Local municipal budgets, priorities show little regard for historians and artifacts

Posted 14 July 2021 at 7:28 am


Upon her passing on February 18th of this year, Betsy Hoffman was one of the longer (if not longest) tenured historians in Orleans County.

As county historian, my colleagues never ran out of stories to share about their work with Betsy over the years. Her expansive knowledge of Carlton was second-to-none and without question, she was a dedicated public servant. That’s why I was not surprised to hear that she had amassed a large collection of Carlton-related historical materials and was relieved to hear that those caring for her estate offered that collection to the Town.

I was, however, incensed when I was informed that Betsy’s successor made quick work of filing parts of that collection in the dumpster. It brought to mind a series of unfortunate misunderstandings about the role of the local historian, the qualifications that are required to serve the community with the utmost integrity and ethical standards, and perhaps some of my own experiences as county historian.

New York State has the unique distinction of requiring each village, town, and county government to appoint a local historian (NYS Arts & Cultural Affairs Law – Section 57.07). That law does not mandate compensation, recommend qualifications, or specify municipal support of that position through space and resources. As such, New York has a hodgepodge of full-time and part-time historians, professionals and amateurs, and an overwhelming majority of public servants who attempt to engage with their communities on a miniscule budget, using limited technology, and with no office space.

Over the last five years, Orleans County invested significant resources into the Department of History thanks to the tireless support of Ken DeRoller, John DeFilipps and Lynne Johnson. The Historian’s office went from a damp, cold closet-sized space in the basement to an upper-level “suite” of rooms to house some of our community’s most precious resources. Yet other historians are not as fortunate. The lack of investment in the position often means that local governments struggle to find qualified and passionate candidates. Even worse, without financial resources and space, historians end up storing public collections in their home where they remain inaccessible.

In 2017, the New York State Historian conducted a survey of county and borough historians in the state. That spurred me to gather similar information from town and village historians in Orleans County in 2018. Considering the circumstances, I thought it would be worth sharing some of those findings.

Of the nine historians who responded, only one received a job description when appointed, compensation ran anywhere from $206 to $2,000 annually, and no municipality (except the County), required a minimum number of hours from the historian. Those who provided responses said they worked anywhere from 3 hours to 20 hours in a given week, which means no historian in Orleans County (except the County Historian) earns minimum wage for their work.

Moving to municipal support, only 1/3 of local governments provided office space, seven historians did not have access to a government-provided email address, and only one historian had a separate web page for historical information. In a digital world, historians are expected to operate in the 20th century.

As portions of the population continue to cry out against the “destruction” of history, we should turn inward and look to our own support of documentation, preservation, and interpretation in our communities. In my experience as both a librarian and a historian, I can tell you that a budget provides the clearest picture of what a community values. With practically no pay, minimal resources, and no space, we should not be surprised by what happened in Carlton.

So, my advice to the “stop erasing history” crowd: march down to your town hall, hold your elected officials accountable, and tell them to put their money where their mouths are. Support our historians, give them the resources necessary to be effective, and ensure that we do not lose important historical collections to uninvested, unqualified appointees put in place to simply fill a vacancy.

Matt Ballard

Statesville, NC (formerly Clarendon, NY, former Orleans County Historian)