "In the late 19th century, you see a local history rush," says James Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association.

This fascination with ourselves was fueled by commercial firms that drafted early town histories, books that resemble the Who’s Who franchise of today. For a couple of dollars, anyone could contribute a piece about their own place in the history of their town, be it the story of their family, their house, or their autobiography.

It was around this time that city historians also became part-time urban boosters. "Cities began using history as an economic asset," Grossman says. Many early historians were "people who had relationships with commercial interests, trying to promote city growth."

It was out of this tradition that New York's 1919 law was born. The state was still high off a frenzied celebration, in 1909, of its 300th anniversary. In those days, New York City was booming and Buffalo was a major player on the national scene. The Erie Canal had been lucrative beyond all imaginings.

The Pan American festival in Buffalo, 1901. Courtesy Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Powerful places, the thinking went, needed people around to document their awesomeness. The law "was about patriotism," says Jack McEneny, a state legislator from Albany and a historian in his own right. "New York was very proud of what it had accomplished. The state believed its heritage was very important."

Today, the implementation of the law can be a little bit more headache than 'hail to the state.' About a quarter of the state's historians turn over each year. And according to Gerald Smith, it can be hard for towns to find qualified replacements. Smith is the official historian for the city of Binghamton, along with Broome County. He also runs the Association of Public Historians of New York State.

Smith understands how difficult it can be for towns to find the right person for the job. He himself once tried to quit, though it didn’t go so well. "I gave up the post when my first daughter was born," he says. "But they couldn't find anybody who wanted the job. So they offered more money and I came back."

The key is finding the right person – someone with the enthusiasm and energy to come up with ideas that get communities excited about their history. 

Not every historian has the right panache. Many focus instead on collecting old records and photographs. This can put them at odds with local historical societies, particularly when it comes to who gets to control what old letter or proclamation. "I'll be honest, they tend to run afoul of each other," he says. "I remind them, 'you are trying to ensure things are collected. You don't have to collect them.'"

Smith would prefer that historians run public programs that get locals excited about a particular spot in town. He also encourages them to write for the local paper. "We're trying to get more from our historians," Smith says. "I tell municipalities to think outside the box. Historians don't all have to be 65-year-old retirees."

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There are signs that the state wants to return the historians to their booster roots. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a self-proclaimed history buff, told attendees at a recent event "it was clear to me growing up that New York was a special place; we don't tell that story as much or as often."

He wants to do a better job. In March, Cuomo launched the Path Through History, which aims to turn upstate New York's past into a tourist draw. This summer, many historians gathered to nominate places along the New York State thruway (which cuts right across the state) for plaques that designate the spots as historically significant. Eventually the program will encompass an interactive website and smartphone app that "allows tourists to custom-tailer a trip based on specific top areas."

McEneny has pushed for his own law that would set up a state-wide program to certify historians. He describes it as a "state-subsidized training center." The measure stalled in the state senate. "Heritage tourism is a money maker," McEneny says. "But you have to know what you have."

Even if these programs don't pay off with tourism dollars, the effort highlights why New York's program is still smart, despite its uneven delivery. In a state where most of the money, power, and clout is clustered around New York City, a local historian makes every little town or hamlet feel that their stories and cherished buildings are important, too.

"Without historians, there's stuff that falls by the wayside," Smith says. "There's no one to document the comings and goings. When a building gets torn down, no one to document it."

Top image: Theodore Roosevelt, Joseph Cannon, members of the Republican Nomination Committee, and guests in front of Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, N.Y. in 1904. Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress

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