Welcome to the Gallows Hill Training Facility!

Basic Training for Social History Recruits

Stefan Bielinski

I started the Colonial Albany Social History Project as a vehicle for examining the social fabric of an early American community, a laboratory for presenting research-based findings to diverse audiences in non traditional ways, and as a working model of the "history of the people, by the people, and for the people" approach of the community historian that could be applied in a range of situations in New York State. As early as 1981, I knew what I wanted to accomplish. But I had no idea how the initiative would turn out.

As a recent convert to the then "New Social History," I was certain the inquiry would be "from the bottom-up" (treating the least historically prominent yet most typical members of the historic community as the most important in the search for information about their lives), and from the "inside-out" (basing the inquiry on a systematic and exhaustive search of a community's actual historical record - rather than on the observations and impressions of elite personages and outsiders - the sources of choice for most historical biographers). Like most lone wolf historians, I had planned to conduct all research and analysis myself. But after processing the first census document, I realized that such incredibly labor-intensive ambitions would be impossible without a great deal of help.

Surrounded by a number of colleges and universities and in the center of a region where living descendants of those to be studied still roamed in great number, a seemingly limitless supply of eager but disparately motivated would-be helpers began lining up almost immediately following the first public announcement of our new program which was inspired by the European local history movement and by cooperative social history initiatives then operating in American cities from Philadelphia to Phoenix.

Early on, I took on student interns, retirees, returning mothers, and local history enthusiasts - asking them to help retrieve and record some already-identified information on members of the defined study population (16,000 Albany city residents born before 1800). Energy immediately bred anarchy as eager helpers "turned loose" in local repositories brought home a strange and wonderful array of historical prizes that mostly they wanted to drop inside and return to the hunting grounds. Some had photocopied the actual documents (some of which even related to the people of colonial Albany). Others had made notes on what they had seen (often without recording the source). Others had enlisted still others to help - interpreting the project's mission with great imagination.

At the same time, my employers noticed a large number of very active new people in our office and began asking questions. Some were genuinely interested. But others were concerned about supporting a program that might not yield any tangible results.

After a short period of innocent floundering amid a sea of misconceptions and wild expectations, I realized that everyone (the worker bees, sponsors, the public, and myself) needed a more comprehensive understanding of the vision, more clearly defined goals, and much more guidance. By 1984, I had developed the first version of a printed primer now titled "The People of Colonial Albany: A Community History Project." This comprehensive guide defined the project's purposes, and scope. It introduced the human, historical, and institutional resources that would be utilized. It presented the research design, data collection and analysis plans. And it described the new resources that would be created. Chief among them were an open-ended biographical file for every community member, a graphics archives of visual representations, and a supplementary library of copies of contemporary and modern resources. A large middle section of the "Guide" addressed programming (how findings could be interpreted and presented to diverse audiences). And a final part described how project resources would be shared to serve external initiatives and the needs of other organizations, groups, and individuals. Appendices recognized staff members, associates, sponsors and benefactors, and chronicled organizations served.

The "Guide" became required reading for interns and volunteers and for anyone else really interested in learning about what we were doing. The others (most of those who asked) were given a glossy brochure, a list of publications produced, descriptive leaflets, and now are referred to the

The so-called "Guide" also proved an extremely useful resource for "selling" the project to my employers - especially as the project began to complete some of the projected and outlined activities, and involve a large number of student interns, dedicated volunteers, and less regular associates.

In the project's formative years, the "Guide' was revised frequently as new resources were identified and added to the research agenda and as substance and accomplishments replaced plans and projections in the programming and services sections. Now, it is updated less frequently as the project's bases are more set and as the need to chronicle individual programming achievements has become less urgent.

The "Guide" has become an indispensable part of our operation. It defines terms, answers questions, and provides a basic common denominator for project members. Newcomers are ready to join in the fun when they can pass a short quiz on the program as described in the "Guide." This text has been a central resource for developing a more formal training program in social history research. It is supplemented by printed instructions that cover each part of the training experience and most basic project activities. These resources are of great value in channeling energies and focusing expectations by defining desired outcomes as "Project useful!"

To date, more than 200 individuals have graduated from our training program. They have been senior-year history majors from the University at Albany (more than 100 of them taking an upper level or graduate course entitled "Special Projects in History"), students from other colleges and universities, volunteers (a more diverse group), and a few individuals who were considering similar efforts in and about other communities. Fifteen years later, they represent a core disciple group and an emerging cadre of supporters in the larger community.

