Minnesota Local History

Minnesota Local History Blog.

Minnesota Local History Blog.

Advice and help with building history capacity.

The Minnesota Historical Society’s Local History Services helps Minnesotans preserve and share their history. This blog is a resource of best practices on the wide variety of museum, preservation, conservation, funding, and non-profit management topics. We’re here to help.

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Evolution of Local History Websites

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | May 12, 2009

The Cokato Museum & Historical Society debuted its web site in the late summer of 1997.  At the time, and to the best of our knowledge, only three other museums in the state had a presence on the web.  A culmination of what seemed like months of planning, this event was met with little fanfare, other than a small article in the museum’s quarterly newsletter.  The local newspaper did not even provide coverage. During our discussions about creating a web site, I made the comment: “Within ten years, the Internet will be the preferred method of information retrieval for a large chunk of the populace.”  Needless to say, I was a little off on that estimate.


Since that humble unveiling, it should come as no surprise that Internet has radically transformed how historical organizations can and should conduct business.  For the Cokato Museum, those changes can be seen in numerous ways. 


One is in handling genealogy requests.  Since we are not the county museum, we were not typically the “first call” people made.  But with a presence on the web, genealogists can find us quite easily.  With our list of available resources, they can decide if we can assist them, and send an e-mail query.  Our research numbers have tripled since 2000, due almost exclusively to the web site.


Another item is providing general historical information about our community.  From a simple “Quick Facts” sheet, to our Lost Cokato series, and articles from our newsletter and the local newspaper, interested persons can learn a great deal about Cokato’s history from the comfort of their own home.  Those who seek further information can easily contact us.


Membership services are another area of benefit.  Early on we utilized email to contact members about upcoming events and other items of interest.  Unfortunately, the proliferation of spam forced us to curtail that avenue.  Now we encourage members to visit our News & Upcoming Events section of the web site, which is updated weekly or as needed.


A list of available publications, membership forms, and other information helps keep the activities of our organization in full view of not just our membership, but all who choose to view our page.


Social networking sites are quickly becoming another avenue by which museums can further advance name recognition.  Pick a network, and you can find organizations which have established a presence there in one form or another.


The negative side, and of course there always is one, can be found in the staff time needed to maintain these digital presences.  With so many organizations struggling to maintain current staffing levels, an honest conversation about time management must take place before embarking on these ventures.  Setting up that initial presence is easy.  Devoting time on a consistent basis for site maintenance can be the difficult part.


The obvious question remains then: what will the future bring for museums as the digital age progresses.  Considering how rapidity by which the technology had advanced, one can only guess at the next directions.  With barely over a decade having passed since museums made their initial forays into the digital universe, many of us in the field are anxious to see those new directions, and to determine if they will be beneficial to the advancement of our mission.


Mike Worcester

Cokato Historical Society


Overlooking local museums

By: grabitsdm | April 29, 2009
"As they are for home-town residents everywhere, the local attractions always are just ‘there,’ with seemingly plenty of time to stop in.  Trips to distant attractions beckon, and we don’t discount the road trip’s enduring appeal.  But somehow time to visit the local sites never seems to materialize, and its always in the wake of such disasters that we finally learn what we’ve lost.  So here’s a plea to take advantage of your local historic sites, support them however you might—both volunteer help and financial aid are eagerly sought and gratefully accepted—and appreciate how truly fragile our collective past is before it’s too late."
- James M. Tarbox,
History Channel Magazine,
regarding the institutions flooded in Cedar Rapids IA in 2008

Dustin Heckman, executive director of the Mower County Historical Society in Austin, sent the above quote. Does this capture a sense of why people seemingly overlook local history museums?

Free and effective websites

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | April 27, 2009

When contemplating a means in which the Fillmore County Historical Society could achieve a web presence, I chose a free blogging service, Word Press.com.  Our Board wasn't quite ready to embrace internet technology by purchasing a domain and paying for web hosting.  Yet I wanted to get our museum out online, as well as to give our members an idea of what is possible on the World Wide Web.   I decided it best to begin simply, and with no cost involved.  It’s my hope is that our starter web site will grow up and one day serve as the foundation of a larger, commercial site.  At the very least, we’ve put ourselves out there in cyber space for the time being until we’re able to take it to the next level.

The following are a basic dozen steps to get your non-profit organization launched on the web.


1. Register to sign up for your blog. 

2.  Choose a user name that will be your blog domain name.  Ours is fillmorecountyhistory.wordpress.com.  Make this choice with careful thought to your own brand as you cannot change your user name later.

