Every Town Must Have a Historian

The good folks at AHA Today have pointed me to a very interesting article at The Atlantic on a 1919 New York law requiring every city and town in the state to have a historian.  Here is a taste:

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.

This seems to be a more useful way for legislatures to dabble in the politics of history.  Instead of passing decrees and resolutions about America being a Christian nation, or pretending to be experts on social studies standards, state legislatures should be doing something to promote local history in their towns and communities.

4 thoughts on “Every Town Must Have a Historian

  1. At what cost, though? When historians became employees of the state, there will be a natural incentive to aggrandize their benefactor. And while history is already politicized, a historical bureaucracy could well give us the literal fulfillment of the saying “to toe the party line.”


  2. I know we differ on state subsidies for historians, but this goes a step further than that. Turning history into a bureaucratic enterprise is probably not a healthy direction for the field.


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