HISTORICAL RECORDS AND THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT HISTORIAN
by Robert W. Arnold III
Julie C. Daniels
C. Raymond LaFever
Publication No. 81
Printed by the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS). Incorporated by the New York State Board of Regents in 1999, APHNYS represents over 1600 local government historians in every town, village, city, borough and county in New York State.
New York's officially appointed public historians play an important role in preserving and interpreting the history of their communities. This publication suggests ways that such historians can use their specialized knowledge and interests to encourage and support records management and historical records programs that are adequate to the needs of local governments and their constituents. Local public historians can be advocates for the greater and broader use of both governmental and non-governmental historical records, for the preservation of a community’s local character, for addressing community needs, and for planning for a community's future. While no public historian may have the time or resources to be involved with all the areas suggested in this publication, it may be possible to work on relevant projects selected from each of the major areas discussed.
Historical records, also called archival records, are records that should be kept permanently because of their long-term usefulness for historical or other researchers. For purposes of this publication, the term governmental historical records is used to designate records created, filed, or used by local governments in the course of their business that are worthy of preservation and special care. These records may have continuing importance because the information they contain is useful for administrative purposes or for historical or other research. Such records may include, but are not limited to, land records, minutes of governing bodies, tax records, subdivision maps, photographs, building permits, and records of capital construction, regardless of whether they are on paper, film, magnetic tape, or any other medium.
Non-governmental historical records, for the purposes of this publication, are records produced by private individuals, groups, or institutions that contain significant information about the past and are therefore worthy of long-term preservation and systematic management for historical and other research. They can include diaries, letters, journals, ledgers, minutes, photographs, maps, drawings, blueprints, deeds, contracts, memoranda, and other material, and they may exist on paper, parchment, magnetic tape, film, or any other medium.
In short, the State Archives defines governmental historical records as those created by and belonging to some type of government, while non-governmental historical records originate with, and are kept by, private individuals, organizations, and institutions.
Public historians' responsibilities were defined under laws passed in 1919 and 1933 which are now in part outdated. Local government public historians’ prerogatives and responsibilities relating to both governmental and non-governmental historical records remain somewhat unclear. Local government public historians are not meant to be collectors, curators, or archivists, although some historians oversee collections that accumulated in the absence of other repositories and that have grown as a result of the performance of official duties.
The Local Government Records (LGR) Law (Section 57.07(1) of the Arts and Cultural Affairs Laws as amended by Ch. 737, Laws of 1987) effective August 5, 1988, updated the "Historians' Law" and partially clarified historians’ records-related responsibilities. Section 1 reads as follows:
Each local government historian shall promote the establishment and improvement of programs for the management and preservation of local government records with enduring value for historical or other research; encourage the coordinated collection and preservation of nongovernmental historical records by libraries, historical societies, and other repositories; and carry out and actively encourage research in such records in order to add to the knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the community's history.
The LGR Law was developed in consultation with many local government associations, including the former Association of Municipal Historians and the County Historians Association. This law establishes a Local Government Records Advisory Council of twenty-seven members to advise on implementation of the law and on related state oversight and services. Local government public historians are included in the council's membership. Under the LGR Law, local government historians have three areas of responsibility: programs, records, and research.
I. Each local government historian shall promote the establishment and improvement of programs for the management and preservation of local government records with enduring value for historical or other research.
The LGR Law not only modified the duties of public historians, but also included provisions relating to records management in local governments and specified the responsibility of the Commissioner of Education to provide records management advice and assistance to local governments (exclusive of the municipal agencies of the City of New York). The law requires local governing bodies and chief executives to "promote and support a program for the orderly and efficient management of records, including the identification and appropriate administration of records with enduring value for historical or other research."
Just as each general-purpose local government (county, municipality) must appoint a public historian, so must each local government appoint a Records Management Officer (RMO) to "coordinate the development of and oversee" its records management program. The law specifies that each locality’s town or village clerk shall be the RMO and that a fire district’s secretary shall be the RMO in a fire district. Other local governments—counties, school districts, public benefit corporations, special authorities, BOCES, and miscellaneous units of local government—must appoint an RMO, but the designation is a local choice, subject to the usual process for official appointments. In a number of counties, county historians are the RMO or work closely with or for the RMO.
The State Archives strongly recommends that each local government pass an ordinance or other enactment that establishes a records management program. The State Archives also encourages the creation of a records advisory board, which includes the public historian, that works with the RMO to produce records management plans, policies, and procedures, including those related to archival records.
A local government records management program is an ongoing administrative necessity, comparable to highway maintenance, central purchasing, civil service, or taxation. Records management usually includes the survey and inventory of records, development of filing systems, coordination of micrographics, establishment of appropriate inactive records storage, systematic destruction of obsolete records, analysis and planning for information systems, and deployment of modern information technology, as well as the identification, maintenance and use of records.
