Why This Matters:
In 1919, more than one hundred years ago, the State of New York enacted a piece of legislation requiring every municipality in the State to have an official historian. The law was one of the few salutary responses to the turmoil that accompanied the First World War, an effort to ensure that the memory of New Yorkers’ participation in this horrible and pointless war was not forgotten. With the exception of Connecticut, which essentially copied New York State’s law, no other state has anything like this, a formal statutory requirement that, from Gotham to Geneseo, from the largest city in the state (and the United States) to its smallest rural crossroad, every municipal government of whatever size must employ 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 state’s 62 county historians, the scores of small historical societies, historians in New York who work for New York State and the National Park Service, and the many, many 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 than others at their disposal. A large percentage of them serve as volunteers. Many are retirees, many with no academic training in history, but they are nonetheless doing work they love with great enthusiasm for preserving their community’s past. To varying degrees, they coordinate their efforts, whether at the County Level, as in Wayne County, along the Lake Ontario Shore east of Rochester, or regionally as in groups like GAHWNY, the Government Appointed Historians of Western New York. It is a hodge-podge, with a thousand moving parts, but the work these historians do, when they do it well, is exciting and important. They can reach in a morning session at their schools or at their history centers more people than college historians reach through a scholarly article or a book published with an academic press.
And this important work is largely separate from the work we do as academic historians. That really became clear to me over the course of the past several years, as I have surveyed the public history landscape in New York State. The “professional” academic history community has largely ignored local historians, dismissing them at times as amateurs and, perhaps even worse, as antiquarians. As I began driving around my part of New York State, meeting local historians, attending their meetings and discussions, it struck me quite forcefully that we in the academy could be doing so much more, and that we had overlooked an extraordinarily valuable community of historians doing valuable work.
Why not, then, form a partnership between the local historians and my college that could benefit us all—students at our college interested in history and museum studies, the public and local history communities, 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? Nobody in the state was doing anything like this.
This partnership, we hoped, would bring significant benefits to our students. Teaching is not an attractive career path for all history students, and the withered state of the academic job market makes it difficult for us to encourage even the most talented students to pursue graduate training in history. Our students will find work in a host of fields, and I believe firmly that history students emerge from our college with the skill to prosper in many different settings. Still, history itself, as a discipline, is changing. Museum studies is a dynamic and creative field, albeit one that is woefully underfunded. The broad expanse of the “digital humanities” is bringing innovation to historical research, publishing, archival work, and public education. Thanks to some recent hires in our department, our students are learning some of these important skills, and there are jobs out there for those with the skills and experience. Our students 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 gain experience through what we like to call high impact learning, and local historians will benefit from the assistance and expertise our students can offer.
We have been at this for nearly three years. We placed students in internships across New York State. Already we have learned a lot. We have accordingly been flexible, made adjustments. We learned quite quickly that the number of local historians who want interns vastly exceeds the supply of students with time or the transportation or other means to fill them at our relatively small campus. Some of these internship opportunities remain unfilled because they are too distant from our campus, or because they are located in areas far from where our students live. The Town of Parma and Village of Hilton, for instance, is located west of Rochester along the Lake Ontario shore. It has a vibrant local historical community, yet we have been unable to attract a SUNY-Geneseo student to make the trip. For that small number of our students who have cars, it can be between one and two hours on the road each way to get to some of the sites. In a way, we are out in the middle of nowhere. I am hoping to raise funds to subsidize student internships—a small gas stipend, for instance—to make internships in these more remote locations attractive.
At the same time, we have students who would like to complete internships, but the local historians in the area are difficult to contact. Almost all local historians are volunteers. Many leave New York during the winter, making them unavailable to our students during the spring semester. Others use email irregularly or not at all. As a result, a number of students who wanted to work with local historians could not be placed.
The Geneseo Center began to address these problems in 2022. A dedicated work-study student has been working to compile a complete and up-to-date directory of local historians with full contact information for all staff. We will encourage those local historians who do not use email to begin to do so, and offer them instruction on how to do so if they would like. In collaboration with a social-media intern who is working for the Center, we are starting to intensify our outreach and publicity efforts, and engage more successfully the local history community. At their best, the local historians are doing fantastic work. They are doing it with our without us. We need to get in touch with them so everyone benefits.
