Rethinking Collections at Local History Institutions, Part 1 of 2

Historical Society of Forest Park, Forest Park, IL.

If you’ve read anything I’ve written here on the Omnia blog or in the recent issue of History News, you know that I’m interested in local history institutions, both historically and in the present. For one, I study local history groups, including historical societies, in the decades after World War II (the vast majority of local historical societies in existence today were founded in the second half of the 20th century). Specifically, I look at what the people founding these organizations hoped to achieve and why, what these groups have done since they formed, and their broader impact in their towns and neighborhoods. In the present, my professional work and interests involve working with local history groups to help them reach their fullest potential as vital community assets. In my work, one of the issues I see pop up again and again is the Question of The Collection. I proper-named this because almost every local history group I’ve worked with, encountered, or studied spends (or has spent in the past) a significant amount of their time thinking about or doing something with their collection of historical materials. They’ve grappled with how to build and maintain these collections and, when they’ve amassed enough documents and artifacts, how to put them to good use.

Historically, at their founding moments, local historical societies almost always centered their identity around their collections of historical materials and the need for a facility to house those materials. This isn’t limited to the post-WWII groups I study, either. It’s true of most local history groups founded in the U.S. over the past two centuries. Here are just two (of many) examples that demonstrate the centrality of collections in local history groups. I pulled both of these from my research about postwar local historical societies in the Chicago metropolitan area:

  • The founding members of the Hyde Park Historical Society, established in Chicago, IL in the mid-1970s, decided in early planning meetings that they would “record Hyde Park’s history…[and] preserve selected artifacts and documents of that history…” They also noted that to “acquire materials and serve the public, some distinct physical location is necessary.” (From the HPHS by-laws and early board meeting minutes, University of Chicago Archives and Special Collections, Chicago, IL.)
  • The founding members of the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society, established in Lake Forest, IL in 1972, felt that they needed a local history repository even though their county already had a historical society that had collected some materials about Lake Forest and Lake Bluff. They feared that without dedicated local effort “pictures, documents, mementos and recorded reminiscences” would be “lost forever when long-time residents” moved or passed away. (From LFLBHS meeting minutes, February 27, 1972; Susan Dart, “The Forest Ranger,” The Lake Forester, October 12, 1972; and LFLBHS membership application, ca. 1972-1973, all from the LFLBHS in Lake Forest, IL.)

And so on. These goals are repeated again and again in historical society records from across the U.S. A complete list would go on for miles.

In the years between their founding and the present, local history groups have achieved varying levels of success in their efforts to build and house collections. I’ve dug through historical society records stored in receptacles ranging from paper shopping bags and old steamer trunks to rusty filing-cabinets and professional-grade archival boxes, and this research has brought me to locations ranging from closets in church basements to state-of-the-art special collections facilities. I’ve come across materials of significant local and national importance, as well as materials lacking much, if any, discernible historical value. For many of the local history groups I’ve encountered, regardless of their success in this regard, maintaining and building collections and housing them in secure locations remains central to their purpose and identity. They strive to continue collecting local materials. (It’s worth noting that some focus more on accessibility than others, but also that accessibility issues aren’t specific to local history archives.)

There are often problems with this approach, though. The focus on collections often takes such a central role in local history groups that vital outreach and community-building work don’t rank as high on the list of institutional priorities. Collecting and preserving local history materials are certainly extremely important, but this can’t happen at the exclusion of other local history projects. Local history groups need to expand their core functions to include vital change-making work including, as I’ve said before, providing opportunities for people to engage in historically-informed discussions of present-day problems. Collections should be used to support this kind of work, and building collections shouldn’t happen if it means there’s no room or energy left in the organization to bring people together to engage in dialogue about essential local issues.

This work is happening, though, like most sea change, it’s moving slowly. There are archivists, curators, directors, volunteers, docents, and others thinking about and successfully expanding the collections-centric model to better serve residents in their respective towns and neighborhoods. Some are using their collections to support this work (see my change-making post, linked above, for a few examples). In part 2 of this post, to be published in July, I’ll talk about a local history group I’ve been involved with for the past several years and the efforts undertaken by its board to rethink the organization’s role in the two Chicago neighborhoods it serves. The people involved in these efforts have shifted away from a heavy focus on research and  collections to a more community-centered approach in which they use the society’s resources to build relationships between local residents. Their strategic decisions have changed the role collections play in the society, which has led to debate over their place on the list of institutional priorities. I’ll talk more about this group’s experience rethinking their purpose and offer some concrete strategies and tips for other local history groups grappling with similar questions.

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