Education Update Interviews Thomas J. Ruller, CEO of NYS Archives Partnership Trust
Thomas J. Ruller
The publishers of Education Update recently chatted with Thomas J. Ruller, the Assistant Commissioner for Archives and State Archivist as well as the Chief Executive Officer of the New York State Archives Partnership Trust. The Trust is located in Albany.
Education Update (EU): How did you get involved in working with historical documentation? How did it become a career choice?
Thomas J. Ruller (TJR): I became fascinated with the idea of archives when I was in middle school. I’ve always had a tremendous interest in history, and in the community in which I grew up, Gloversville, NY. I was involved in our community’s centennial celebrations, and in the process of doing the work — and being involved as a young person — I discovered the great value, benefit, and importance of documentary materials and recorded evidence. I realized that’s the only way we can profoundly understand and interpret what really happened and how we have evidence that things are true. And the community that I grew up in had just recently moved their city government from an old city hall that was built in the mid 19th century to a brand-new one. This was back in the 1970s, and a lot of the original records from the village which was there starting in the early part of the 19th century were left behind.
I was very fortunate to be associated with something that doesn’t exist anymore: The New York State Historical Association had a group of junior historians called Yorkers. I got to be part of a community of young people who were very interested in history. One of the great things that happened to me after I discovered these historical records was its connection with the State’s archives. I wrote to them. The state archives had just been established in the late 1970s…and they wrote me back which blew my mind. Some folks who were here for quite some time took me under their wings. They said if you were into history and believe in documents, get a degree in history. Then get a degree in information science, or with some kind of archival concentration.
EU: What are some of the challenges you encountered when modernizing records? For public access at remote locations, much of what was stored ages ago needs to be digitized. How are the thousands or millions of documents organized?
TJR: There’s the access challenge. At the state archives in NY, we have 26 miles of records, with 250 million documents. I don’t anticipate that we will ever digitize all of them. Between us and our partners at Ancestry.com, which has done a lot of the digitization for us, we might have 2 million or 3 million documents digitized out of that entire collection. It’s enormously expensive, but it also requires a bit of work for each individual document. Each piece needs a unique identification available to it. And one of the big challenges in archiving is determining what materials we should digitize…for improved access, for preservation. Some of the documents we have in the archives might be used once in a hundred years. That one time is essential and critical, however digitizing it isn’t going to return the value back.
Each item has a level of description. If you’d like to look at Al Smith’s or Herbert Lehman’s correspondences, we have detailed indexes of all of the documents. We haven’t digitized all of them, but you can at least say that I would like to see this document from this folder, for example a letter from Herbert Lehman to the growers in Western New York during the Depression to help them figure out how to address a labor shortage. We can give you that document, and we can give you all of the information you need to identify it. But we won’t have that in advance. You’d have to discover the information yourself. That’s what research is all about.
Probably the greatest challenge facing archives right now is the preservation of born digital records, such as electronic mail messages and the databases that replace letters and correspondences, that replace the large case files of information, millions of office documents, worksheets, word processor files, replace reports and letters, websites that replace publications and other resources. All of these are “born digital”. How do we require it? How do we preserve it? How do we ensure that the same documentation that Al Smith, Herbert Lehman, Dewitt Clinton or whomever created on paper in the 18th, 19th, and most of the 20th century is entirely electronic. How do we ensure the continuity of that memory? How do we ensure the continuity of that information so that the history of our state and our communities doesn’t have a big hole in it when all of a sudden we started to use electronic communication exclusively.
EU: Is the amount of information being created and recorded a challenge as well?
TJR: One of the things archivists do is something called selection. Not all information will be preserved forever. It’s impossible to do regardless of whether it’s on paper or in an electronic form. If you look at the production of information, when they produced information in Sumaria, it was very important but very limited. They produced on clay tablets and those were preserved and every piece is preserved because it is so rare and unique. When they had illuminated manuscripts, all of those are preserved because it’s very rare and only the critical information needs to be preserved and incapsulated there.
But fast forward to World War II when they produced millions of pieces of documents and millions of pieces of information. Only a small percentage of that needs to be preserved forever. Is it worthy of an infinite investment in preservation services for those resources. And then fast forward further into the digital age and information becomes extremely cheap. It’s very easy to produce emails and word processed documents, or a digital photograph instead of a roll of 36 exposures where someone painstakingly develops each one. Now a photographer snaps 150,000 photographs in one day, most of which are not worth preserving or used by that photographer. The ability to produce information makes it cheaper, but also makes it more difficult for archivists to separate the wheat from the chaff.
EU: What is the oldest document you have in the NYS Archives?
TJR: We have a document from the 1630s. It’s a simple administrative document from the New Netherland colony when the Dutch ran NY.
