The Minnesota State Historical Records Advisory Board has received a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission that allows the Board to make small grants to non-profit organizations in support of the following goals:
- Projects that create and strengthen collaboration between local historical organizations, public libraries, and History Day teachers to increase the use of documents in the classroom.
- Projects that further the work of American Indian tribal archives and history programs to preserve and make available documents within their communities.
- Projects that provide increased documentation of the composition and history of recent immigrant communities.
- Projects that expand opportunities for the use of documents, including photographs, through collaboration with the Minnesota Digital Library Project.
For further information on the SHRAB grants program, contact: Shawn Rounds , 651-259-3265
Agriculture and Rural Life: Documenting Change
A Cooperative Project of the North Dakota State Historical Records Advisory Board and the Minnesota State Historical Records Advisory Board, with funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.
- View Perspectives on the Issues (750 KB PDF), a collection of project papers with introduction.
- View Project Report (656 KB PDF), including
bibliography and list of Web resources.
Perspectives on the Issues
John Kolb and Edmund Brunner began their 1950s textbook on rural sociology with the dual question: "What is Rural Society-Why Study It?" The textbook defines rural society in objective terms by following the U.S. Census definition (at the time, roughly anyone not living in a city or unincorporated area of 2500 or more residents). What should be studied about rural society, said Kolb and Brunner, were 25 topics, ranging from the "psychological characteristics of rural people," to "the social function of land," from "rural interest groups and classes," to "rural recreation and the cultural arts" and "local government-a social institution." Why study all this? "It supplies a knowledge of the importance of rural America in the national life.and of rural-urban-relationships. It shows the importance of social forces, groups, and organizations and the parts they play in national and community life." After roughly 50 years of farm crises, the depopulation of rural areas, and national debate over the fate of "the rural way of life," the importance of understanding rural society probably does not need much further elaboration.
The study of agriculture and rural life is important, especially in areas where both have significant impact on economic and social structures. What Kolb and Brunner did not ask about rural society is the question "How Can It Be Studied?" A sampling of monographs on 20th century rural society in the United States, published between 1930 and 1990, suggest a broad and highly inconsistent base of sources. The most frequently cited sources are government reports and statistics, followed by scholarly monographs and journal articles, followed by newspaper articles (one author ranks the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal as the best sources for information on agriculture, along with the Des Moines Register, while most authors rely on the papers of the locality being studied).
Beyond these published sources, authors used field notes (personal observations of and conversations with members of rural society), local government records (probate, register of deeds, civil court, marriage), local bank records, Dunn & Bradstreet credit reports, plat maps, reminiscences, and the usual surmise, speculation, and extrapolation. Interestingly, in only one of these studies were traditional archives and manuscripts collections mentioned or used, and that study (which used local government records and bank records) was of rural social organization in Alberta, Canada. Nor were any formal oral histories cited.
A 1991 study by an intern at the Minnesota Historical Society reviewed articles in state historical journals and mainstream economic and American history journals, looking for articles on agriculture and rural life and then noting the sources used. The study's conclusions were that, first, these journals devoted relatively little attention to the topic of rural society (between 1% and 20% of the articles published) and, second, the sources used for these articles were divided roughly equally between government reports/data and manuscript material. However, a more focused analysis of the call slips at the Minnesota Historical Society, conducted for the same study, indicated that only 4% of researcher requests for government records and manuscript collections were for material documenting agriculture or rural life. It is clear that any dearth of use of or citations to archives, manuscripts, and oral history sources is not due to any dearth of those sources.
We are confronted, then, with a paradox. Agriculture and rural society are the subjects of entire disciplines (agricultural science, rural sociology) and are the focus of much media attention, but the bread and butter primary sources that archives rely on for documentation of rural life seem to be relatively unused.
Faced with these realities, and with the fact that agriculture and rural life are of critical importance to both states, the Minnesota and North Dakota state historical records advisory boards elected to undertake a project that would attempt to define the issues and better understand the context. The specifics of project operations are covered in a separate publication, Agriculture and Rural Life: Documenting Change. Final Report. That report details project objectives, reviews meetings held, constituencies consulted, and information gained, and includes an extensive, annotated bibliography of publications and websites related to the topic.
Beyond the report of project work, however, project staff and advisors saw the need to present a series of perspectives on the vast and unwieldy set of issues involved in documenting change in agriculture and rural life today. Thus this publication and its presentation of four views of the issues and realities involved.
In the first essay, Rethinking Rural America, David Danbom takes a thoughtful look at the definitions of what is rural in the America of the twenty first century. He reflects on the popular perceptions of rural life, its continuing attraction to many Americans, and the stark realities that often overtake those who attempt to meld urban and rural elements in their work and personal lives. Danbom provides a valuable set of considerations for those who would document agriculture and rural life - challenging the very perceptions upon which the documentation is built.
Robert Horton takes quite a different view, looking at the issues involved in documenting changes in agriculture and rural life from the perspective of the archivists who must decide upon a course of action. Reviewing the project's conception and the goals of its sponsors, he comments on the realities facing archivists as they attempt to understand the issues, their constituencies, and design realistic programs that serve a variety of needs.
The real world of farming and rural life is addressed in a series of reflections in the essay by Dean Carlson. A farmer in northwestern Minnesota, Carlson is an insightful chronicler of the world around him. Author of the book So This is Farming, Carlson reflects on the events of daily life that form the context for his own view of agriculture and life in the countryside. His view-from-the-land provides a critical perspective on the lives and work of the very people who are the subjects of the project.
The Red River of the North flows north from its source on the borders of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota and empties into Lake Winnipeg. Changes in agriculture and rural life in the Red River basin are thus international in scope, for the farming regions of Manitoba are an integral part of the area. Michael Moosberger lends a Canadian perspective in his essay, reviewing the development of documentary projects at the University of Manitoba. Moosberger directed the archives at the university for more than a decade. The Canadian experience provides an excellent case study as he chronicles the development of the Archives of the Agricultural Experience. It is exactly that experience from which readers will learn what worked, what didn't, and draw lessons from Moosberger's account of this ambitious program.
Dealing With the Present; Preparing for the Future
This volume thus presents a range of perspectives on the issues that surround any attempt to document the evolution of agriculture and rural life. The authors occupy a variety of vantage points as they review the challenge and the promise involved in such an undertaking. Taken together their essays provide a direct connection to the realities that confront everyone involved in this important work.
Reprinted from Agriculture and Rural Life: Documenting Change, Perspectives on the Issues (750 KB PDF). Minnesota State Historical Records Advisory Board/North Dakota State Historical Records Advisory Board. Copyright © 2001.