Over the years, more than a thousand other people have been given less intensive guidance and instruction and the project has become well known through public and printed forums. When a student or volunteer decides to join the project, they are expected to complete our basic training program. Each person receives an intake evaluation to determine expectations and levels of interest and commitment. Recruits are asked to read the "Guide" and a selection of published articles on the people of colonial Albany. After passing a readiness quiz, each newcomer imagines the historic community when they receive a guided, street-level tour of the city today. And finally, recruits attend several public programs on the people of colonial Albany and their world. These presentations are essentially visual, provide links between the research and programming, and get recruits thinking about engaging diverse audiences. At that point, most newcomers have been won over by what they have absorbed and the truly sincere are inspired by what they have read. The recruit is then ready to begin!

Project-dedicated trainees will complete the 100-hour program in as little as three weeks. But most graduate at the end of an academic semester during which they work 8-10 hours each week (usually with time out for midterms). The training experience is practical and is motivated by essentially different yet happily compatible purposes. First, are the needs to enable even the most innocent and unprepared individual to appreciate and understand the issues in conducting historical research on pre-industrial society and to instill in each person a core awareness that history and the other humanities that are part of their program are about people. The other motivating factor stems from the project's need to mobilize a large and diverse workforce to mine historical information from literally mountains of records, documents, and other resources, and to have the data recorded comprehensively and interpreted in consistent or "project-useful" ways.

The first exercise brings the trainee face to face with raw information recovered and recorded by previous interns. They begin by organizing existing material so that it can be applied to individual case histories. The trainee thus meets the people of colonial Albany - learning their names, grappling with eighteenth-century spellings and reference quirks, and confronting modern recording inconsistencies. After ten hours of alphabetizing, looking for improperly filed material, and much encouragement, the trainee begins to appreciate the need for precision in recording and consistency in filing. The trainee is becoming an intern and begins to recover information from new historical resources - the central part of the basic training experience. Constant monitoring reveals readiness to move on to more complex and challenging sources. Some interns process several sets of church, government, court, real property, and business records. Others are not able to progress beyond the most simple collection procedures. It matters not, as a seemingly limitless supply of copies of all of those primary sources awaits processing. Almost all trainees are able to take pride in adding hundreds of bits of "good" information to larger data files. At that point, the most arduous and least glamorous part of the internship has passed. After fifty hours of simple consolidation and collection, each internship is assessed as intern and managers reach consensus on how the rest of the program will be spent.

Staples of the second half menu are a family reconstitution, neighborhood mapping, constructing individual biographies, group biography, and another set of choices - which involves the most gifted and ambitious interns in developing the graphics archive, articulating the real property data base, and in preparing simple programming items such as maps, guides, and reading lists. In these activities, interns are able to apply the bits of information gleaned and organized into sub files to developing the in-progress biographies of individuals, their families, and other identity groups. They comprehend the elements of biographical study, the life course as an analytical tool, and how historic individuals functioned as parts of larger social units within the pre-industrial community. In the absence of literary resources, they are encouraged to make judgments about historic lives based on recorded or inferred actions. By the end of their program, more than half of the interns have become disciples of the "New Social History" approach to humanities that pervades all activities at the Gallows Hill training facility. Most of the others reveal that they have been pleasantly surprised if not transformed by their semester-long experience that requires a summary and evaluative paper as a final requirement and as a basis for future recommendations.

The young graduates go on to law school, public service, teaching, and to the private sector. Most of those who pursue graduate study in history return to us for a second internship which provides them with personal research topics, historiographic grounding, an academic framework for producing an informational publication, lecture, teaching packet, or to conduct more advanced research, or as information managers working with new recruits. Many of the older (ranging in age from 25 to 75), non matriculated graduates remain with us - doing all of the above and sometimes completing another 150 hours of advanced training to earn the status of "Research Associate." The latter group (more than twenty people covering all age groups) has made huge contributions to all parts of our program.

Those are the basics of basic training at the Colonial Albany Social History Project. Born out of necessity, the program has optimized the substantial contributions made by a diverse and largely volunteer workforce. At the same time, it has instilled in its graduates a unique perspective on historical study and (judging from the top-down mindset of most of their academic courses) on history and the larger humanities. Treating each trainee's time and effort as precious, the program continues to evolve to take better advantage of their contributions. With so much research and analysis remaining, so many programming plans and opportunities still to be realized, and with an increasing demand for services in support of the history initiatives of individuals, organizations, and groups, the Colonial Albany Project continues to recruit and train new social and community historians. In that way, the people of colonial Albany and their world will continue to live for the people of Albany and their world today.


Article forthcoming in The Encyclopedia of Local History, edited by Carol Kammen.

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