EU: Is the document in the Dutch language?
TJR: It is in Dutch, and despite my earlier comment, it is available online. We digitize 100 percent of our Dutch documents. There are only 13,000 of them so it’s a very limited corpus of material and it was easy to make them all available.
There’s a group of people working since the 1970s translating those documents into English and wherever we have a translation available in English for those Dutch documents, we make them available.
EU: What is the most salient, unusual, or important piece of information in the documents?
TJR: It’s a big question, and I can’t give you an easy answer because we preserve and make available the official records of the NYS government. So you could say the most essential documents are the foundation documents of the State: its Constitution and the laws. Those are critical because they are the fundamental underpinnings of our state government and they are the documents that legitimize what we do. However that doesn’t tell you how that government entity operated, so you could argue that the most important document is the petition signed by Dewitt Clinton to advance to the legislature the request to build the Erie Canal, which was probably one of the most important public works projects ever undertaken in this country and had a profound impact not just on NY, but on the entire United States.
Or you could say it’s the records of the Factory Investigation Commission under Al Smith’s leadership and others in the Progressive Era. There was an effort in NY to understand better the plight of the working classes where they did a great analysis of the life of factory workers driven in part by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Again the awareness of the plight of the working class which revolutionized labor and labor laws not just in NY, but in other states and countries followed, and that’s critical. So I can’t answer the question as you asked it because as an archivist, every document is important because of where it came from, what it says, why it’s there, and what people have done with it or learned from it.
EU: From a cultural and ethnic standpoint, do the archives contain documents from other groups that are linked strongly to the area to what is now NYS? For example, are documents available from the Iroquois nation? And do the archives have documents older than the 1630s given that people have populated the area for much longer?
TJR: We only preserve the records of the colonial and state governments, so there are documents that predate the existence of NY as a political entity, and you can find those records in the national archives in Holland or the public records office in Great Britain who were the primary players in NY. We wouldn’t collect the records of an indigenous community. That’s their cultural patrimony. However if the indigenous community and the government of the colony or the state entered into a treaty, we would have a copy of the treaty at the state archives.
We preserve the essential evidence of NY’s governments in terms of both documents that have historical value, people who like to research; has some kind of evidential value—what did people know and when did they know about it and what or how they acted in that particular regard; some fiscal reason, how did the state’s finances fare in some particular time, so it’s a value that makes it worthwhile to preserve. A great example is the state budget. Or for some administrative purpose. We need to know what decisions we made in the past so we can ensure that there’s some consistency or appropriateness in the decisions we make in the future.
EU: Has anybody thought of writing a book, or has it been written about the history of our state?
TJR: There are a number of great histories of NYS. Alexander Flick wrote a great multivolume set about the history of NYS, which have been published and are wonderful. We have some challenges and that is one of the great things about people understanding more of how to use primary source materials. Many of the older histories have a bias that don’t necessarily accommodate the perspectives and the lives and the role of communities that were not necessarily the dominant culture. That’s an important dimension, that some of these histories don’t take into account. And then there a great number of vertical histories of things that have happened in NY or that NY has a great historical connection to. There’s a lot of literature about the suffrage movement most recently and what happened here in NY. The key players were all New Yorkers from Frederick Douglass to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
EU: Do the archives present different viewpoints of the same events during a particular period of time, for example, the multiple newspapers of NYC during the US Civil War.
TJR: That is the function that the archives perform. Our role is not to interpret history. It’s to ensure that the primary source material of the people who were there, to witness the events, the contemporaries, the contemporaneous evidence, is available for researchers to make their own conclusions.
EU: Are you familiar with Gilder and Lehrman? They are imbued with the love of American history. Do the NYS Archives work with them
TJR: Gilder-Lerman. Oh, yes. They and their work are excellent. They have another repository in NY. We have collaborated with them and shared information on our mutual collections. One of the great benefits that NY has is that it has a very vibrant historical records community of people who work together, talk with each other, and ensure that full spectrum of perspectives that are evidenced in primary source materials is available for researchers, and researchers know where to go. When you consider the creation of the fort that the Statue was built on, built by Daniel T. Tompkins, the governor of NY. That evidence would come out of the NYS Archives. The group that raised the money to fund the Statue was a private enterprise. That information might be in the Museum of the City of NY, and the administration of the Statue of Liberty as a national monument are in the official records of the National Park Service, and in the US National Archives, which has a branch down in NYC. All of us having a piece of the story is good in the fact that we all work together and collaborate and communicate ensures that a more complete story is available for people to learn should they choose to dig deeper into it.
EU: How could students and teachers use the archives to teach students problem solving skills they could use throughout their lives, comparing and contrasting information, recognizing and appreciating point of view, authenticating sources, etc.? Do the archives provide support materials for learners, teachers, and other members of the education community?
