No more collections: How one local historical society changed course to better serve its communities

The board of directors of the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society (RPWRHS) is currently in the process of transferring ownership of the bulk of the society’s collections to the Sulzer branch of the Chicago Public Library. Collections have generally loomed large in local historical societies and so the decision by the RPWRHS board to voluntarily rid the society of its collections might seem unusual to anyone familiar with local history groups. Many societies formed with the express purpose of saving local historical material from disappearing when long-time residents passed or moved away and have spent the decades since meticulously collecting and cataloguing local documents and artifacts. The RPWRHS is no different, and society volunteers had been growing and caring for the RPWRHS collections since founding the group in 1975. 

In this post, I’ll share why RPWRHS leadership made the decision to divest the society of its collections and how they’re managing the transference of their material to the Chicago Public Library. Their decision to find a new home for their collections isn’t a good fit for every collecting institution, and that’s exactly the point. The RPWRHS board took a step back, reevaluated their institutional priorities, and made a decision that reflects the needs and interests of their constituents. Their story exemplifies how creative problem-solving can help local history groups navigate tough conversations about institutional mission and purpose and come out the other side better prepared to serve their communities.

The board’s decision to stop collecting materials and transfer ownership of the RPWRHS collections to another institution came at the end of a multi-year organizational assessment. You can read more about their assessment and outcomes here and here, but the TL;DR is this: at the end of the process, the board decided to channel the society’s energies into what it does best– organizing programming that uses history to facilitate dialogue between members of the area’s many communities– and stop funneling energy into activities that don’t help them achieve their new vision. When the RPWRHS board began the assessment, the society had a collection of local papers, ephemera, and objects that was largely inaccessible to the public, and they lacked the resources necessary to make the materials accessible to researchers and keep them safe from water, insects, and other environmental threats. They also lacked, as many local history groups do, a clear sense of what they should collect and why and often found themselves passively accepting items with questionable historical value. Collecting local history materials is important, but local history groups can’t fulfill their missions if they spend all their energy figuring out how to manage their collections.

After making their decision, RPWRHS board members and key volunteers sat down to figure out next steps. First on the agenda was how to handle research requests and donation offers that came in after the collection was no longer under the society’s care. Instead of turning people away, they decided they could act as a kind of conduit, connecting people with inquiries or donation offers with relevant local history resources and repositories.

Then came the biggest hurdle: finding a community partner able and willing to take ownership over the society’s collections. Finding a local organization willing to take on a large amount of historical material, much of it uncatalogued, is no small feat. Could they even manage to find an organization that could take all or most of the collection intact? Or should they break it up and send pieces to multiple organizations? And who should they approach? Groups with a proven interest in local history? Or local groups with a topical focus that might be willing to add local history materials to their collections? Or should the RPWRHS reach out to the largest local institution, Loyola University Chicago, which has extensive collections related to its own institutional history, Chicago and the Midwest, and women and leadership?

The board drew up a list of possible partners and began making inquiries. High on the list was the Sulzer branch of the Chicago Public Library (CPL), which already held materials related to Rogers Park and West Ridge as part of CPL’s Northside Neighborhood History Collection (NNHC). The NNHC “highlights historical and contemporary materials about Northside neighborhoods” and the board felt the Sulzer offered one of the best possible homes for the RPWRHS collections. They contacted the Sulzer branch archivist and explained that they were looking to transfer their collections to a local institution in possession of the resources necessary to make them accessible to area researchers. The Sulzer scheduled a site visit and, happily, agreed to the partnership. (1)

Since then, representatives from the Sulzer branch library have been working with RPWRHS board members and volunteers to orchestrate the move and transfer ownership to the Chicago Public Library. While this happens, the RPWRHS is keeping its members and other stakeholders informed about the move and inviting questions and feedback. “The library,” they explained, “will provide high-quality physical storage facilities and will create finding tools that make the collection more useful…” The Northside Neighborhood History Collection is, they added, “known to scholars and other researchers as an important source of local documents.” By adding the RPWRHS collections to the NNHC, they contributed valuable information about Rogers Park and West Ridge to one of the largest collections of materials related to Chicago’s far north side.

The RPWRHS board also explained that, though the materials would be under the CPL’s care when transferred to the Sulzer, they came to an agreement under which the “RPWRHS retains the right to use our collection items in exhibitions, publications and programming.” The RPWRHS can still use the materials in ways that support its community outreach goals, but is no longer responsible for making the collections accessible or managing their long-term care. (2)

The path taken by the RPWRHS board won’t work for every local history group, but their experience with organizational assessment offers an important lesson for others struggling to figure out how to better serve their communities. In the RPWRHS’ case, the conversations generated by the assessment helped its board come to the difficult decision to transfer ownership of their collections to a new community partner and focus their efforts elsewhere. Cultural organizations grappling with big questions and willing to engage in creative problem solving should consider undertaking an organizational assessment. The potential for change speaks for itself. 

(1) “Northside Neighborhood History Collection,” https://www.chipublib.org/northside-neighborhood-history-collection/

(2) Email from RPWRHS to membership, sponsors, community stakeholders, and others on its email list, February 18, 2019