One thing we have learned about are the difficulties for students to complete internships. To earn three credits (the equivalent of a regular course) an intern must complete 120 hours of service. Because that time commitment can be a heavy burden for students on campus who are unlikely to have cars of their own, the Geneseo Center for Local and Municipal History is beginning to recruit students in the fall to complete directed-study research projects in local history, using the resources housed in local historians’ collections. We have not had much luck in this respect: Simply put, with my own research and teaching demands, research travel, I could not put the effort into it early enough to make it happen. Running this Center the way it ought to be run could easily be a full-time job. Still, with regard to these directed study projects, what we have in mind are projects the local historians have brought to us at Geneseo. Students will work closely with local history collections and with local historians to produce original historical research that will be presented on campus and in the community.
Students will do research at local history collections in order to complete these projects. Because they do not need to spend as much time at the site, and because they can work on these projects during the semester as their schedule permits, these projects allow the students much more flexibility. A student already had begun work on one of these projects, and I am hopeful that more will join in the fall. These research projects, when completed, will be incorporated into exhibits at local history museums, or in digital projects, or published in other ways.
Finally, we have begun to reach out to the community. A few years ago, the Geneseo Center for Local and Municipal History partnered with the Beechwood Neighborhood Association in Rochester to produce an evening program at a community center to discuss red-lining and residential segregation in one neighborhood in Rochester over much of the twentieth century. The speakers were both Geneseo alums—one from the history program and the other from Geography—both of whom were experts in the history of residential segregation. They taught community members the history of racial segregation in the Beechwood neighborhood and, to those who were interested, how they could conduct this research themselves. About sixty people attended the presentation, which took place at the end of the neighborhood association meeting. We are actively looking forward to sponsoring additional events. We have already made tentative plans, for instance, to have a local newspaper reporter who is researching the “Great Migration” of African Americans to Wayne County in the middle of the twentieth century to speak to a gathering of local historians on campus next fall. We are collaborating on efforts to find funding for a project highlighting Underground Railroad sites in Livingston County, where our college is located. The Center will encourage students enrolled in internships—and require those doing independent research projects—to present their work at the College’s annual “GREAT Day” and in the communities where they completed their work.
We hope to continue and grow this work and are optimistic about our ability to do so. But we are not standing pat. Indeed, in the coming months, we are hoping to pursue the following larger initiatives, once we have laid out the necessary foundations. First, Teaching Local History: In the fall of 2020, the department of history will offer a course for education majors, in collaboration with the School of Education, and students seeking certification in social studies in secondary education emphasizing local history. The New York State social studies standards require no coverage of local history. Students in this class will develop lesson plans and units, using local history to explore the large themes in American history emphasized in the New York state learning outcomes for social studies education. Second, a project entitled New York History is Native American History: A digital humanities project involving mapping, archival research, digitizing, and publication, all in collaboration with local historians across New York State. Once funding is obtained, the Center will recruit students to travel to historical sites and collections, catalog all materials related to Native American history in New York State, digitize collections where permissible, and incorporate this material into a website. The finished project will be of use to educators, students, researchers, and the general public. Because my computer skills are threadbare, and because I am about it for the Center, this will be the most challenging of the initiatives. Third, collaboration with the New York State Park System and area experts in the Department of History on a project to reconsider the Underground Railroad in Livingston County, a site where it was quite active in the decades before the Civil War. Finally, Funding: The Geneseo Center is actively working with the Geneseo Foundation to raise money, and, time permitting, will begin the process of writing grant proposals. Staff at SUNY-Geneseo has been helpful in finding funding agencies to which we will apply. The Center has done much during its short life, but could do more with additional funding, particularly in terms of supporting student research and internship activities. All that I have just described to you can be done better and on a larger scale with money; all that has been done so far has been done with a few grants and the support of the Department of History at Geneseo. We feel this initiative is a sound investment, and we are optimistic that potential donors will agree.
There is reason for optimism. The Geneseo Center for Local and Municipal History serves an important function. The New York State K-12 Social Studies Framework, as I said above, 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. The American Association of Colleges and Universities, which in part funded the Geneseo Center’s inaugural meeting, 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 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. 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. That is what the Geneseo Center is all about.
—Michael Leroy Oberg, Distinguished Professor of History and founder of the Geneseo Center for Local & Municipal History, SUNY-Geneseo