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
After announcing Omnia’s database management services in my last blog post, I now offer a broader reflection on the role of digital products for small cultural organizations. Specifically, I want to assert that digital services and platforms are not ends in and of themselves, but merely tools to advance an organization’s mission. This is certainly not a new sentiment in the digital humanities world, but it bears repeating especially for small organizations with precious limited resources. It can be all too easy for institutions to spend money on digital tools or produce digital products that do not meaningfully engage audiences or advance an institutional mission; on the other end of the spectrum, some organizations are understandably wary of engaging with digital services because of the initial cost of change. I believe there is a middle ground where cultural institutions can responsibly approach digital services by asking how the tool will help the organization accomplish its work. To that end, here are three critical questions for cultural organizations to ask before adopting a digital tool, whether for social media, digital collections, database management, and beyond:
time is ripe for small cultural institutions to think about how they can engage
their communities in conversations about voting, elections, and civic
disenfranchisement. For one, we’re in the early stages of the next presidential
election cycle here in the United States. We’ve seen several democrats announce
that they intend to run for the democratic nomination in advance of the 2020
election and I think it’s safe to say that this presidential race will capture
more attention than any other election in modern history. And even if we
weren’t approaching a presidential or congressional election, we’re almost
always at the beginning, middle, or end of some election. Here in Chicago we’re
facing a mayoral and aldermanic election in a few weeks, hot on the heels of
the November midterms.
In addition to the near-constant stream of election cycles, we’re now less than a year away from the beginning of the 19th amendment’s centennial. Celebrations of this important historical moment provide a framework cultural institutions can use to highlight issues related to suffrage, disenfranchisement, and human rights, past and present, in their local communities. Voter disenfranchisement has always been a serious human rights issue, and it’s especially pressing now as a number of states with voter identification laws on the books are attempting (and succeeding) in making these laws even more stringent and restrictive.
moments are important because they present small cultural groups, including
local historical societies and museums, with a number of opportunities to bring
people together to think critically about the role voting, elections, and
disenfranchisement play in their lives and in the lives of those around them.
We never need a reason to talk about the connections between past and present–
this can happen whenever, regardless of current events– but it’s particularly
important that we provide historical context for and facilitate conversations
about issues sitting at the top of the news cycle. High on that list right now
are what I mention above– voting, elections, and civic disenfranchisement.
We are excited to announce that Omnia History is officially offering a new service to help cultural organizations center the needs of the public and thrive as agents of social change: database management. We have been doing this work for years and are intentionally growing it into a core part of Omnia History because we have witnessed how effective database administration can positively impact cultural organizations.
Five years ago, Hope and I became involved with a local historical society that was financially struggling and working to reorient its strategic priorities. Among other issues, the organization’s mailing lists, event registrations, membership rolls, donations, and volunteer information were all located in different software, spreadsheets, and physical files, if they existed at all. In an effort to prioritize outreach, a team of volunteers and I decided to install and maintain CiviCRM, an open-source constituent relationship management system that could consolidate the organization’s contact data. Since then, I have transitioned to a contracted consulting role as I continue to refine the system, streamline data input, and integrate forms into the society’s website.
Let’s talk about discrimination and sexual harassment at small public history sites, history museums, and related organizations. A large number of public history organizations run with staff of three, two, or even one and many public historians spend part or all of their careers at places run by only a handful of employees.1 Work under these conditions can be incredibly joyful, impactful, and fulfilling, but people working in these settings seem to face a special set of challenges related to harassment and discrimination. They routinely work one-on-one, sometimes alone, with board members, members, and donors, and often lack human resources departments or other internal mechanisms designed to help them seek protection and recourse against inappropriate and predatory behavior.
I recently asked a few senior public history professionals for advice on how we might better support people facing these kinds of challenges. One person advised me, a young female professional, to avoid drinking at work functions and to bring my husband with me whenever possible. This is unhelpful at best, victim blaming at worst, and it misses the point. I’ve already learned these lessons through personal experience and from whisper networks of women and others who have dealt with this their entire lives (hold your keys in your hand when walking home/to your car, don’t walk outside at night, never leave your drink unattended, don’t dress provocatively, and so on). Responses from the others were more helpful, though just as discouraging. They agreed that this has been and continues to be a serious problem, that little sustainable action has been taken to remedy it, and that we need to do more to support people working in vulnerable positions and who have few or no avenues of official recourse.
So, how do we deal with this? How can we better support people facing harassment and discrimination at small and under-resourced public history organizations? And, though the onus shouldn’t be on victims to stop predatory behavior, what can employees do to protect themselves?
The National Inventory of Humanities Organizations (NIHO) is exactly what it sounds like– an online database documenting humanities institutions currently in operation in the United States. NIHO, which was developed by the Humanities Indicators project at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, “encompasses not-for-profit, for-profit, and government institutions engaged in humanities scholarship and/or in bringing humanities knowledge or skills to various audiences.”(1)
I learned more about NIHO at the National Humanities Conference in New Orleans, LA a few weeks ago. Carolyn Fuqua, a senior research analyst at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and I both presented (along with several others) at the “Effecting Social Change Through the Humanities” session. She spoke about how the Humanities Indicators team designed NIHO to elevate the profiles of humanities organizations, encourage collaboration between them, and provide funders with a more comprehensive picture of the humanities landscape. Continue reading “Resource Alert: National Inventory of Humanities Organizations (NIHO)”
I’m traveling to New Orleans in early November to present on the “Effecting Social Change through the Humanities” lightning round panel at this year’s National Humanities Conference. I’ll talk about the role local history has played in local change in the past and how to harness local history to effect change at home in the present. Since the conference is in November, and I’ll be preparing for it at the same time as the final stretch to the midterm elections, I can’t help but think about this and other panels at the conference in the context of what’s happening nationally right now. So many of us, myself included, are desperate for good news, for a wave of blue victories across the country, for any sign that attacks against human rights and progressive policies and will slow-down or stop.
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 Continue reading “Prioritizing Outreach at Local History Institutions, Part 2 of 2”
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. Continue reading “Rethinking Collections at Local History Institutions, Part 1 of 2”
A few years ago, at the American Association for State and Local History annual meeting in Louisville, I went to a session about the Missouri History Museum’s (MHM) response to Michael Brown’s death. Melanie Adams led the session, and the story she told was so thought-provoking that I still return to it from time-to-time when thinking about the relationships between cultural institutions and the public. Essentially, MHM established a partnership with the St. Louis police that brought community members and police officers together to engage in open dialogue about local policing, crime, and related issues. Adams noted that MHM has a number of these kinds of partnerships with stakeholders representative of a broad array of core community functions. The museum works to build spaces in which people can engage in dialogue about a variety of pressing community needs.
MHM’s actions are representative of the larger turn the public history and museum fields have taken over the past few decades toward the idea that cultural organizations should provide opportunities for people to come together to discuss and find durable solutions to present-day problems. This isn’t a new idea in 2018, of course, but these kinds of big shifts don’t happen overnight and there are still miles of row to hoe before this kind of relationship between public and institution becomes the norm, instead of exceptional exception.