It is sometimes hard to remember, when faced with the archival riches of a local government, that these documents were not created for eventual use by historians. Rather, these records were created in the most prosaic way for the most mundane reasons. Local government archival records—those with enduring legal, fiscal, administrative, or historical research value—accumulated from the routine of government, and have as their main reason for permanent retention their ongoing utility. Local government archival records should always be an integral part of a comprehensive records management program, serving the overall informational needs of the government and citizens. These records contain information needed to document property rights, maintain infrastructure, establish precedents, and serve as a basis for comprehensive planning. They define the responsibilities and the prerogatives of government, protect the rights and property of citizens, help the government defend itself in court or bring suit, assist the government in preparing environmental impact statements, and support the government’s qualifications for federal community development money. Use of such archival records for historical research is important, but it is generally a secondary use in a local government setting.
Public historians can support the development and operation of a local government's records management program, including its archival component, in several ways:
Many of the above-named activities can be assisted by Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund (LGRMIF) grants. Funding is available to local governments for a number of projects related to historical records, including
Local officials should contact their State Archives Regional Advisory Officer (RAO) for further information concerning LGRMIF grants. RAOs are based in nine regions across the state; each RAO serves all local governments in a region contiguous with a state judicial district. Local government historians should be involved in the development and implementation of any projects and should encourage local government RMOs to submit applications.
Public historians can also play a role in shaping State Archives services to regions by serving on a Regional Advisory Committee (RAC). RACs meet four times a year to discuss issues and needs in their regions.
II. (Each local government historian shall)...encourage the coordinated collection and preservation of non-governmental historical records by libraries, historical societies, and other repositories...
Every community has historically valuable non-governmental records that include information on the development of the community, its institutions, and its people. But too often, such records have been lost because there were no organized programs to identify, collect, preserve, and make them available for research. Even where such programs exist, they often operate in isolation from each other and are undersupported and underdeveloped. Communities do not always see the historical value in such records, particularly more recent records, and people seldom realize that what they have been doing in their communities has historical value.
Small municipalities may not have local historical repositories, or their local historical societies may be dormant. In such situations, the public historian often becomes a de facto collector of historical records, but may lack essential collections policies and procedures governing the acquisition, legal custody, accession, protection, storage, and use of those records. Without the appropriate legal and procedural guidelines in place, the line between what the public historian has collected personally and what has been collected in an official capacity can become blurred. Too often items collected officially by the public historian fail to pass to a successor, or are irretrievably lost to the antiquarian marketplace. If the public historian accepts private papers and other non-government documents in her/his official capacity, these records become the property of the local government in whose name the public historian accepted them. They are then subject to the retention periods designated in the appropriate State Archives records retention and disposition schedule.
However, local repositories may not have secure space to store and preserve these records, or facilities to make them available. Local government historians considering the collection of such historical records, or actively working to ensure that their community’s valuable historical records are not lost, should consult their State Archives Regional Advisory Officer.
The New York State legislature established the Documentary Heritage Program (DHP) in 1988 to help strengthen the state's historical records programs and to ensure that all of New York’s historical records are identified, preserved, and made available. The law establishing the DHP authorizes aid to nine regional service providers, following the regional boundaries used by New York’s Reference and Research Library Resources systems, to hire archivists to advise and assist historical records programs in their regions. The DHP also provides grant funds for historical records projects. DHP advisory services and its discretionary grants program are available to non-governmental historical records repositories. Local governments are not eligible for DHP funding, but local government historians are encouraged to promote the availability of DHP grants and advisory services to holders of historical records in their communities.
The DHP encourages the comprehensive documentation of New York State’s history and culture by supporting projects that identify, survey, collect, and make available important records relating to traditionally under-represented groups and topics. The DHP is supported by the Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund and is administered through the State Archives. For further information about the DHP, visit the State Archives’ website at www.archives.nysed.gov or call the State Archives’ Access Services at (518) 474-6926.
Local government historians can and should support strong historical records programs for non-governmental records. Some suggested ways to do this include:
III. (Each local government historian shall)...carry out and actively encourage research in such records in order to add to the knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the community's history.
Historically valuable records, including those of government and private organizations, contain information necessary to understand the community's past, cope with the present, and plan for the future. These records need to be actively used by researchers interested in pressing concerns such as health and the environment; by genealogists and family historians; by teachers and students to enrich social studies and history courses; by citizens interested in community history; and by scholars exploring how events in the community relate to or differ from regional, statewide, and national developments.
Public historians should be among the chief researchers of these records. However, there are specific ways for public historians to promote and conduct research:
For More Information and Assistance
The New York State Archives provides direct advice to local governments and state agencies on records and information management issues. The Archives has regional offices throughout the state, and each office has a records specialist who can visit you and provide technical advice and assistance. Archives services also include publications and workshops on a wide variety of records management topics. The Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund supports these services.
For further information, contact your Regional Advisory Officer, DHP Regional Archivist, or the following State Archives departments:
For information on local government records:
Government Records Services
9A47 Cultural Education Center
Albany, NY 12230
For information on the Documentary Heritage Program:
Documentary Heritage Program
9C33 Cultural Education Center
Albany, New York 12230
For information on the educational uses of historical records:
Public Programs and Outreach
9B52 Cultural Education Center
Albany, NY 12230