Prioritizing Outreach at Local History Institutions, Part 2 of 2

This post is the second of a two-part piece about collections, outreach, and reshuffling priorities at local history institutions. Click here for the first post, “Rethinking Collections at Local History Institutions.” 

In June, I wrote about the problematic tendency of many local history groups to prioritize the collection of historic artifacts and documents above vital outreach and community-building work. This needs to change. This isn’t the case for all of these groups, of course– there are some whose staff and volunteers use history to bring people from diverse communities together and into their institutions, and a wonderful handful who use their collections to help with these efforts– but there are many more who neglect this work.

Local history groups that have not yet prioritized outreach need to do so as soon as possible. For one, we need these groups to provide opportunities for local change-makers to come together to discuss the applications of historical knowledge to present-day problems. But beyond that, demonstrating relevance in this way can help local history groups survive a critical stage in their life cycles– the point at which their founder or founders have left the organization and current leadership has to consider how to step forward without the original cohort’s momentum and influence.¹

Introducing new priorities and shuffling or retiring old ones is hard work. It involves a lot of conversation about institutional mission and meaning, but it can be done. A historical society I’m involved with here in Chicago undertook such an effort almost 5 years ago, and their experience offers valuable lessons for other local history groups interested in undertaking a similar transition.

The problem
The historical society had a number of serious issues. Its board members and volunteers weren’t generating enough income to cover their expenses, they had little support from the 125,000 or so people living in the area of Chicago they call home, and they were staring at the possibility of closure 40 years after the historical society’s establishment. The group had a well-known and energetic leader who passed away a few years before, leaving them unsure how to move forward. The remaining volunteers and board members focused their energies on managing the society’s collection, conducting genealogical and property research, and organizing local history programs about things like architecture, transportation, and founding families, but their efforts didn’t result in broader community support. Most local residents didn’t know the historical society existed, and the few who knew about it didn’t see it as a place that could offer them much of anything outside of assistance with local history research. The society’s board recognized that they needed to make major changes, and soon, or the society would cease to exist.

What they did
The society’s board called an immediate stop to all non-essential projects and began a long process of strategic planning and organizational assessment. By the end, they had reassembled an organization better prepared to serve current and former residents of their part of Chicago. They restructured the organization so that outreach activities took top priority and have since poured the society’s energy into activities that use history to encourage dialogue between members of the area’s many communities.

Tips and Takeaways
Lessons learned by this historical society may prove helpful to other local history groups looking to prioritize outreach and community-building. Here are a handful, in no particular order:

1. Bring everyone to the table.
Cultural institutions dealing with assessments, strategic planning initiatives, or similar should invite local residents to participate in conversations about their needs and expectations. But this becomes a problem when they only engage people from communities with which they’re already familiar. Local history groups need to build relationships with people representative of the entire local population. They need to look at other cultural organizations, arts communities, libraries, churches, neighborhood associations, and interest groups, among others, invite their representatives to coffee or to a retreat, and talk with them about how the local history group can best serve their needs.

Historical society retreat. Author’s image.

2. Put collections to work.
Collecting local history materials is important work. It shouldn’t be done at the expense of outreach and community-building, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive, and historical materials can and should be put to work to meet outreach-focused goals. (That being said, if a local history group can’t care for its collections, the board needs to have a serious conversation about ethical responsibility and stewardship and consider whether or not they should even have those materials in their possession. But that’s a blog post for another time.)

3. Use history to build bridges.
Building new relationships can generate unique partnership opportunities. Establishing connections with other groups opens the door to joint programs where members of both institutions or communities can benefit from each other’s resources and get to know one another. For example, a local history group could co-host a program with an ethnic cultural center, ask someone from the ethnic group to speak about their history and present-day activities, and hold a reception after where those present could meet and talk over food and drink.  Or they could establish a partnership with local artists in which the artists create work inspired by the local history group’s collection. The group could then host a reception (and maybe even an exhibition) showcasing the artists’ creations. Or they could  consider an issue facing their area, like a need for affordable housing, and convene a public forum in which local activists and others familiar with the question engage in a moderated discussion about the past, present, and future of that issue. These examples are very doable. They all come from real life and were all highly successful.

4. Find other places where local history happens.  
Local historical societies tend to dominate the local history landscape because there are just so many of them, but local history happens beyond those boundaries. Churches, schools, cultural centers, settlement houses, local libraries, dinner and book clubs, and extended families are among the many places where local history lives and thrives. Local history groups should figure out where else this is happening and collaborate with the people they find. For example, volunteers from the historical society mentioned above worked on an oral history project with a local elementary school teacher and his students. The teacher had his students, many of whom belong to immigrant families, interview older family members about their lives and experiences. Historical society volunteers transcribed the interviews and shared the transcripts with with the students and their families.

5. Don’t try to do everything. Do what’s needed. 
Local history groups thinking about how they can restructure to prioritize outreach and community-building may feel overwhelmed at the prospect. Many are run entirely by volunteers and those fortunate enough to have staff usually don’t have more than a handful on their payroll. This is why it’s important to remember that none of these groups can do every single thing. Programs and lectures, membership and development, advocacy, education, exhibitions, collections management, administration, so many tours– walking and garden and house, board development… the list goes on and on. They need to figure out which elements they need to sustain an outreach-focused model, throw those into the pot, and throw everything else out. The historical society mentioned above had so many ongoing projects that they simply could not sustain all of them in a consistent or financially-responsible way. Ultimately, they decided to focus on what helped them best achieve their new goals and nixed support for anything that did not fall under that umbrella.

6. Know the mission and vision by heart. 
Mission and vision are essential guiding stars for any cultural institution. Board members, staff, and volunteers should know these by heart and use them as a litmus test to determine the fitness of new projects and initiatives. If it doesn’t support and further the mission and vision, out it goes.

7. Keep having hard conversations.
Build board, staff, and volunteer retreats into the schedule to ensure that strategic conversations about mission and purpose happen regularly no matter what. Make this a priority. Local history groups need to continually adapt to meet the changing needs of the people they serve.

A decision to shuffle priorities will likely lead to a long (and often fraught) series of conversations about how to move forward. But that doesn’t mean this decision can’t or shouldn’t be made. Local history groups need to make themselves accessible and welcoming to every current or former resident of their area of the world.

What else would you add to this list?

  1. Most local historical societies currently in existence in the United States were founded in the decades after World War II, and a majority of those emerged in a 30-year period between the mid-1950s and the mid-1980s. This means that many local historical societies have reached or are in the midst of this critical point in their life cycle.
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