TJR: We absolutely do and have done so for 30 years. We recognized early on the value of primary source materials in helping students to improve their research skills: How do authenticate? What’s the perspective of the particular individual? What do you learn from this? So we have developed for many years a number of online resources beginning with simple things: Here’s a document or worksheet you can use to answer some particular questions connecting back to the particular learning objectives that might be established by the Department of Education. Then we move to document texts that help develop a number of different approaches to that particular question or set of questions that help set a pedagogical objective for a teacher whether it’s learning how to do more analytical or deep reading, or critical thinking of the source of a particular document. Most of those materials are available online via our website under the education tab where we make many of these resources available.
Our process is to identify the document. Then we hire teachers to help us develop those curricular materials. An archivist telling you about a document is one thing, A teacher telling you how to use it is a vastly different thing.
All of that is free, and we encourage teachers to use it. We worked very closely with the NYS Council for The Social Studies because that’s a particularly beneficial group that closely aligns the materials that we would make available. But English teachers and educators in other disciplines would benefit. We do a lot of teacher training through the BOCES [Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, which are shared educational support services provided to school districts throughout NYS] and at various conferences.
EU: What is the most exciting piece of information that you have uncovered over the years?
TJR: One piece of information we’ve started to mine much more because documents contain so much that you don’t know what they contain until you really read them. We have a large collection of court records, and NY had statewide courts until 1847 when many of the courts became local courts. But the statewide courts settled estates. If someone dies that they have to get rid of someone’s property. Up until the emancipation of enslaved people, some of the property that was distributed were enslaved individuals. There’s no record, census, or documentation of hundreds, or probably thousands of individuals who were enslaved other than in these court records, other than in the settlements of estates of individuals. We started to encourage researchers. It’s a lot of material, and not every estate had that aspect in terms of what that property being distributed was. It is one of the few places where researchers want to understand broader impact of enslavement of individuals, or even the history and the genealogy or the identities of individuals who would in no other place show up in the documentary record other than in the official government records of the courts in NY.
That whole concept is one of the reasons why government records are so important because it did not require you to be literate or wealthy. Basically if you interacted with the government in some way, or someone interacted with on your behalf, you show up in government records. This is a perfect example of why government records more than anything else ensured, if given the opportunity, the fullest and broadest documentation of every single person in NY.
EU: What happened to those enslaved individuals, whom we would call today the people of color, who were carried in those court records? They were never really freed, were they?
TJR: Until NY fully emancipated enslaved individuals, and slavery was still allowable in NY until the end of the 18th century, and then there was gradual manumission of enslaved people up until the first quarter of the 19th century. The court documents would show my house, my well, my wagon these freed individuals, in many cases their names as the property. That would stop when slavery was abolished, but up until that point, many of those people remained the property of another person. #
Programs, Academic Competitions, & Resources for Students, Educators, & NYS Communities
New York State Archives Partnership Trust, a 501(c)3 organization,
supports education, preservation and outreach programs not funded by the state in order to make accessible over 350 years of New York’s Colonial and State Government records housed in the State Archives. The Trust, available online at nysarchivestrust.org, runs education specific programs including the following:
Tools for Teachers
Archivists and teachers work together to create standards-based learning activities using historical documents. These educational resources are accessible on the State Archives and Trust websites. Teachers can quickly identify documents for lessons along with instructional videos, online exhibits, and publications.
Student Research Award Program - deadline July 1, 2019
Funded in part by the Chodos Family Fund, the Student Research Award program encourages students in grades 4–12 to explore the wealth of historical records found in local and county government archives, libraries, museums, and other community organizations throughout New York. Additional information is located at nysarchivestrust.org/education/student-research-awards.
Larry J. Hackman Research Residency Program
The Residency Program supports advanced research in New York State history, government, or public policy, and encourages public dissemination of research products. More information is available at archives.nysed.gov/research/hackman-research-residency
New York Archives Magazine & Educator Guide
New York Archives is the only magazine in circulation geared to the general public focused on New York State history. Teacher Resource Guides accompanying issues are now
available at nysarchivestrust.org/education/educator-guide-new-york-archives-magazine
Consider the Source Online: Teaching with Historical Records Project
The Trust is raising support to expand its nationally-recognized Consider the Source resource guide which aids teachers in incorporating historical documents from a variety of sources into learning activities for students of all abilities. Consider the Source Online: Teaching with Historical Records is a transformative statewide project with a regional focus that will bring together teachers, cultural institutions, and content specialists to an online network of learning communities and access to new resources and tools created by educators for educators.
Learn more at nysarchivestrust.org/download_file/663/0.