Professional Division Forum

State Budgets and the Crisis of Historical Infrastructure: Introduction

William J. Cronon, May 2004

US MapA Forum Organized by the AHA Professional Division in collaboration with the AHA Task Force on Public History

On January 10, 2004, the AHA's Professional Division organized, in collaboration with the AHA Task Force on Public History, a special panel at the annual meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss the topic “State Budgets and the Crisis of Historical Infrastructure in the United States.” We did so because we have grown increasingly concerned over the past two years about the serious impact that state budget cuts have been having on institutions and services that are critical to the practice and interpretation of history in the United States.

Although budget cuts at the federal level often receive greater public scrutiny, the number of historical institutions—museums, monuments, libraries, archives, school programs, journals, publications, and many others—that receive a critical portion of their funding from states and municipalities is much larger, in fact, than many historians appreciate. The devastating shortfalls in state revenues over the past few years have yielded correspondingly devastating cuts to many state history programs, with the result that some of the nation's most important infrastructure for collecting, preserving, interpreting, and providing access to the historical record in the United States has been eroding at a truly terrifying rate. It is no exaggeration to say that we are witnessing the nation's worst crisis of historical infrastructure since at least the Great Depression.

The presentations at our session in January were so excellent, and the need for colleagues across the historical profession to become better informed about the extent of this crisis is so compelling, that we asked our panelists to summarize their remarks for readers of Perspectives. We hope everyone who cares about history in the United States will read these statements and look for opportunities to remind elected officials about how important it is to protect and sustain these vital historical institutions even amid difficult economic times. As these remarks make clear, concerted advocacy has sometimes been successful in reducing the impact of proposed cuts, and it is important that all of us contribute to this effort.

—William J. Cronon, vice president of the AHA's Professional Division.

  • For an earlier report on the state budget crisis, please refer to the Perspectives article, State History Programs in Crisis, by David Darlington (Perspectives, April 2003).