Q & A: Historian Weible takes populist approach to past events

In December 1931, Cornell professor Carl Becker told a meeting of the American Historical Associatio
Robert Weible
Robert Weible

In December 1931, Cornell professor Carl Becker told a meeting of the American Historical Association that everyone is his or her own historian.

The title of his address, “Everyman His Own Historian,” might have ruffled a few feathers among female historians, but the idea is universally accepted today, according to Robert Weible, New York State Historian and Chief Curator at the New York State Museum.

“It’s interesting that what makes science different from history is, like Carl Becker said, everybody is a historian,” said Weible, who became state historian in 2008.

“In their own minds, everyone knows something about their family history, their neighborhood. My God, I could never learn all the history of all the local communities in New York state, even though some people might think that as state historian I have all the answers. Well, I don’t.”

Weible, however, does have a lot of answers. Ask him about Napoleon and his conquest of Europe, labor relations in Lowell and Lawrence, Mass., in the early 20th century, and the struggles of women and ethnic groups throughout history in Pennsylvania and New York, and he probably won’t disappoint you.

A Long Island native, Weible majored in European history at Penn State and then went on to get his master’s in history at the University of Rhode Island.

He was a ranger/historian at the Lowell National Historical Park, which focuses on the Industrial Revolution in New England, and after 10 years there (1979-89), he moved to Pennsylvania, where he worked as director of public history for the State Museum of Pennsylvania, acting director of the Pennsylvania State Archives, and chief of the Division of History for the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission (1989-2008). He then moved to New York, where he became both chief curator at the museum and state historian.

Weible’s current focus is on the 35th annual New York State History Conference meeting at Marist College in Poughkeepsie from Thursday through Saturday. Among the notable speakers on hand will be filmmaker Ken Burns, Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer and author and historian Douglas Brinkley.

Each program is free, and kicking off the three-day event will be a presentation by Burns on Thursday at noon at the FDR Library about his upcoming documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.”

Weible was chair of the committee that organized the conference, which is sponsored primarily by the New York State Historical Association, as well as the Hudson River Institute of Marist College, the New York State Museum, the New York State Archives Partnership Trust and the New York Humanities Council.

During his free time these days Weible golfs and also reads books about New York history. Some of his recent reads include Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Bully Pulpit,” about Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, as well as Kevin Baker’s historical novel of New York in the 1940s and ’50s, “The Big Crowd.”

He and his wife live in Albany. They have two adult children.

Q: How did your career evolve?

A: When I was in school there was never any thought on my part of doing anything other than working toward my Ph.D and getting a job somewhere at a university someplace, or maybe teaching at a secondary school. The notion of working in a museum or a national park, or any kind of public history job, just wasn’t available at that time. The term “public history” didn’t come into general use until the late ’70s or early ’80s, and I had graduated from Penn State in 1974.

But there were no teaching jobs, and a lot of people were graduating from college and there was no place to put them. Then we discovered that there was a whole world of museum work, preservation organizations, archives and other historical groups that needed people. That’s why I went to Lowell. I was the first historian there.

Q: What are your duties and responsibilities as the state historian?

A: Fifty years ago there was no such thing as public history, and we define history differently than we did 50 years ago. My job as state historian is as much about facilitating cooperation among the many historical groups around the state as it is about anything else. This position is more a public service position than some kind of elite academic type job, because I can’t know all the answers.

Take any community, like Schenectady. I can’t possibly know everything there is about it. I lived there for a while and I enjoyed the Stockade section very much, but I can’t authentically know every neighborhood in the state.

There’s nobody, not even in the academic world, who knows all of the state’s history. But I can say that New York’s history reflects American history better than any other state. Any theme in U.S. history, from colonial history, to industrialization, urbanization, women’s rights, native American history and immigration, can be illustrated by looking at New York history.

Q: What can you tell us about the 35th annual New York State History Conference?

A: Traditionally, it’s been very academic in the past, but these days there is only so much academic research being done. It wouldn’t support a conference every year. We put out a call for papers and put in proposals, and we have a committee that includes representation from all the major historical institutions in the state. We’ve had keynote speakers of renown before, but this year everything seemed to fall into place. We’ve been working with a great group of people at Marist. They have a great conference center, they’re close to New York City, and they’re right next door to the FDR Library.

And this year, Ken Burns just happened to be doing research there so we took advantage of that. With Burns, Holzer, Brinkley and [History Channel Chief Historian] Libby Haight O’Connell we’re going to have some great visibility and hopefully we can capitalize on it next year.

Q: Where will the conference be next year?

A: That decision hasn’t been made yet, but it hasn’t been in Albany in a while. They did great jobs at Cooperstown and Niagara, and we need a place like Marist that is willing to take it on and be a host. Siena College might be a great place if they were interested.

Q: Do you enjoy historical movies, and have you seen any lately?

A: I think “Lincoln” and “Twelve Years a Slave” did a good job of correcting some popular misconceptions about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. The movie portrayed Lincoln as a politician, which is what he was. It’s so easy to simplify Lincoln. People assume everything he did was inevitable and that all his decisions were easy ones. But he had fierce opposition the whole way. The movie did a great job of showing the complexity of the situation and doing it in an understandable way.

I thought “Twelve Years a Slave” was a great corrective to “Gone With the Wind,” which was terrible history. “Gone With the Wind” was Southern history, with the Confederates telling American history the way they saw it, and I think that stinks.

Q: Why is history important?

A: It certainly has an important role in education, but I think it’s also very important outside the classroom. History informs people about the issues that matter to them. It helps them make better choices and become better citizens. It also enhances your quality of life. A community or a town without history is a town without character.

It’s like people dealing with Alzheimer’s. You take away their community and their history and they have no quality of life. It also contributes economically in the way of tourism, but if people know the history of their community, they’ll more likely invest in it and their homes. That sense of place is important and it can’t be faked. It’s got to be real.

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected].

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