3. Choose a blog title - this may be changed at a later time if you wish.

4.  Choose your language and privacy settings, and then create your blog.

5.  Choose your password, and key in your email address.  Your account will be activated by following instructions in a confirmation email sent to you.

6.  Every time you log on to your WordPress blog, you will need your user name and password.  (Passwords can be changed later.)  As the administrator(s) of your blog, you have access to the dashboard and control over settings and content.

7. Choose a theme for your blog from available options.  Go to the Appearance/Themes menu option at your dashboard.  The theme becomes your blog’s style, appearance, and color motif.  In many cases, themes offer extra bells and whistles, called widgets, which the web designer created expressly for that theme. It is possible to preview themes by clicking on screen shots.  You may easily choose another theme with just a click of your mouse, should you change your mind.  Certain themes support widgets.  In themes that do, you may replace default widgets with ones of your own preference.

8.  Not every theme supports custom headers.  I expressly chose one for our site which did since I wanted to customize the header image with my own photo.  I sized a digital image to exactly the same pixels as that of the default header image.  If you skip this resizing step, you will be given opportunity to crop the picture to fit when you upload it, but you will lose a portion of the image when cropping.

9.  The ability to create "pages" which look very much like traditional web pages, rather than typical blog posts was the prime feature that sold me on using WordPress.com to host our blog.  I created ten separate pages that can be accessed from the top menu bar or sidebar.

10.  A free blog account at WordPress allows for 3 GB of free file storage.  To go above that limit, you will need to purchase optional premium upgrades.

11.  Your posts or pages can be composed in either WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get: Visual) or traditional HTML.  Both posts and pages may be edited or deleted at any time.  You may upload images, audio, video, and certain other media files to your posts or pages.

12.  The statistics system offered to WordPress bloggers is awesome.  How easily and informative it is to check stats.  Clicking on “View All” will allow your administrator to observe the traffic your site has received in days/weeks/months.   It also tracks referrers- people who clicked on links from other websites to get to your blog as well as incoming links from other sites.  Your top posts or pages provide traffic count so you’ll know which page or post is currently receiving the most hits.  A list of search engine terms helps your administrator know how your viewers found your blog.  Click on the summary tables for your blog for detailed numbers as to your traffic.

My decision to use WordPress.com came after testing several other blogging services. As I understand policies at WordPress.com (which is sister site to commercial blogger WordPress.org) bloggers may use WordPress.com for non-commercial use.  It’s been my intention to use our site for informational, rather than commercial, purposes.  I wanted a web presence for promotional reasons only.  I don’t plan to use it for the sale of merchandise.  I want our viewers to be kept informed on what is happening at our museum.  The blog is used to spread the word about upcoming events.   One of the drawbacks of a free blog at WordPress is the possibility of Google text ads occasionally popping up on your site.  But in my experience, this happens rarely, if ever.  All in all, I’ve been pleased with hosting our site as a free blog at WordPress.com.  I highly recommend any small non-profit with limited funds and means to try their hand at it putting themselves out there in as creative manner as possible.  It’s working for us in Fillmore County.

Debra J. Richardson, Executive Director
Fillmore County History Center

Season Opener

By: grabitsdm | April 21, 2009
It's mid-April, which takes me back to my days of working as an interpreter at historic sites. At this time of year the buildings are cleaned, last minute minor repairs are performed, kits of clothing and props are issued and inspected, and all of this is done to prepare for the public. Of all the aspects of the summer season of working in history, I most likely enjoyed anticipating meaningful interactions with visitors.

What are your looking forward to most for the 2009 summer visitation season? What are you doing right now to prepare for the summer season?

Tried and true at the museum store

By: grabitsdm | April 6, 2009

Ordering for gift shops is well underway.  With the economy the way it is, we must be even more prudent about what we bring into our gift shops.  I'm curious about what companies area museums use for their wholesale goods.  Currently we use Ohio Wholesale, Kennedy's Country, NMN, KIPP, Historical Folk Toys, Homestead Folk Toys, and Your True Nature (3 of these are new orders).  Your True Nature is a very green company and their products look fantastic, so I am taking a chance on them.  Can you share what sells best in your gift shop and who your wholesaler is?  It is expensive to try new product lines and I personally would feel more comfortable about bringing in 'tried and true' products over guessing!


