Should Sonoma reinstate a city historian?

In a city with as much history as Sonoma, what role should an official city historian play?

That was the question last week that occupied the Sonoma City Council, as members debated whether an individual or larger entity could better serve as the city’s spokesperson for the news. and historical perspective.

The board met on February 16 to consider appointing the Sonoma Valley Historical Society to the dual role of historical archivist and city historian. The Historical Society operates the downtown Depot Park Museum and the Marcy House Archives and Research Center; the group has been an active promoter of local history since its inception in 1937.

“I think the Historical Society has had a long relationship with the city of Sonoma,” said society president Patricia Cullinan.

Cullinan said his organization’s vast historical resources will allow him to meet the city’s needs as an archivist and historian – which include maintaining an inventory of historical documents and artifacts owned by the city, helping research by the public and city staff regarding local history, assisting in the coordination of activities of historical interest, and serving as a local history resource for the community.

In addition to its archival resources, Cullinan said the group’s network of member historians will expand the city’s access to local historical knowledge, and its partnership with the California State Library and other national groups. and international” connect Sonoma to a global network of historians who work with us to provide accurate answers to questions about our history.

While council members warmly applauded the partnership with SVHS as the City Archivist, some questioned whether the role of City Historian should be filled by one specific individual.

“It’s weird that an organization is the historian, when a historian is usually a person,” Vice Mayor Kelso Barnett said.

The role of city historian was first created in 2008 and had been subject to a rotation of appointees until 2019, when the council established an ad hoc committee to review and refine job responsibilities, according to city staff. But the ad hoc committee was disbanded before any action was taken, acting city manager Sue Casey said.

“I understand that a historian is a person,” conceded Mayor Jack Ding. “But I suppose it could also be an organization – we have to find out what the right way is.”

Councilman Bob Felder said that given the city’s unique history, “it seems appropriate” that the role of the historian remain that of an individual. “It’s fallen into disrepair over the last few years, but it served a very useful function,” Felder said. “So I think we should explore maintaining that as a separate individual rather than as a society.”

Councilor Sandra Lowe asked for more information on why the role of City Historian was not filled after 2019. “What is the history of the historian?” she joked.

Council member Madolyn Agrimonti is the only sitting council member whose term dates from before 2019. She said Wednesday that the level of historical knowledge among former city historians was mixed.

“Some have been wonderful, real historians,” Agrimonti said. “Some were guards (of the post) and had to learn as they went.” She said the advantage of SVHS and its network of members is that, “they’ve been here since 1937, the Historical Society doesn’t have to learn as you go.”

Robert Demler, the city’s newest historian, spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, urging the council to approve the Historical Society as the city’s archivist, but hand over the role of historian of the city to a separate person.

“The individual can also provide research and present items with a different perspective than a single group,” Demler said. “That’s why the rotation process for these nominations is so important – you get different people with different ideas, and that can’t be a bad thing.”

The role of city historian is especially important in the coming years, Barnett added, because the bicentennial of the founding of Mission San Francisco de Solano is in 2023 and the bicentennial of the founding of the Pueblo of Sonoma is in 2035. .

Casey said staff would bring the item back to the board at a future meeting for further discussion on the role of the historical society and whether board members would prefer an individual to serve as historian.

Email Jason Walsh at [email protected].

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