Old New York law says each community must have a historian

Strange laws that are still on the books are occasionally rediscovered and make headlines. For example, here is an interesting 93 year old law from New York:

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.

But this law could tell us a lot about American culture and our quest to preserve and understand our own history:

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.”

A couple of reasons are given here: Americans wanted to understand themselves and there was money to be made in this business of local history. This second reason would fit right in with the growth machine model of urban growth: local boosters, leaders, and businesspeople promote development in order to make more money.

One might wonder how much this boosterism affects the actual reporting and interpretation of history. I suspect it influences things quite a bit. This doesn’t necessarily mean a local historian gets the facts wrong but it is more about how the story is told and what parts of local history are revealed. I have read a lot of local history for research projects and several features of local histories stood out across communities:

1. The local histories are often most interested in big and exciting facts and less about day to day life in the community or how these big changes occurred. We might call this the “peak view” of history – you only see the highest or noteworthy points.

2. Tied to the first observation, these histories tend to report only positives about the community. The histories leave out some of the most formative elements about a community if it doesn’t paint the community in a positive light. For example, I’ve uncovered information about racial prejudice in action in some suburban communities but based on the “official” histories, you would never know there was even any tension.

3. It is suggested later in the article that local historians need some training before they are set loose to collect and tell local history. From what I have seen, many local historians got the job because they wanted it, not because they necessarily had qualifications. This person might have had a particular interest in the community and so had done a lot of research or perhaps they knew a lot of people in the community. This has changed somewhat in recent decades with the rise of museums and degrees regarding operating museums as there are now often “official” keepers of a community’s history.

2 thoughts on “Old New York law says each community must have a historian

  1. Given the timing of the law, just after the horrible flu epidemic of 1918, I’m surprised that other reasons were not cited. Having a large part of the population decimated suddenly might put communities in mind of preserving knowledge that they had expected to pass along orally.


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