June Lynne
Executive Director
Chippewa County Historical Society

Economic Thunderstorms

By: grabitsdm | March 30, 2009

"The financial crisis, through which the country has so lately passed, has had a calamitous, but it is to be hoped, temporary effect upon Minnesota.  [It has] been variously ascribed to the excessive inflation of the banking system – to the large importations of foreign goods – and to general heedless speculation and extravagance of living.  Whatever may be the … causes which have super induced a revolution so wide spread and ruinous, the periodical recurrence of such disasters would seem to indicate that they are as necessary to the due regulation of commerce and trade as are storms for the purification of the physical atmosphere.  They will doubtless occur as frequently in the future as in the past."

Gov. Henry H. Sibley, inaugural address, 1858


Economic adversity is nothing new for Minnesota. Gov. Sibley comments on the Panic of 1857, but his words would be an apt description of 2009.  What precautions do you take to ride out economic thunderstorms?


By: grabitsdm | March 25, 2009
On Wednesday and Thursday last week the American Association of Museums held a webinar to address the nation's financial crisis as it relates to cultural organizations. One concept that emerged was "redeployment." We've often heard that we must "do more with less" or more recently that we should "do less with less." Commentators however suggested that cultural organizations constantly adapt and even in the best of times there isn't enough money to simply add more to already over-worked employees and volunteers. Instead, we must make strategic allocation of the limited assets of time and money through redeployment. That means stopping some services that are outdated and no longer highly desired, and adding new practices that further our missions.

If you were to redeploy to best meet your mission in the modern climate, what aspects that you do now might you consider obsolete? What emerging practices might you adopt?

Equity and Decisions for Legacy Fund

By: grabitsdm | March 5, 2009

A Minnesota Legacy Grant Recommendation has been put forth by the Minnesota History Coalition  - a consortium of history-related organizations.  This recommendation covers the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund – one piece of the Legacy Grant pie.


The Coalition’s recommendation is a significant document as it demonstrates a working consensus among the representatives of these organizations – and they all deserve credit for that work. My sense is that this document will carry some weight with legislators.


We all have many questions about the Legacy Grant – questions for which there is not yet an answer. To the extent that this is time to get all ideas out on the table before it’s too late – I’d like to address two issues regarding the Legacy Grant funding.


Geographic/Economic Equity – The Legacy Grant is an opportunity to enable under funded county historical societies and underserved areas of the state to become better equipped for preservation of their history. There are many rural county historical societies (I’m thinking of Lincoln County in southwestern Minnesota) that aren’t as active due to little or no county support and that miss out on opportunities provided by the legacy grant to preserve their county’s history. County historical societies with limited staff do not have the ability to research and write grants, lobby for funding, lobby for preservation, etc…. They are too busy worrying about covering their next insurance payment or fixing the leaky roof. Consequently, their history is being lost.


I would like to see some of the legacy funds earmarked for those areas and organizations that lie in economically stressed areas where funding for historical societies and historic preservation is minimal. One solution may be to offer these counties a dollar for dollar matching grant for use in funding their county historical society or other bona fide historic preservation organization.


Deciding who gets what? – We know that the amendment gives the legislature the authority to make spending decisions. But we also know the legislature is not going to review and recommend individual projects. So who will?  I believe an independent council should be established similar to the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council. This council, legislatively approved and containing eight citizens and four legislators, will make recommendations to lawmakers about spending the Outdoor Heritage Fund - another piece of the Legacy Amendment pie. More information on this council can be found in Minnesota Statute 97A.056.


Kurt Kragness

Executive Director

Sherburne History Center

Attracting College Students

By: grabitsdm | March 4, 2009
Winona County historical Society wants to know if anyone in the field has any suggestions for attracting college-age students to their local museum. We have had some success working through the local universities attracting interns and lecturing professors. There has to be some good ideas out there we aren't thinking of.

Mark Peterson

Charitable Contributions

By: grabitsdm | March 2, 2009
The February 26, 2009, Chronicle of Philanthropy notes the possible loss of several billion dollars in charitable giving under the most recently proposed federal budget. This proposal, which still needs to be passed by Congress, would cap charitable tax deductions at 28 percent for those earning more than $250,000, and would not take effect until 2011. What concerns some observers is that it seems to suggest the possibility that if major donors do not fund larger museums, the expenses of larger museums will encourage their development staff to find replacement contributions, and thereby increase competition for every dollar for all nonprofit charities.

First, what percentage of your income comes from individuals making a tax deductible contribution?

Second, can you describe what competition is like currently for individual contributions? Do you passively accept contributions? Seek them? Are people still giving in tough times? How hard is it in the present economy to make the case of your organization's worth to donors?